Pope and Castro at Center of Intricate Chess Game

Article excerpt

It was like the old days at the Vatican this week. Pope John Paul II was enjoying his traditional role as a major player in the life of a communist dictator. There aren't many of them left - the pope had something to do with this - but he encountered the only one with charisma, Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Tuesday's audience between the pope and Castro was remarkable for how closely the politics behind it followed a script written for many similar encounters over the 18 years of this papacy.

Castro was seeking the particular legitimacy that could come his way courtesy of a photograph with the pope that would be flashed around the world. The pope was seeking greater freedom of action for the Catholic Church in Cuba - freedom that, if granted, might soon spread to other independent sectors of Cuban society. "Freedom is like gas," said Monsignor Diarmuid Martin, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. "It has a natural tendency to expand." That is not a bad description of what happened in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, as communist regimes were forced to make concessions that quickly led to more concessions. Castro decided to take his chances by setting the game in motion. To get his audience with the pope, Castro agreed to a papal visit to Cuba that included guarantees of the pope's access to crowds and media coverage uninhibited by the government. "Of course I would not impose conditions," Castro said. "We will treat him with respect." There was no "of course" about this decision. The pope has wanted to go to Cuba for a long time, but could not get Castro to agree to precisely the conditions he acceded to this week. Score one for the pope. But score one for Castro, too. He is currently involved in a big fight with the United States over the Helms-Burton Act signed by President Bill Clinton. The law, which permits Americans to sue in U.S. courts the companies that do business with Cuba, is designed to add economic pressure on Castro. The Vatican criticized Helms-Burton last month, so if ever there was an opportune time for Castro to get his papal picture and strengthen his papal ties, this was it. Castro is already having good luck in winning allies in Europe and Latin American for his campaign against Helms-Burton. …