HAVANA — When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba on Monday, 14 years after the last papal visit, he'll find the Roman Catholic Church ensconced in the fabric of Cuban social and political life in ways thought impossible in 1998.
Conventional wisdom at the time had it that Fidel Castro got the upper hand when Pope John Paul II paid a historic visit to communist Cuba in January 1998. But like the parable of the tortoise and the hare, if Castro won the sprint then the charismatic Polish pope appears to have won the longer race.
"I think in many ways what we have seen is the church gaining credibility, not for what it's been, but more for what it has done for the people of Cuba in terms of continuing to be the conscience of society, continuing to work for the poor, the marginalized," said the Rev. Juan Molina, director of Latin America efforts for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It's certainly not what was expected 14 years ago.
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"I think John Paul II might have had some notion that Cuba was going to be like Poland, that he would mobilize Catholics on the island, and it would lead to fundamental changes," said William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert and dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington. "I think Fidel got the better part of that deal. But the Catholic Church's position in Cuban society has unquestionably gotten stronger in the intervening decade."
The church continued to gain credibility after Raul Castro took over in 2006 and began cutting back government subsidies and slashing government jobs. The church stepped in to fill the gap in caring for the sick and the elderly. While it picks its battles with the authoritarian government carefully, the church also publishes independent news, at times drawing the ire of government officialdom.
Leaning against his car outside a downtown Havana restaurant Saturday afternoon, Osvaldo, 53, said he expected the streets to be lined with people Tuesday afternoon as the pope makes his way into the city from Jose Marti International Airport in Havana.
He remembers when Pope John Paul II came in 1998. How people flocked to the see the first pope to set foot on Cuban soil. He said people's feelings about the church changed following the visit.
"After the pope came, the church gained enormous strength," said Osvaldo, who did not want to give his last name. "People feel a lot closer to the church now, like me."
Church leaders enjoy better relations with Raul than they did with Fidel. Like his older brother, Raul studied at a Jesuit school in his formative years. Raul since has developed a more personal relationship with the Cuban Catholic hierarchy under Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has called for faster and deeper economic reforms.
Cardinal Ortega has been criticized by Cuban exiles for not taking a harder stance against the government, specifically after the March 18 arrests of more than a dozen political activists, apparently at the request of the cardinal. But he's also helped lead the church to its new level of prominence. In a historic four-hour meeting with Raul Castro in 2010, Cardinal Ortega brokered the release of 52 political prisoners.
"That was the first time the government has ever recognized the authority of the church or the legitimacy of the church to play that kind of interlocutor role between the government and civil society," LeoGrande said.
The relationship between the Catholic Church and the communist government is a delicate one. Hundreds of Cuban priests fled or were forced into exile after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The government was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992. The government still bans Catholic schools. Fidel Castro ignored Cuban bishops and instead talked directly with the Vatican.
The relationship shifted with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The Cuban economy reeled from the loss of Soviet subsidies, and the Catholic Church stepped in to provide crucial humanitarian assistance via its nationwide network of parishes.
That was glossed over during the last papal visit. Still, Pope Benedict XVI, who will begin his three-day trip to Cuba in Santiago before closing it with a Mass in Havana's Revolution Square on Wednesday, is likely to get a more humble greeting on arrival than his predecessor.
When Fidel welcomed John Paul II on Jan. 21, 1998, he ignored the economic challenges facing the island and instead lectured the pope on Cuba's colonial past. He also boasted of what he considered Cuba's social achievements.
"What can we offer you in Cuba?" Fidel asked. "People exposed to fewer inequalities and a lower number of helpless citizens; fewer children without schools; fewer patients without hospitals, and more teachers and physicians per capita than any other country in the world visited by the Holy Father; educated people you can talk to in perfect freedom with the certainty of their talent and their high political culture, their strong convictions and absolute confidence in their ideas; people that will show all due respect and consciousness in listening to you."
Since John Paul II's visit, the Roman Catholic Church has opened a new seminary outside of Havana. Last fall, the church also launched an MBA program, promoting business acumen in a political system that did not value entrepreneurism.
Today, the Cuban economy appears as shaky as its octogenarian leaders. Government jobs have been cut, subsidies to inefficient state companies slashed. The agricultural and industrial sectors are both in sad shape. It's all left older Cubans and other marginalized segments of the Cuban population such as the handicapped particularly vulnerable. And the church increasingly steps into that void.
"There's been a growing space in society for the church being able to function, but also to slowly be able to reach out to certain sectors of the country which are marginalized," said Mary DeLorey, the Latin America strategic issues adviser for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, hopeful that the papal visit with create even more such space. "It's a slow but very important opening that's been happening. I hope for continued change, continued opportunities for civil society."
Catholic Relief Services has contributed $32 million in supplies and contributions to the Cuban church over the past 22 years, DeLorey said. For most of that time, it has worked through Caritas, a confederation of Roman Catholic relief organizations that provides assistance for vulnerable communities.
Many Cuban parishes, working with Caritas, have volunteers who go out into their communities, knocking on doors to ensure that the elderly are taken care of, Rev. Molina said.
"And if their families are away or the elderly cannot get out to do their shopping and things like that, that person will literally serve as a social worker and will bring their information to the parish and they'll try to respond," he said.
Papal visits are as political as they are spiritual. And just as in John Paul II's visit, Pope Benedict XVI will be watched closely for the degree to which he does or does not take the United States to task for the trade embargo, now 50 years old and counting. The church has long opposed it on grounds that it most hurts the poor and voiceless.
A senior Obama administration official active in Cuba policy, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, hoped that there's little discussion of the U.S. embargo. The expectation is that Pope Benedict XVI will stick to his predecessor's use of generic language that called for Cuba to open to the world and the world to open to Cuba.
"I'm not sure we should get our expectations up too high," the official said. "In terms of fundamental change, in terms of their political system, one would hope the pope could help with that. But we've seen the Cuban regime is pretty set in their ways. I don't expect there is going to be any major opening here."
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