They are no ordinary octogenarians.
And when Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, sat down with Cuba’s revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, some hoped sparks would fly.
The pair did discuss world affairs and the problems of mankind from a religious, scientific and cultural point of view. They even joked about their ages.
But despite the Pope’s calls for the communist island to change, a breakthrough on political freedoms did not occur during his three-day visit.
Raul Castro now holds the reins of power. Cuba has opened up, to an extent, under his influence, but it is a drop in the ocean as far as opponents of the regime are concerned. They are angry that there were no papal meetings with dissidents.
“The government is suppressing everything, speaking with arrogance and impunity, treating Mass services like they were a military manoeuvre,” said prominent Cuban political dissident Oswaldo Paya. “Clearly, this does not project the desired peace proclaimed by his Holiness.”
After dozens of its members were detained briefly last week, the Ladies in White group which campaigns for the release of political prisoners, was allowed to hold small demonstrations.
“We want to ask the Pope to do something for the political prisoners,” said one woman from the group.
Asked by a journalist whether the Roman Catholic Church collaborates too much with Cuba’s regime, she gave a wry smile, saying she did not know how to answer.
As he left Cuba the Pope’s final message was aimed beyond its borders. Benedict called for an end to the US trade embargo, saying “restrictive economic measures”, imposed from outside Cuba, “unfairly burden its people.”
Christiane Amanpour says don’t expect an ‘Arab style’ revolt in Cuba
There are hopes that the Pope’s visit to Cuba will boost both political and economic reforms on the Caribbean island.
Under Raul Castro, the communist state’s economy has slowly been opening up.
Last year, the National Assembly approved moves to boost small businesses, cut bureaucracy and phase out state subsidies.
The country still has rationing for basic supplies, introduced 50 years ago. For its supporters, the system has for decades prevented the poorest from going hungry. For its detractors, the subsidies are unaffordable.
For many ordinary Cubans, the reality is often bare shelves with shortages of sometimes even the most basic items.
Only the privileged few have been able to afford Western goods, such as those working in tourism or for foreign companies. However, hundreds of thousands are earning more money through self-employment, while Cubans can also buy and sell property.
If economic doors are gradually opening, there are complaints that political freedom remains locked beyond people’s reach.
More than 70 members of the leading dissident group, the ‘Ladies in White’ were briefly detained recently. Some opposition members have been prevented from leaving their homes, ahead of the Pope’s visit.
Complaints of harassment and imprisonment of activists are rife. The government denies there are political prisoners and blames ‘Washington-backed mercenaries.’
For an insight into the impact of Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba, we talked to Christiane Amanpour, Global Affairs Correspondent of ABC News. She spoke to euronews from Havana.
Lesley Alexander, euronews: “What difference do you think this papal visit will make to Cuba’s future?”
Christiane Amanpour: “It is really hard to say and I will tell you why people are a little bit cynical. I was here 14 years ago when Pope John Paul II came and everybody had a huge amount of hopes and not a huge amount changed.
“There have been, over the last several years, some economic reforms that have been put into place but no political reforms and in fact, yesterday, one of the top ministers here said that there will be no political reforms but he said economic reforms will continue.
“On the other hand, what the papal visit did in 1998, and they hope will continue today, is to increase the power of the Catholic Church here in Cuba and to allow it to be, frankly, the only sanctioned agent of change, if you like.
“But it is going to be very slow and they don’t anticipate any sort of domestic explosion, no sort of uprising like you have seen across the Arab world.”
euronews: “The Church remains the largest and most socially-influential institution in Cuba, outside of the government, of course. The Vatican says it has made several ‘humanitarian requests’ on this visit, possibly to do with political prisoners. Is Raul Castro listening?”
Christiane Amanpour: “We asked and everybody has asked the Pope’s people. Did he raise political prisoners? Did he raise specific issues in his conversation with Raul Castro? And what his spokespeople have said is that it is always brought up in these chats but they would not give any specifics. And this Pope is not known to be as direct at his predecessor. He is less charismatic, less confrontational and less direct on those particular issues. It is going to take a long, long time until there is anything resembling political freedom here.”
euronews: “We saw those incidents during the papal mass the other day when a man shouted ‘down with Communism’ and he was led away pretty brusquely by the security forces. And we are told by dissidents that he has been badly beaten. Do you have any news about him or where he is now?”
Christiane Amanpour: “No. We don’t have any news and the Pope’s people have been asked and the government has been asked and the people here who actually monitor what happens to dissidents….nobody has any news of what has happened to that person but, of course, it is a lesson to anybody who might think about rising up or doing anything dramatic like that. I mean, look, let’s be frank, you can imagine in any country where there is a top-level guest with security around them, whether it is a visiting President or a visiting Pope, if somebody jumps up and starts screaming, you can imagine in even our democratic countries, they will be carted off. The real question is what happens to that person and will we know anything about what his fate is and at the moment, we do not know.”