The Pope: Cubans chant for freedom in Havana's Revolution Square

The dictator hoping for salvation from an old enemy
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The Independent Online
Our Latin America Correspondent, denied a press visa to cover the Pope's visit, asks how the two protagonists have benefited.

I was one of a number of foreign correspondents whom Fidel Castro was afraid to allow into his country at the same time as the Pope for fear of "negative reports". That phrase, passed on via the British embassy in Havana, was never defined. A few hours before the Pope arrived, I was simply denied the press visa.

While Mr Castro had 3,000 journalists, half of them from the United States, eating out of his hand over the past five days, he barred those he feared would not play along. Along with others, I had upset the "Maximum Chief of the Revolution" with some of my previous articles.

Welcomed with open arms were the highly-paid American television news anchors, who introduced their prime-time bulletins from Havana the day the Pope arrived. To Mr Castro's chagrin, they left the following day when President Clinton's latest sex scandal emerged.

Ironically, Cuban exiles in the US were able to follow more of the Pope's visit than those on the island. Florida TV stations carried far more than Cuba's party-controlled TV. What they saw was, as the Pope himself predicted en route to the island, a "historic" visit. But in what way?

The big question was: can the Pope do what he did in his native Poland - topple Communism? It was the obvious question but it badly missed the point. A better question was: why did Fidel Castro finally invite the Pope?

In one sense, both men had the same aim - in the short term, to give more legitimacy to Castro, in the longer term, to use that legitimacy to find a way out of the impasse that Cuba finds itself in because of the intransigence on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Knowing Fidel Castro is cornered, the Pope's aim is to push him towards greater openness, and hopefully, in the longer term, towards democratic elections. But the Pope likes to work slowly. He no doubt fears what might happen in Cuba were Castro to die suddenly or be overthrown. He may be anti-Communist but he is also anti-capitalist and, like most Cubans, would not relish the thought of a sudden return by wealthy Cuban exiles and a reprise of the decadent, pre-Castro Cuba that used to be known as "America's brothel".

"Rudderless, without hope, lacking direction," were the phrases thePope heard most from the young people, Catholic and otherwise, he met in Cuba. These were the cited reasons for the island's unmatched divorce and abortion rates, its sexual promiscuity, its alcoholism and the number of people who risk their lives by taking to the sea on rafts to escape.

Yes, Pope John Paul called for human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association during his Masses last week. And yes, President Castro will no doubt release some of the hundred political prisoners referred to by the Pontiff. But all of that was expected. Only the Pope's failure to raise these issues would have been news. What the Pope has done has lifted some of the taboos. As Nixon did with his historic visit to China, he has made it less embarrassing for the US to deal with an old enemy.

And that brings us to Castro's motives. Inviting the Pope, has been one of the biggest gambles of his 38-year rule. He clearly felt the benefits outweighed the risks. Even though he has presided over his island's decay, Castro genuinely believes he loves his people. And he wants them to love him. Indeed, he wants people around the world to love him the way many did in the months after his 1959 revolution, before he embraced the USSR.

Fidel Castro does not want to prolong his island's nightmare, and is looking for a way out. The thought of being remembered as a Stalin is, according to friends, his own private nightmare. He wants to be credited with initiating change. And he would probably love to preside over it.