Havana Awaits Pope
Havana Awaits Pope Reuters

The papal visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI is already being compared, with the January 1998 visits by Pope John Paul II.

Benedict himself speaks about the "absolute continuity" between his visit and that of his predecessor. In that visit by John Paul II, those who were expecting ideological fireworks on the one hand, or a whitewash of the communist regime were disappointed.

John Paul II was interested in implementing the strategy that had worked well for him when he was the church primate in Poland, emphasizing culture and nationalism as a space that was separate from communist. He lauded the historical forerunners of the Communist Cuban revolution as practicing Christians and spoke of Cuba's Christian soul.

Before the papal visit, the Clinton administration was uncertain how to proceed. They were aware of the hostility of the Cuban-American community, but ultimately supported the visit as something that could be positive.

Currently, there are two schools of thought on the issue. From inside Cuba itself Cuban Catholic dissidents wrote a letter to the Pope urging him to reconsider his visit because the visit could legitimize the regime and convince the Castro brothers that they could pursue their policies. Some Cuban dissidents had sought sanctuary in a church, but were evicted, according to the official party daily Granma - at the request of Havana's Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Ortega has been accused by the Cuban exile community of knuckling under to the regime. Those who take a more tolerant view credit Cardinal Ortega with carving out his own version of the Polish model.

The Cuban regime is suffering the same legitimacy crisis as did the Polish regime.  Even Raoul Castro has admitted failures. In an attempt to broaden its legitimacy, the regime is reaching out to the Catholic Church. Raul Castro and Ortega are roughly the same age and they have established a rapport.

Church services are broadcast in the official media and the persecution that the church endured (Ortega himself was imprisoned in a labor camp) is a matter of the past and the church is able to train future generations of clergy.

In return, the church, since the 1990s, has provided Cuba with millions of dollars in emergency supplies. This was especially valuable after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe that brought an end to the financial support that the Castro regime enjoyed during the days of the Soviet Union. Church aid is currently very much appreciated when the Communist regime makes itsfirst timid steps at reforming the economy .which means cuts in welfare benefits.

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