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Cuba May Change After Papal Visit

January 16, 1998

Pope John Paul II leaves few places unchanged by his presence. In his native Poland, his outspoken defense of political and religious freedom may have helped alter world history.

So it is no surprise that his first visit to Cuba next week has raised the hopes of many Catholics on and off the island. But what are reasonable expectations for this encounter between Fidel Castro and the spiritual leader of some 4.5 million Cuban Catholics?

In interviews with leading scholars, there is general agreement the papal visit may help consolidate recent gains in religious freedom in Cuba. But no one expects another Poland.

``It’s a very tempting comparison, but it doesn’t work,″ said George Weigel, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington who is working on a biography of John Paul.

First of all, the pope is not Cuban. And unlike Poland, Weigel notes, the Catholic Church in Cuba has not been a repository of nationalist identity, nor does it represent a majority of the population.

``The pope is not going as a political figure. He’s not going as a diplomat,″ Weigel said. ``He’s going as a pastor to strengthen the Cuban Church.″

Some goals the church may accomplish with the papal visit are loosening visa restrictions to permit other Latin American clergy to serve in Cuba, becoming an independent charitable agency and gaining a presence in the public media, Weigel said.

Cuba was officially atheist from the early 1960s until 1992. Even before the papal visit, however, officials had softened their approach toward religion.

In 1991, Catholics and other believers were granted permission to join the Communist Party. Open-air Masses are being celebrated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, faithful are going door to door, and catechism classes are being held for hundreds of Cubans nurtured on the philosophies of Marx and Lenin.

Segundo Pantoja of the City University of New York, one of a group of scholars on Latin America who visited Cuba in March, said people there reported a tremedous rise in religious activity, both Catholic and Protestant.

``Religion has been thriving in the last 10 years, compared with the last 30 years, and people see that the visit of the pope can be a catalyst for many people to go back to the church,″ he said.

Among more political aims, Pantoja said, there also are hopes in Cuba that the papal visit will embolden government critics and that the pope’s firsthand look at the effects of the U.S. economic embargo will prompt him to speak out more strongly for its repeal.

Another scholar who does not expect ``anything radical″ to come out of the papal visit is Yolanda Prieto, a sociologist at Ramapo College in Ramapo, N.J., who with Pantoja visited Cuba and was part of a panel on Cuban religion today at the November meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

But she does expect closer U.S.-Cuba relations, and the ``bit by bit, piece by piece″ relaxation of some sanctions such as the embargo on humanitarian aid.

Inside Cuba, Prieto said she does not expect the sudden emergence of 10 different political parties, but she does think ``the space″ for different points of view created by the church and the pope’s visit will continue.

Cubans do not know what to expect, Prieto said, but ``they have hope. It really is hope.″

Just the act of the pope stepping on Cuban soil for the first time is significant, scholars said.

``The very fact of the visit in itself is an accomplishment,″ Weigel said. ``The mere fact of his presence there will have an effect on the Cuban Church and help it emerge as a truly independent force in Cuban society. I think that’s a given.″

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