Cuba: Castro makes political capital out of Pope's Havana visit

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The Independent Online
Pope John Paul II visits communist Cuba next week, the only Latin American country he has never been to. Phil Davison, Latin America Correspondent, looks at the welcome he can expect and what Cubans want from him

Believers or no, Cubans were glued to their television sets on Tuesday night to see an unusual sight: the island's Roman Catholic Cardinal delivering a speech about human rights and liberty.

President Fidel Castro had allowed Cardinal Jaime Ortega to broadcast to the nation in advance of the Pope's visit here between 21 and 25 January. It was the first time a churchman had been given air time since Mr Castro declared Cuba a communist and atheist state shortly after his 1959 revolution.

Cardinal Ortega did not push his luck. Referring to the Pope's role in the Eastern Europe of the Eighties, he described him as a patriot rather than an anti-communist and painted a rather abstract picture of the pontiff's idea of human rights and liberty. The new chumminess between Mr Castro and the Church emerged unscathed.

Both sides are bending over backwards to make the Pope's visit a success and only the 77-year-old pontiff's frail health, visible when he stumbled during a baptismal service in the Sistine Chapel last weekend, is seen as a potential disruption after a long trans-Atlantic flight into Cuba's tropical heat.

Both sides have also played down any political motive for the trip. After 38 years in power, the shrewd Mr Castro clearly sees the Pope more of a potential ally - particularly by attacking the three-decade old US embargo on the island - than a potential threat to his survival by stirring up the masses.

Even what might have been blown into a major diplomatic incident was played down by the Vatican. Vatican officials checking out the pontiff's accommodation last month found a hidden microphone, presumably planted by Cuban state security agents. A mild protest was made but there was little sense of outrage or even surprise.

The Pope's aim is to consolidate the resurgence of Catholic identity in Cuba after almost four decades when Christianity was taboo on the communist island. After Mr Castro declared Cuba atheist in 1962, hundreds of priests, many of them Spanish, were expelled, churches were closed down and Catholics discriminated against.

Since the end of the Cold war, however, the Cuban leader has given the Church more scope, allowing open worship. His critics respond that he is using the Catholic Church to balance an upsurge in Protestantism. There are now more than 50 Protestant dominations in Cuba, with 900 individual churches and at least 3,000 casas culto, or private houses, where prayer services are held.

Cuba is also pervaded by Afro-Cuban creeds such as Santeria and Abakua, similar to Haiti's voodoo, brought to the island by African slaves and gradually blended with elements of Catholicism. Many Catholics believe in or practise elements of these creeds. Leaders of the Afro-Cuban religions have complained at being excluded from the Pontiff's planned meetings with Protestant and Jewish leaders next week.

Acutely aware of the deep-rooted and widespread influence of the Afro- Cuban creeds, particularly among black Cubans who were the backbone of his stand against the wealthy elite, Mr Castro smiled on them after his revolution. But Catholic priests in Havana predict the Pope may make at least a veiled criticism of these creeds while in Cuba, encouraging their practitioners to integrate fully into the Catholic church.

Meanwhile, the Pope's visit has split the exiled Cuban community, mostly in the Miami area. The archdiocese of Miami, which organised a 1,200-passenger cruiser liner to sail from Miami to Havana to see the Pope and had permission from both the US and Cuba, was forced to cancel after heavy criticism from anti-Castro radicals. The latter have always insisted that no Cuban exile should return while Mr Castro is still in power.

One anti-Castro group, the Democracy Movement, says it will set sail in a "prayer flotilla" towards Cuba during the Pope's visit despite US State Department warnings to stay away from Cuban waters. "The US and Cuba should read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they signed, and which gives the right to enter our waters and our territory," said Democracy Movement leader Ramon Sal Sanchez.