Catholics, Communists Join to Welcome Pope
Tens of thousands of Cuban Catholics and Communists gathered shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time in four decades Wednesday, packing the airport here and lining a 10-mile parade route to greet the first pope to visit this long-isolated land.
State construction workers crossed themselves. Aging Catholics wept. Communist Party youth saluted in an outpouring of emotion as Pope John Paul II navigated a human river of believers and nonbelievers assembled by Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church and its Communist state for a five-day visit that embodies the hopes and expectations of many Cubans here and abroad.
“Amazing!” shouted Beatriz Teston, a 55-year-old Catholic, as the popemobile passed. “After this whole revolution, I have finally seen him. It is just indescribable.”
The papal journey through Havana’s streets came after John Paul shook President Fidel Castro’s hand and kissed two baskets of soil from a land that was officially atheist until six years ago.
With much of the Cuban nation and the world watching live, the pope declared: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba, so that this people . . . may look to the future with hope.”
That, in essence, is the anti-Communist Polish pontiff’s goal on one of the most challenging of his 81 foreign missions--one that brings him to an island ruled by a single party led by a single man for 39 years, all but four of them under a punishing U.S. trade embargo.
During his journey from Rome, the pope told reporters he would demand that Cuba join in respecting worldwide standards of human rights. As for the embargo, he said he would use his Cuban stage to urge President Clinton “to change, to change.”
“Perhaps both Cuba and the United States are looking for a better way,” he added.
But Castro, wearing a dark double-breasted suit in place of his trademark military fatigues, showed no sign of softening toward America, which he called “much more powerful than ancient Rome, which tried to erase from the Earth those who refused to renounce their faith.”
“Once again, there’s an attempt at genocide, conquering through hunger, illness and complete economic strangulation of a people that refuses to submit itself to the dictates and the domination of the most powerful economic, political and military force in history,” Castro said in a welcoming speech, as the pope sat in the hot sun on the airport tarmac.
A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters here, repeated the U.S. stand that the embargo will remain in place until there are “fundamental and systemic changes” in Cuba.
Wednesday’s airport reception for what is officially a state and pastoral visit grew out of unprecedented cooperation between Cuba’s stridently Communist regime and a church newly empowered after decades of silence under Castro’s revolution.
The crowd waved side-by-side Cuban and Vatican flags that were made by an army of volunteers in churches throughout the capital. Each parish and party organization stood in designated areas after a daylong mobilization that had been planned for months. They assembled in churches and were shuttled by state buses.
Luisa Sanchez, 57, a biochemist, embodied the mixture in the crowd. Describing herself as a Catholic and a Communist, she said: “I always thought of Fidel, with his beard, as Jesus Christ. But I just felt the same thing when the pope passed as I did when Fidel once kissed me.”
Castro officially sanctioned Wednesday’s huge welcome in a six-hour appearance on state television last weekend. He called on all Cubans of all faiths and political persuasions to meet the pope with a “grand reception”--and to feel free to attend the papal Masses here and in the cities of Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago. “If Fidel had not called for people to be in the streets, it would have been very difficult for the Catholic Church to fill them alone,” said a high-ranking party member and government official.
The hopes of many Catholics are pinned to the papal tour that ends Sunday. They want the pontiff’s visit to reinforce a new era of religious freedom and augur broader changes in the land that Castro has controlled since his 1959 revolution.
In his 14-minute arrival statement, the pope hailed with emotion “this happy and long-awaited day. . . . I come in the name of the Lord to confirm you in faith, to strengthen you in hope and to encourage you in love.”
He expressed admiration for Cuba’s long-suffering clergy and the faithful here. Noting their endurance, he said, “You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history.”
Until 1992, all those who practiced a religion were barred from Cuba’s ruling party, top government jobs and many university slots. After the revolution, the Cuban state seized church land, closed religious schools and banned public worship; hundreds of priests fled.
But all religions have grown here in the six years since the government lifted many restrictions on faiths. And the months leading up to the pope’s arrival have transformed Cuba’s Catholic Church into this nation’s most powerful institution outside the government and the ruling party. The church now has such grass-roots support, many analysts say, it could work for broader freedoms.
“The people have become aware. The people have been awakened,” said Father Manuel Una, a Spaniard who left his post as head of the Dominican order in Rome to spend his final years as a priest in Havana.
From his and all Catholic parishes nationwide, priests and lay brothers have gone door-to-door since last April--recruiting, educating and promoting a new social and moral order. “This visit,” Una noted, “is transcendental. This moment is the precise time in history for the pope to come to Cuba.”
Yet for most Cubans--Catholics and nonbelievers alike--there is a shared hope that the visit of the pope, who opposes economic sanctions worldwide, at least will help moderate the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
“There are very many expectations. Each person has their own,” said Father Superior Manuel Jimenez Ortega, a Spanish priest who came to Cuba 11 years ago. “From the one side, there are political expectations. There are economic expectations, expectations of reconciliation of a political nature between the Cubans here and the Cubans over there in the United States.
“It is very difficult,” he added, “to teach the people what they should and what they can expect and to reduce their illusions so they won’t be disappointed.”
Speaking on the flight about his expectations, the pope said bluntly that he and Castro represent “two opposing ideals.” He said he came to preach his own truth, hear out Castro’s and let “divine providence” decide the island’s fate.
He was alternately categorical and cautious in his judgment of Cuba’s revolution, which Castro told his people last weekend remains “invincible.” At one point, when asked how he could reconcile the “revolution of Christ and the revolution of Castro,” John Paul suggested the two were incompatible. “There are two meanings of the word ‘revolution.’ The revolution of Christ is love. Other revolutions bring hatred, revenge, victims.”
In other exchanges, however, he acknowledged that Castro’s rule had brought improvements in Cuban health care and public education; Castro later stressed this in his welcoming speech.
“But progress needs to be made in the sphere of human rights, human dignity,” the pope quickly added. “We live between two opposing ideals--Marxist, that is, Communist, and liberal individualist. It is necessary always to search for the just solution.”
Castro has insisted that he and the pope agree on much. He has characterized their private meeting here, scheduled for tonight, as being between “two angels in the service of the poor.”
John Paul dismissed the analogy: “We’re not angels; we’re two men.”
He said he would ask Castro at the meeting for an accounting on matters of politics and religion. “I want him to tell me the whole truth, his truth, as a man, as president, as the so-called comandante of the revolution, the truth about his country, about relations between the church and state. All this is important for us.”
The pope acknowledged that the government and its critics held high expectations that his visit would boost their rival causes. He declined to speculate on its possible effect. “I’m not a prophet,” he told reporters. “Let’s wait and see.
“The world is not guided only by us,” he added. “It is guided by divine providence. The history of the world is not only the history of peoples and states; it’s the history of salvation.”
As his plane passed near the Florida coast en route here, the pope had a written message sent from the Vatican to Clinton, assuring him of “my constant prayers for your country and its important role in fostering world peace and respect for human rights and freedom everywhere.”
Among Wednesday’s welcomers were Cuban Americans drawn home for the pope--some after decades in exile. Hundreds have returned to tearful welcomes of their own this week, bringing with them perhaps the highest hopes John Paul will encounter as he tours the Cuban nation.
But as Cubans who have lived under Castro awaited the pope, many in the capital’s barrios, tree-lined streets, universities, churches and halls of power said they expect no immediate changes in their lives after he leaves.
Castro used his television time last weekend partly to temper expectations. Published in full Tuesday on five pages of Havana’s only daily newspaper, his words clearly resonated through the 271-year-old University of Havana, where the pope will pray Friday beside the bones of a priest who is Cuba’s leading candidate for sainthood.
Most of the university’s 5,500 full-time students are members of Communist Party youth groups that helped fill the streets Wednesday, and second-year law student Iuselis Martinez, 19, echoed colleagues in saying she was grateful for Castro’s explanation.
“I think it’s great that the pope’s coming,” she said. “Such a man is only born like every 100 years to do something specific--like Fidel. But I think it’s more like a fad. Everybody wants to see him [the pope] now. But afterward, what will happen? I don’t think it means that everyone will become a Catholic and start going to Mass.”
Ernesto Aleman, 22, who left the army to study law, concluded, “We Cubans are like the electrons inside a piece of iron. When a big magnet approaches--a major crisis or a big event--we all move toward it as one. But when the magnet is gone, we relax, and we all go our separate ways.”
Times researcher Dolly Mascarenas contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.