Two years before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, then-Defense Minister RaÃºl Castro cracked down on a half-dozen young academics who had dared propose market reforms for the islandâ€™s Soviet-styled economy.
The Center for the Study of the Americas was ordered to stop studying Cuban issues. One of the academics suffered a fatal heart attack, blamed on the government pressures. Another fled into exile, and two others now live mostly abroad.
Today, it is President RaÃºl Castro who is championing even more daring reforms, including deep cuts in state spending and the largest expansion of private economic activity allowed in the communist-ruled island.
When Pope Benedict XVI lands in Santiago next month to start a three-day visit to the island, he will find a Cuba very different yet in many ways very similar, to what his predecessor encountered during his visit 14 years ago.
A different Castro is in charge. Church-state relations are warmer. Talk of economic reforms is now acceptable. Dissidents are more combative. But the economy is still in deep trouble. And a Castro is still in power.
Back in 1998, Cuba was â€œa living memory of the Soviet model of society,â€ yet the islandâ€™s Catholic Church had managed to endure and â€œgive witness and provide hope against hope,â€ said Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the archdiocese of Havana.
Cuba was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992, Christmas was restored as an official holiday only in 1997. And the next year Cardinal Jaime Ortega became the first church leader to speak on state-owned television since the early 1960s.
Today, the church has â€œa more defined place in society,â€ thereâ€™s a church-state dialogue and Cuba â€œis living a process of transformations and reforms,â€ Marquez told El Nuevo Herald. â€œThatâ€™s the Cuba that Benedict wants to meet when he comes.â€
After Ortega met with Castro in 2009, the cardinal announced the government would free more than 100 political prisoners and pro-government mobs in Havana halted their harassments of the dissident Ladies in White.
The church also has been permitted to build a new seminary, launch a business school in conjunction with a Catholic University in Spain and run a string of independent charity and educational programs that fill gaps in the governmentâ€™s eroding social security net. [More]