By PAUL HAVEN
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 6:30 a.m.
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
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
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
"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."
Paul Haven has been The Associated Press' bureau chief in Havana since 2009.