By Simon Gardner
EL COBRE, Cuba (Reuters) - Dressed in a billowing pink ball gown for her 15th birthday celebrations, Lisette Catanares smiles at the myriad offerings on a shrine to Cuba's patron saint, a doll-sized figurine that Pope Benedict will visit this week.
A can of strong 'Bucanero' beer, a medal, carnival masks, signed baseballs, locks of hair: Cubans of all beliefs make offerings here when they ask for miracles and blessings from The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, a symbol of nationalism that transcends religion.
Discovered 400 years ago, the Virgin is an important figure for both the Roman Catholic Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba's slavery era and knows her as Ochun, the goddess of love.
Found floating in a bay in 1612 by fishermen, the icon was revered by Cuba's independence heroes and sits in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains from which Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara staged the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Now it is the centerpiece of this week's papal visit to Cuba, inspired by a procession of a replica around the island last year that drew hundreds of thousands of people.
The Church hopes it will spark a revival of faith in Cuba and boost its role as an interlocutor with the communist government on social issues, including human rights.
"I think of her as my mother," said Catanares, setting down her offering of yellow flowers to the Virgin, who sits with child swathed in a golden dress encrusted in jewels high above a white marble altarpiece.
"I like to come to see her ... I ask for health for my family and success in life." "I'm not Catholic. I believe in the Virgin. She belongs to everyone," the high school student said. "The fact the pope is coming to visit the Virgin of Charity is a great honor. I hope his visit brings peace, union, and friendship with other nations, with the United States."
Behind her, in a glass case, sits a leather, plastic and steel corset and neck brace with the message "To avoid an operation on our daughter's spine" written on the side.
"These religious practices, which are in a way magic, are a way of banishing fear and of kidding ourselves," said Father Jorge Palma, who oversees the sanctuary. "This is the home of all Cubans. Even Protestants come and tell me no-one will take away their devotion to the Virgin."
The 1954 Nobel literature prize medallion that long-time Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway donated to the icon has been safely stored away after it was briefly stolen in the 1980s.
The mother of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro, who is now Cuba's president, left small golden statues of her sons in thanks after they took power in the revolution.
READY FOR 'EL PAPA'
The sanctuary of El Cobre, which lies 12 miles outside the city of Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island, has been spruced up for the pontiff's visit.
He will lead a mass in honor of the Virgin on Monday in Santiago de Cuba and then visit the sanctuary early on Tuesday.
In Santiago de Cuba, just meters from where the pope will lead the mass, a placard shows a youthful Fidel thrusting a rifle into the air above the slogan: "Yesterday a rebel, hospitable today, always heroic".
While many of the town's youths are not Catholic, they are excited by the pope's visit. "The fact the pope is coming is transcendental," said 16-year-old Irenis Belkis Soto, chatting with friends in a square in Santiago de Cuba, the theme tune from "The Godfather" movie drifting through the balmy evening air from a nearby bar.
She is too young to remember Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998, but has lived all her life under the 50-year-old trade embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba and hopes the pope can help end it.
"The embargo against Cuba should not exist, and if the pope can help influence getting rid of it, Cubans would be very happy," she laughed, adding that she is happy with Cuba's revolution. "There's room for improvements here in Cuba just as anywhere, but people here live in good conditions."
Mercedes Osorio, a mother of three who lives in a modest, precarious breeze-block dwelling on the hills above Santiago de Cuba, would also like to see the pope, but she'd sooner see economic change and a higher wage. Osorio earns around $10 a month serving food to children at a music school, which she says is not enough to feed her family.
"I hope the pope's visit produces something better for Cubans, that people have more humanity. We need a better life. What they pay us is very little, it's nowhere near enough. Life isn't easy," she said.
Church officials say the pope's agenda is too tight to be able to meet with dissidents like the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, who decry the government's human rights record and who are lobbying for the release of political prisoners.
Father Jose Conrado, an outspoken priest whose local parish is making a replica of the Virgin which will be sent to Miami and erected in a park on the Bay, thinks the Cuban Church is treating the government too delicately.
"It would be worthwhile for the pope to receive a representative of the Ladies in White," he said at his parish of Santa Teresita in Santiago de Cuba as he cooked pasta in a solar oven in the garden. "The pope is coming to a country that is in a very difficult situation from a moral, social, spiritual and economic point of view."
Benedict said on Friday that communism had failed in Cuba and offered the Church's help in developing a new economic model. Economic reforms launched by President Raul Castro encourage more private businesses but they are aimed at preserving communist rule, not weakening it.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Jeff Franks and Kieran Murray)