Pope sheds political discretion to call for free speech in Cuba

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The Independent Online
THE biggest crowd of Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba yesterday heard him call for freedom of expression in the Communist country, while the local Archbishop, Pedro Meurice, openly attacked the government's treatment of the Catholic Church.

In Santiago, Cuba's second city and the birthplace of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, 100,000 people attended a papal Mass in honour of the Virgin of Charity, the nation's patron. Later yesterday the Pope faced another confrontation with local beliefs - this time not with communism, but with the widely-practised Santeria "way of the saints" religion, an exotic mixture of Catholic and Afro-Caribbean belief originally imported here by black slaves.

In Catholic eyes, the St Lazarus sanctuary at El Rincon, close to Havana, is Cuba's most important place of healing, but it is also a key Santeria shrine. The saint, whom they call Babalu Aye, is believed to protect Santeria's followers from plagues and sexual diseases. There is a leprosy hospital in its grounds and an Aids hospital nearby.

Patients from both attended the Pope's mass, intended to reclaim the shrine for the Church and to convert these "pagan" worshippers. They are said to comprise more than 70 per cent of thepopulation.

Sister Maria Elena Garcia, who grudgingly allowed a pleading Santeria worshipper to place flowers, money and a bottle of rum at the saint's feet, was indignant. "People give alcohol to St Lazarus, they drink rum in the church, and their rites include blowing smoke from cigars in his face. They wear white, have shaved heads and refuse to take off their hats, even in the presence of Jesus. It's all pagan and offensively primitive. We try to orient them to Catholicism to save their souls."

The Church will find it hard, though, to woo Cubans away from a religion that is deeply embedded in their culture. Ironically, the relaxation on religious restrictions now expected in the wake of the Pope's visit may see more people embracing Santeria rather than joining the Catholic Church, of which most Cubans are ignorant.

Having shed some of his political discretion yesterday, the Pope is expected to call for more comprehensive changes today, when he delivers his final Mass and Angelus in Havana's sacred Plaza de La Revolucion. But he has gratified President Castro by condemning the long-standing US trade embargo, as well as giving the country a publicity bonanza and a new respectability. He also condemns "savage capitalism", and has some sympathy for Mr Castro's achievements in health and education.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have flocked to see the Pope, and millions more have watched or listened as the visit took over the airwaves. The longer-term impact is hard to gauge, but Cubans are demoralised and angry at the endless economic crisis. Alfredo Gomez, a middle- aged teacher in the town of Santa Clara, was hopeful: "Perhaps by obtaining more space for the Church, the way can be paved for other changes like freedom of expression and association. I hope so. The situation here is lamentable, like living in a prison, and a month's wages can't even buy a pair of shoes."