Jeff Franks Reuters
10:10 p.m. EDT, March 23, 2012
HAVANA (Reuters) - For years at Havana's historic Cristobal Colon
cemetery, Communist Party members refused to enter the Roman Catholic
chapel there for funeral services.
They stayed outside while others honored the dead because religious
believers were banned from the party and being seen in a church,
particularly a Catholic one, could bring trouble even for someone in
But those days are gone and the Church has taken a bigger role in Cuban
society since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, said 68-year-old
Erick Osio, who remembers standing outside the cemetery chapel.
"Things relaxed and that taboo ended. Everything has changed for
religion in Cuba since then," said the retired army colonel who now
works as a parking attendant.
"John Paul began a different evolution here that opened things up for
Fourteen years after John Paul's epochal trip to Cuba, Pope Benedict
will come to the island on Monday after a three-day stop in Mexico, on a
visit that was not predicted to be as groundbreaking, but has sparked
hopes for more economic and political change among some Cubans.
He may have signaled more ambitious aspirations than expected, and
jarred the Cuban government on Friday when he told reporters the
Caribbean island needed a new economic model because communism had failed.
"Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived
no longer corresponds to reality," the pope said on the flight to
Mexico, where he landed on Friday afternoon.
"In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models
must be found with patience and in a constructive way," he said,
extending the Church's offer to help with a transition in one of the
world's last communist countries.
When asked about the comments at the opening on Friday of a press center
for the papal visit in Havana, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez
said only that Cuba would listen respectfully to the pontiff during his
three-day visit and considered the exchange of ideas "useful."
Benedict's predecessor is a tough act to follow because, even though the
Communist Party ended its ban on religious believers in 1991, Cubans
generally view John Paul's visit seven years later as the landmark
moment that led to improved Church-state relations after decades of
hostility that followed the island's 1959 revolution.
This pope's work will be to build on recent gains by the Church in its
relations with the government and seeking a bigger role in a time of
change under President Raul Castro.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the Cuban Church, has emphasized
the spiritual side of the visit and the hope of re-energizing religion
on the island that for 15 years under former leader Fidel Castro
officially declared itself an atheist state.
A senior Vatican official, who requested anonymity, said recently the
pope wanted to assure the Cuban government that its former enemy only
wanted to be helpful, not threatening, as Raul Castro undertakes reforms
to improve Cuba's Soviet-style economy.
"The pope wants to help Catholic leaders convince the government that it
has nothing to fear from the Church in Cuba," the official told Reuters.
"The Church wants to help in education, in teaching moral values. That
can only help all of Cuban society as it embarks on many changes in the
political and social spheres."
The Cuban rumor mill has been in full swing with speculation that as a
gesture to the 84-year-old pope, the Cuban president might release more
political prisoners, free jailed American contractor Alan Gross or
finally unveil immigration reforms he promised last year.
Gross, 62, is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally setting up
Internet networks in a case that has stalled U.S.-Cuba relations.
Cubans said this week they believed the pope's visit was a good thing
for the country and that it could use the Church's help on several
fronts, particularly the economy.
"The pope comes at an opportune time because there is no work," said
19-year-old Carlos Gonzalez as he waited in line for ice cream in
Havana's Vedado district. "I've looked for work for two years and I
don't find it, and the jobs here have low salaries."
"Young people want to leave because we don't have anything. The only
thing we have is the beach and the Malecon," the thin, clean-cut
teenager said, referring to the city's spectacular seawall.
"May the changes come very soon," said his friend Yusniel Garcia Suarez,
also 19 and jobless.
He smoked a cigarette, wore a faded gray T-shirt with the words "Power
Hitter" on the front and, like several people interviewed, said he was
religious but did not go to church.
His ambitions were not high, but they would require a lot more money
than the average Cuban salary of $19 a month, and immigration reforms
making it easier to come and go from his homeland.
"I don't want to leave Cuba. I just want to be able to go to Cancun for
a few days with my girlfriend," Garcia said.
Communist Party member Laurent Barredo, 46, warned that no one should
expect miracles from the pope's visit because the Cuban government would
only make changes at its own pace.
"Nothing is going to change because of the pope. The changes that have
happened are going to continue because they are the only thing that will
bring internal development to Cuba," he said, adding he thought the trip
would help the government.
"It will give prestige to the Cuban revolution. I think that the
principles of the Church are the same principles as the revolution. You
can believe that God exists and I can believe that he doesn't, but if we
are honest, work, produce and help each other, it's the same," he said.
Some anti-Castro groups complain that papal visits give Cuba's communist
rulers a legitimacy they do not deserve, although criticism before this
trip has been more muted than in 1998, even in Miami, the home of many
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's No. 2, said in a newspaper
interview this week that the visit would help the process of developing
democracy and open up new spaces for the presence and activity (of the
In Havana, retired school teacher and non-believer Galicia Cabrera, 68,
said she did not want Benedict's visit to bring a return to
pre-revolution days when the Church was a bigger and more powerful part
of Cuban society.
A Church survey in 1954 found that 72.5 percent of Cubans were Catholic
and 24 percent of them were regular churchgoers. Today, Church officials
say about 60 percent of Cubans are baptized, but only 5 percent always
go to Mass.
"Everything is good the way it is. Don't change because now is the only
way we can live in Cuba - the Church in one part and the government in
another part," Cabrera said while looking up from reading Granma, the
Communist Party newspaper.
Osio said he thought the pope would do something to improve U.S.-Cuba
relations, which have been hostile since the revolution.
The United States has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba for 50 years,
which the Cuban government and many Cubans blame for their country's
chronic economic woes.
"It looks to me like the pope is going to help tighten or redefine
relations between the United States and Cuba. Remember that I said
that," he said, wagging his finger.
(Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)