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Awaiting pope: New Castro, same mess of an economy in Cuba

Two years before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, then-DefenseMinister Raúl Castro cracked down on a half-dozen young academics whohad dared propose market reforms for the island’s Soviet-styledeconomy.

The Center for the Study of the Americas was ordered to stop studyingCuban issues. One of the academics suffered a fatal heart attack,blamed on the government pressures. Another fled into exile, and twoothers now live mostly abroad.

Today, it is President Raúl Castro who is championing even more daringreforms, including deep cuts in state spending and the largestexpansion of private economic activity allowed in the communist-ruledisland.

When Pope Benedict XVI lands in Santiago next month to start athree-day visit to the island, he will find a Cuba very different yetin many ways very similar, to what his predecessor encountered duringhis visit 14 years ago.

A different Castro is in charge. Church-state relations are warmer.Talk of economic reforms is now acceptable. Dissidents are morecombative. But the economy is still in deep trouble. And a Castro isstill in power.

Back in 1998, Cuba was “a living memory of the Soviet model ofsociety,” yet the island’s 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 restoredas an official holiday only in 1997. And the next year Cardinal JaimeOrtega became the first church leader to speak on state-ownedtelevision since the early 1960s.

Today, the church has “a more defined place in society,” there’s achurch-state dialogue and Cuba “is living a process of transformationsand reforms,” Marquez told El Nuevo Herald. “That’s the Cuba thatBenedict wants to meet when he comes.”

After Ortega met with Castro in 2009, the cardinal announced thegovernment would free more than 100 political prisoners andpro-government mobs in Havana halted their harassments of thedissident Ladies in White.

The church also has been permitted to build a new seminary, launch abusiness school in conjunction with a Catholic University in Spain andrun a string of independent charity and educational programs that fillgaps in the government’s eroding social security net.

Yet critics say that the improved church-state relations came at theprice of silence on government human rights abuses. All but 12 of thejailed dissidents were taken directly from prison to airplanes thatflew them to exile in Spain, they noted.

“The church is now the only independent actor recognized by thegovernment as an ally. Today, there is a quasi-concordat [an officialagreement] that was not there before,” said Haroldo Dilla, one of theCenter for the Study of the Americas academics attacked by Raúl Castroin 1996.

When the Polish-born John Paul visited Cuba Jan. 21-25 of 1998, he wasa fierce opponent of communism and a healthy Fidel Castro had justaddressed a Cuban Communist Party congress from a stage under largeportraits of Marx and Lenin.

John Paul died in 2005 and Fidel Castro, now 85 years old, surrenderedpower the following year after emergency surgery. And when brother andsuccessor 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 inthe Cuban economy, which shrank by about 35 percent in three yearsafter Moscow halted its subsidies to the island, estimated at up to $6billion a year, in 1992.

Yet the ways in which the more ideological Fidel and the morepragmatic Raúl dealt with the economic problems were vastly different.

Fidel grudgingly embraced some basic free-market reforms, likeallowing “self-employment” such as family-owned restaurants, partyclowns 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 forthe Study of the Americas’ too-eager reformers in 1996. CommunistParty ideologue Raúl Valdés Vivo branded Cubans who favored capitalismas “piranhas” the following year.

But today Raúl is pushing a string of far more ambitious economicreforms, including leasing millions of acres of fallow state lands toprivate farmers, allowing more and larger private businesses andoffering government loans to support them.

“That is not because he wants to open up, but because he has no otheroption” after decades in which the hallmarks of the Cuban economy wereinefficiency, lack of productivity and corruption, Dilla told El NuevoHerald.

One clear change between the two papal visits is the way that Cubanexiles in South Florida view the trips.

In late 1997, the archdiocese of Miami was forced to cancel a cruiseship charter that would have taken thousands of pilgrims to Cuba towitness John Paul’s visit, because of stiff and highly vocalopposition from Catholic exiles.

Today, the archdiocese is plowing ahead with arrangements for aircharters to take pilgrims to Cuba for Benedict’s visit, and exileopposition to the charters has not been as strong or as loud.

And while 11 bombings shook Cuban tourist spots in 1997, blamed onexile Luis Posada Carriles, today the idea of armed struggle againstthe communist government has been dropped by all but a handful of themost recalcitrant exiles.

Cuba’s peaceful domestic opposition also has changed and grownsignificantly over the past 14 years, while the government has shiftedthe ways and means it uses to repress dissent.

In the late 1990s, most of Cuba’s top dissidents were olderintellectuals who had initially backed Fidel Castro. The late GustavoArcos participated in Castro’s 1953 attack on the Moncada armybarracks before he became a dissident. Elizardo Sánchez taught Marxismbefore he became a human-rights activist.

Fidel Castro had little tolerance for dissidents and put many of themin prison. Arcos served seven years in prison and Sánchez servedeight. And a crackdown in 2003 sentenced 75 dissidents to up to 28years in prison. All were freed by last spring.

Dissidents today tend to be younger, more working-class and moreaggressive. They stage street protests and ask tough questions atpro-government events. One even filed an unprecedented lawsuit againstthe Justice Ministry, making some headway before losing.

The Ladies in White now have tacit government approval for theirprotest marches after Sunday Mass at a Havana church — unthinkableunder Fidel — although police and pro-government mobs have crushedtheir efforts to do the same in eastern Santiago de Cuba.

Scores of Cuban dissidents and othersd now have cell phones and blogs,like Yoani Sánchez’s Generacion Y, that they use regularly to railagainst the communist system and disseminate their complaints in Cubaand abroad.

“In 1998, the ideological and political controls were much harder thannow,” said Dilla. “Today it is evident that the system is moretolerant, but it can turn tough and even brutal when needed.”

Security officials in recent years have largely stopped subjectingdissidents to trials and lengthy sentences, and instead mostlydetained opposition activists for a few hours or days in order tointimidate 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 ElizardoSanchez’s Cuban Commission for Human Rights and NationalReconciliation, they totaled more than 4,000.