The Pope in Cuba: Some weep, some cheer and some are baffled as the Popemobile comes to Che's heartland

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The Independent Online
On his first full day in Cuba, the Pope celebrated Mass in the provincial city of Santa Clara. He was also due to meet Fidel Castro last night. Susie Morgan reports.

As the Popemobile circled the dusty packed sports stadium where he was to deliver his address, a roar of greeting, chanting and cries of excitement greeted the frail-looking figure waving in greeting. "Juan Pablo, hermano, te quiere los Cubanos" went up the cry (John Paul, brother, the Cubans love you). Tens of thousands of Cubans were assembled, some wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, others emblazoned with the image of the Pope, and almost everyone carrying flags and commemorative books for the papal open-air Mass held in this Communist island bastion.

Almost in tears, Maria de los Angeles, a primary-school teacher and "a Catholic, even in the difficult times in the past", said: "We have such hopes from the visit, that it will end divisions, bring hope, give our formerly persecuted church more space and perhaps end the American embargo that is causing so much suffering."

She believed - in a town where the "patron saint" is Che Guevara and where his remains are buried in a mausoleum - that "there is no contradiction between Che's views and the Pope. Che fought for us to be equal and now so is His Holiness."

A university professor called Omar said: "I'm not religious but I'm here out of curiosity. It's a unique event - even though, like most Cubans, I'm not religious. I think his visit can bring change, give more space to religion, more freedom of expression and perhaps to immigration. I hope the effect will be for reconciliation and - hopefully - democracy.

"We need more freedom, although the regime isn't exactly repressive, just controlling; only at times do you feel the pressure. But God knows we need change, the situation here is lamentable, and let's hope the influence of such a powerful moral leader in the world can help."

The sun was beating down as the Pope, reading slowly in a strongly accented Spanish, addressed his audience packed in the sports stadium, and some standing outside - even on the railway line - and others dotted about surrounding hills. Many, like Maritsa Salvador and her daughter, had come from local townships in the area, bused in by Catholic organisations.

"The Pope will bring love and peace; it's a wonderful event," she said, while her daughter nodded. "I'm 73 and I've dreamed all my life of seeing His Holiness."

Antonio Pereira, who had spent time in a monastery, said: "It's a dream come true."

In his address at the airport the Pope praised the courage of Catholics who maintained their faith "despite difficult circumstances", a reference to nearly 40 years of repression in which the Church was in effect an underground institution.

Omar, the agnostic lecturer, said the Church was always viewed with suspicion in Cuba and in particular in Santa Clara, the last major town captured by Guevara in December 1958, because the Church was antagonistic to Mr Castro and the revolution. Priests would hide Batista supporters and smuggle arms.

Despite the turn-out of some 40,000 people yesterday, it is hard to judge how many came from conviction or a sense of duty. Mr Castro and other leaders exhorted everyone to turn out as a patriotic duty and explained - in a country which has seen the Church as the enemy - the links rather than differences between Mr Castro 's brand of socialism and the Pope's vision.

According to an engineer, workers yesterday had to turn up at work to be registered - but then were ordered to go to the airport to greet the Pope. Everyone in this town of 200,000 had been given the day off - and expected to turn out to the Mass. "The problem is there is no religious tradition here," said Guillermo, training to be a teacher. "No one knows any religious songs, so they have been rehearsed, just like at party meetings, where a line or two of a song is sung by a leader and then the crowd repeats it."

In this case slogans like "Socialismo o muerte" (socialism or death) or "Revolucion" have been replaced by "Juan Pablo II, te quiere todo el mundo" - John Paul, the world loves you. But the crowds greeting the Pope yesterday chanted the old Latin American revolutionary rallying cry "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" (a people united will never be defeated).

Yet people seemed confused about how to react emotionally to a religious event they had no knowledge or experience of after 40 years of isolation and Communism. "They don't know how to react to something new like this; they've been almost programmed to their system for so long," said an observer who knows the country well.

There was even surprising ignorance to be found. "What is this Pope?" asked one elderly woman standing in her doorway. "People keep talking about him, even Fidel does on television, but I don't understand who he is."