Analysis: Pope, Castros talked past each other

March 29, 2012 - 10:56 AM
APTOPIX Cuba Pope

Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful as arrives to lead a Mass at Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday March 28, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI wraps up his visit to Cuba on Wednesday with an open-air Mass in the shrine of the Cuban revolution.(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

HAVANA (AP) — The spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics and the brothers who have carried Cuba along an increasingly solitary Communist path mixed warm smiles with the hard language of their respective camps during Pope Benedict XVI's three-day tour of Cuba.

Often, the polite octogenarians at the heart of this religio-political drama appeared to be talking past each other, the pontiff using biblical parables about cruel, long-dead kings, the Castros their customary language of revolution and defiance to American dominance.

In his respectful send-off, President Raul Castro acknowledged in the visit's greatest understatement: "We do not think alike on all matters."

The first indication of whether the sides heard each other could come as early as next week, when Castro must decide whether to grant the pope's unusual request to declare Good Friday a holiday, despite the fact it does not have that status in the United States or much of Europe or even Mexico, the most Catholic of the world's Spanish-speaking countries.

Progress on larger issues, such as the church's desire for greater access to state-run airwaves, permission to run schools and hospitals, and license to build new churches, will take longer to assess. Certainly, no concessions were announced. And privately, insiders here doubt the government will ever yield ground on education and health care, which it considers the pillars of the revolution and core responsibilities of the government.

Benedict pointedly criticized Cuba's Marxist system even before he arrived, then followed up in homilies and speeches with repeated calls for freedom, renewal and reconciliation, as well as references to prisoners and those "deprived of freedom." One of Raul Castro's top aides, economic czar Marino Murillo, wasted little time in responding: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform."

While the president has begun an overhaul of Cuba's economy, he has been much slower to make political changes and remains surrounded by a coterie of confidantes who have been with him and his brother since their rebel days. As recently as January, he took to the airwaves to firmly defend the island's one-party Communist system, saying it is necessary given U.S. hostility.

"We should not expect popes to be miracle workers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and longtime Vatican observer. "But Benedict's visit should keep Cuba on track moving gradually toward greater freedom for both the church and society at large."

As with most sequels, the trip did not live up to the original: the historic 1998 tour by Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II.

The crowds were smaller, the quotes somewhat derivative. The agenda was also less ambitious, with large chunks of it behind closed doors. Even the personalities paled in comparison: John Paul was one of the towering figures of the 20th century, Fidel is among its most famous revolutionaries and best-known atheists.

If they share anything in common, Raul and Benedict are both caretakers of other men's legacies.

To longtime observers, the reactions seemed predictable as well.

In South Florida, local media focused on the harassment of the island's small dissident community and the brusque removal of a protester shouting anti-government slogans at the Mass in Santiago. While some members of a troupe of mostly Cuban-American pilgrims said their experience made them question long-held preconceptions, hard-liners said the pontiff's visit only demonstrated how little on the island has changed.

"The pope's visit helped show that there is no political space and no political liberty in Cuba," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a staunchly pro-embargo Florida Republican, told The Associated Press.

Indeed, while the government repeatedly said it would listen to the pope respectfully, it also used his visit to hammer home oft-repeated talking points.

Castro used his welcoming speech for Benedict at the airport in the eastern city of Santiago to rail against the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo, criticize capitalist decadence and warn of a nuclear holocaust presumably wrought at American hands, while talking up Cuban achievements in health care and education.

The next evening, Fidel Castro recalled the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, warned of a global scarcity of resources and took a shot at U.S. President Barack Obama in an opinion piece in which he announced that his much-anticipated meeting with Benedict was on for Wednesday.

When they did meet, Fidel and Benedict joked about their advanced years, and the retired Cuban leader quizzed the pontiff on the ins and outs of his job. Benedict, in his final comments, sprinkled references to the Vatican's long-standing opposition of the U.S. embargo in with calls for more freedom.

Ordinary Cubans had heard these lines before, and many said they were taking a wait-and-see approach.

Many remembered John Paul's visit, which cemented warmer state ties with the church and resulted in headlines like Christmas being declared a holiday.

"John Paul II was a pope who undid the latch," said Jose Luis Lavin, a 35-year-old government food worker who witnessed Benedict's Wednesday morning Mass in Revolution Plaza. "Now, we'll see with this one what agreement there was, whether there will be more freedom."

Crowds for the pontiff's visit were large but not overwhelming, with the Vatican saying some 500,000 people showed up at the two Masses combined in Santiago and Havana. That's less than the capacity at iconic Revolution Plaza, where many complained of poor acoustics and said they couldn't understand the Pope's biblical reference to persecution by the King of Babylon — which many experts agreed was a pointed rebuke of the Castros.

Mario Fonseca, a 52-year-old Havana resident, hurried out of Revolution Plaza about an hour into Benedict's Mass after a morning spent braving crowds and rerouted traffic.

"I've been here since four in the morning and I can't take it any more," he said. "It's Raul that has to listen to this, not me." ___

Paul Haven has been The Associated Press' bureau chief in Havana since 2009.

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Paul Haven on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulhaven