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Wednesday, 21 January, 1998, 07:55 GMT
Cuba visit elicits great expectations
Pope and Castro
One is the world's great anti-Communist crusader. The other is the leader of one of the last Communist regimes and world-wide symbol of Socialist revolution. This week, Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro go head-to-head.

The Pope will hold open-air masses at the heart of the Cuban nation
The world will watch Pope John Paul II's first visit to Cuba with fascination. 3,000 journalists from around the world are expected to descend on the island. The visit has been called everything from historic to the last battle between God and Communism, a clash between religious faith and politics, an encounter of humanism and state-sponsored atheism.

Most likely, it will be none of these. Although Cuba watchers are calling the visit one of the great meetings of the century, ordinary Cubans are unlikely to see much change.

The separation of Church and State

Relations between the Church and the Cuban government have been strained at best since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Then, the Catholic Church was a powerful institution. There were about 3,000 Catholic monks and 800 priests, many of them foreigners, living on the island. The Church played a key role in education and, more discretely, in politics.

But before long, the revolutionary leadership began to restrict all forms of religious freedom.

In 1961, the government expelled scores of foreign priests and drastically reduced the influence of the Church. Religious education was banned from schools. In 1969 President Castro even abolished Christmas, claiming that it interfered with Cuba's all-important sugar harvest.

Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II in 1996
Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II in 1996
In recent years, however, relations have warmed. Amendments to the constitution in 1992 permitted religious believers to join the Communist party. More churches have been built and the number of baptisms has begun to rise.

In 1996, Fidel, the infidel, made a private visit to the Vatican. Then, before hundreds of flashing cameras, he shook hands with the pope.

Win-win situation

Analysts say the pope's visit will benefit both leaders.

For Mr Castro, the visit catapults Cuba back onto the world stage - and allows the septuagenarian leader to thumb his nose at his arch-nemesis, the United States. Pope John Paul's tour will prove that key international leaders accept the Cubans, even if the Americans do not.

Fidel Castro
Once the nemesis of the Church, Fidel Castro wants to warm relations
Since the fall of Communism, Mr Castro no longer enjoys the economic and political support of his former Soviet bloc allies. He no doubt prefers to have the Catholic Church as a friend - especially since the pope spoke out against the US imposed sanctions that are crippling the economy of the small island nation.

What John Paul II will get from the visit is less clear. Some observers are recalling the pope's historic trip to Poland just months after his election to the papacy in 1978. That visit helped spark off a process that more than a decade later led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But President Castro is not - as the Polish leader, General Jaruzelski, was - a hated general propped up by Moscow. And the pope is not a Cuban.

But the pope will get his chance to address the issue of what he sees as Cuba's declining moral values.

Four in six marriages in Cuba end in divorce and the number of abortions is high - some reports say that there are 60 abortions for every 100 births on the island. Many women are said to have three or four abortions before giving birth to their first child.

These are trends that Pope John Paul undoubtedly would like to see change.

Vast differences remain

Still, the Pope's visit is not a guaranteed success.

Mr Castro has not yet given his blessing to broadcasting the Pope's masses inside Cuba. And it is reported that if they are not, the pope will "toughen up" his speeches so that he is not perceived to be sanctioning a system of censorship.

Nevertheless, the symbolism of the Pope's visit holds great appeal. Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II each have played key - and in many cases opposing - roles in one of the great ideological battles of the 20th century.

Observers want to know who - if anyone - will win.

See also:

21 Nov 97 | Americas
14 Dec 97 | Despatches
12 Jan 98 | Americas
21 Dec 97 | Americas
06 Jan 98 | Despatches
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