Two years before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, then-Defense
Minister Raúl Castro cracked down on a half-dozen young academics who
had dared propose market reforms for the islands Soviet-styled
The Center for the Study of the Americas was ordered to stop studying
Cuban issues. One of the academics suffered a fatal heart attack,
blamed on the government pressures. Another fled into exile, and two
others now live mostly abroad.
Today, it is President Raúl Castro who is championing even more daring
reforms, including deep cuts in state spending and the largest
expansion of private economic activity allowed in the communist-ruled
When Pope Benedict XVI lands in Santiago next month to start a
three-day visit to the island, he will find a Cuba very different yet
in many ways very similar, to what his predecessor encountered during
his visit 14 years ago.
A different Castro is in charge. Church-state relations are warmer.
Talk of economic reforms is now acceptable. Dissidents are more
combative. But the economy is still in deep trouble. And a Castro is
still in power.
Back in 1998, Cuba was a living memory of the Soviet model of
society, yet the islands Catholic Church had managed to endure and
give witness and provide hope against hope, said Orlando Marquez,
spokesman for the archdiocese of Havana.
Cuba was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992, Christmas was restored
as an official holiday only in 1997. And the next year Cardinal Jaime
Ortega became the first church leader to speak on state-owned
television since the early 1960s.
Today, the church has a more defined place in society, theres a
church-state dialogue and Cuba is living a process of transformations
and reforms, Marquez told El Nuevo Herald. Thats the Cuba that
Benedict wants to meet when he comes.
After Ortega met with Castro in 2009, the cardinal announced the
government would free more than 100 political prisoners and
pro-government mobs in Havana halted their harassments of the
dissident Ladies in White.
The church also has been permitted to build a new seminary, launch a
business school in conjunction with a Catholic University in Spain and
run a string of independent charity and educational programs that fill
gaps in the governments eroding social security net.
Yet critics say that the improved church-state relations came at the
price of silence on government human rights abuses. All but 12 of the
jailed dissidents were taken directly from prison to airplanes that
flew them to exile in Spain, they noted.
The church is now the only independent actor recognized by the
government as an ally. Today, there is a quasi-concordat [an official
agreement] that was not there before, said Haroldo Dilla, one of the
Center for the Study of the Americas academics attacked by Raúl Castro
When the Polish-born John Paul visited Cuba Jan. 21-25 of 1998, he was
a fierce opponent of communism and a healthy Fidel Castro had just
addressed a Cuban Communist Party congress from a stage under large
portraits of Marx and Lenin.
John Paul died in 2005 and Fidel Castro, now 85 years old, surrendered
power the following year after emergency surgery. And when brother and
successor Raúl Castro addressed another party congress last year,
there were no portraits at all on the stage.
One constant from one papal visit to another has been the crisis in
the Cuban economy, which shrank by about 35 percent in three years
after Moscow halted its subsidies to the island, estimated at up to $6
billion a year, in 1992.
Yet the ways in which the more ideological Fidel and the more
pragmatic Raúl dealt with the economic problems were vastly different.
Fidel grudgingly embraced some basic free-market reforms, like
allowing self-employment such as family-owned restaurants, party
clowns and manicurists. But as soon as the economy stabilized in 1995,
he began retrenching.
By most accounts, Fidel ordered Raúl to crack down on the Center for
the Study of the Americas too-eager reformers in 1996. Communist
Party ideologue Raúl Valdés Vivo branded Cubans who favored capitalism
as piranhas the following year.
But today Raúl is pushing a string of far more ambitious economic
reforms, including leasing millions of acres of fallow state lands to
private farmers, allowing more and larger private businesses and
offering government loans to support them.
That is not because he wants to open up, but because he has no other
option after decades in which the hallmarks of the Cuban economy were
inefficiency, lack of productivity and corruption, Dilla told El Nuevo
One clear change between the two papal visits is the way that Cuban
exiles in South Florida view the trips.
In late 1997, the archdiocese of Miami was forced to cancel a cruise
ship charter that would have taken thousands of pilgrims to Cuba to
witness John Pauls visit, because of stiff and highly vocal
opposition from Catholic exiles.
Today, the archdiocese is plowing ahead with arrangements for air
charters to take pilgrims to Cuba for Benedicts visit, and exile
opposition to the charters has not been as strong or as loud.
And while 11 bombings shook Cuban tourist spots in 1997, blamed on
exile Luis Posada Carriles, today the idea of armed struggle against
the communist government has been dropped by all but a handful of the
most recalcitrant exiles.
Cubas peaceful domestic opposition also has changed and grown
significantly over the past 14 years, while the government has shifted
the ways and means it uses to repress dissent.
In the late 1990s, most of Cubas top dissidents were older
intellectuals who had initially backed Fidel Castro. The late Gustavo
Arcos participated in Castros 1953 attack on the Moncada army
barracks before he became a dissident. Elizardo Sánchez taught Marxism
before he became a human-rights activist.
Fidel Castro had little tolerance for dissidents and put many of them
in prison. Arcos served seven years in prison and Sánchez served
eight. And a crackdown in 2003 sentenced 75 dissidents to up to 28
years in prison. All were freed by last spring.
Dissidents today tend to be younger, more working-class and more
aggressive. They stage street protests and ask tough questions at
pro-government events. One even filed an unprecedented lawsuit against
the Justice Ministry, making some headway before losing.
The Ladies in White now have tacit government approval for their
protest marches after Sunday Mass at a Havana church unthinkable
under Fidel although police and pro-government mobs have crushed
their efforts to do the same in eastern Santiago de Cuba.
Scores of Cuban dissidents and othersd now have cell phones and blogs,
like Yoani Sánchezs Generacion Y, that they use regularly to rail
against the communist system and disseminate their complaints in Cuba
In 1998, the ideological and political controls were much harder than
now, said Dilla. Today it is evident that the system is more
tolerant, but it can turn tough and even brutal when needed.
Security officials in recent years have largely stopped subjecting
dissidents to trials and lengthy sentences, and instead mostly
detained opposition activists for a few hours or days in order to
intimidate and harass them or block planned activities.
Such express detentions totaled 85 in one four-month period in 1997,
according to one news headline. In 2011, according to Elizardo
Sanchezs Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, they totaled more than 4,000.