Pope Benedict XVI is on a challenging visit to Cuba. The one-party island is one of the last bastions of Communism. Havana kept it officially atheist until 1992, when this was relaxed to officially secular. Benedict’s main task is to reinforce Catholicism here, yet to do that he must not rub the Castrist authorities too much up the wrong way. Speaking to organised crowds, he invoked Cuba’s patron saint, a symbol of the people’s unity under God for centuries.
Pope Benedict XVI said: “Dear brothers and sisters, I want to appeal to your faith before the eyes of Our Lady of Charity the Virgin of Cobre to ask you to live in Christ, and for Christ, and with the weapons of peace, forgiveness and understanding, fight to build an open and renewed society.”
It has been 14 years since the first visit of a pope to Cuba. Polish-born John-Paul II threw down a challenge before the world, for Havana and its arch foe the United States.
Pope John Paul II: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Jean Paul II succeeded in narrowing the distance between the Church and President Fidel Castro’s state. The Vatican’s policy still today is not to support the US embargo on the Communist-ruled island.
It counts some seven million nominal Catholics, out of a total population of nearly 11 and a half million.
Cuba has 17 bishops marshalling 361 priests, and 12 educational establishments under the Church’s wing, with around 1,000 students.
To bolster its public profile in Cuba, the Roman Catholic Church has 16 print publications, in one of Latin America’s most tightly-controlled media environments.
To gauge the mood during Benedict XVI’s visit, euronews spoke to our correspondent from the US network ABC.
Adrian Lancashire, euronews: Diana Alvear, thanks for joining us from Cuba. Based on your impressions there, what does the papal visit mean for ordinary Cubans – a turning point?
Diana Alvear, ABC News correspondent in Cuba: Well Adrian, there is a lot of excitement surrounding this papal visit, as there was 14 years ago when Pope John-Paul II was here. Many Cubans here have told me they are hoping that Pope Benedict XVI brings a message of change. Now, the official stated purpose of his visit is to bring the faithful back into the flock. There are a lot of Catholics here but they are not actively practising Catholics. That is the stated mission of his trip, but of course there will be political overtones surrounding him and there have already been some political comments made, both by dissidents and the Pope himself.
euronews: Is it all more about peace or politics?
Alvear: The pope has been very clear in talking mostly about faith and peace. He said these are the kinds of things that Cubans need to arm themselves with going forward into the future. But he is using these as jumping off points to talk about Cuba being a more open society. So there are really some veiled political overtones in everything that he has been saying so far. When John-Paul II spoke, he was very clear: he said Cuba needed to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba. Now, that has not really happened, so everyone here is waiting to see if Benedict’s words will have a different effect.
euronews: Pope Benedict said his predecessor John-Paul II’s visit brought “a breath of fresh air” 14 years ago – what has changed in Cuba since then, apart from the Castro brothers changing seats?
Alvear: Well, the immediate hope following what John Paul said was that there would be political change – regime change. That did not happen. Instead, what we have seen under Raul Castro is an opening of the economy, and that, in and of itself, has brought some change to the island. In fact, we have talked to many Cubans here who say things have changed, they have access to more money, they have access to more restaurants and hotels and things like that. But that is not enough for them. Many say that it is not going to be just economic change that they need. They need political change, and they are really looking to Benedict to push this country towards a different direction, and they are hoping that, because Raul Castro is so much more practical-minded than his brother Fidel, that this in fact may be the time.
euronews: The clergy mediate for the welfare of Cuban dissidents – what kind of influence does the Catholic Church have in Cuba, what compromises must the Church make?
Alvear: You know, that is the source of a lot of controversy, because, as I mentioned, the Church is much stronger as far as their relations with the Castro regime, and people are looking to the Church as a source for change. But there is a lot of concern and in fact a lot of criticism of Cuba’s Cardinal, Jaime Ortega because he negotiated the release of a group of a few more than 100 dissidents, but then they were exiled to Spain, and many people say that that just was not right, that he should not have been in cohesion with the Castro regime, to send those dissidents out of the country and in fact to another continent. So, you don’t have a lot of people that have a lot of faith in fact that the Cuban cardinals and the Catholic Church here will be able to make that change. They really need the pope himself to call for this to happen.
euronews: Pope Benedict when he arrived said, “Marxism no longer corresponds to reality”, but we hear that wasn’t made public in Cuba. Are you seeing much of a Marxist atmosphere where you are?
Alvear: I have to tell you when I got off the plane and I started making my way into the city of Havana, everywhere you go you see the propaganda. You see the posters of Ché, or the giant statue or facade of Ché‘s face on the side of a building, in downtown Havana. You see, in the Plaza de la Revolución, the statue of José Martí is very prominent, the messages that the communist regime have for the people. You feel the Marxist ideology, and yet when you actually go out and talk to the people, many of them tell us that what the Pope said is in fact what everybody has been feeling all along over the past few years – that it really is an out-dated ideology, and they think that there just has to be change.