By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - For years at Havana's historic Cristobal Colon cemetery, Communist Party members refused to enter the Roman Catholic chapel there for funeral services. They stayed outside while others honored the dead because religious believers were banned from the party and being seen in a church, particularly a Catholic one, could bring trouble even for someone in mourning. But those days are gone and the Church has taken a bigger role in Cuban society since the visit of John Paul II in 1998, said 68-year-old Erick Osio, who remembers standing outside the cemetery chapel. "Things relaxed and that taboo ended. Everything has changed for religion in Cuba since then," said the mellifluous retired Army colonel who now works as a parking attendant. "John Paul began a different evolution here that opened things up for believers." Fourteen years after John Paul's epochal trip to Cuba, Pope Benedict will come to the island next week on a visit that is not expected to be as groundbreaking, but has still sparked hopes for more economic and political change among some Cubans. Benedict's predecessor is a tough act to follow because, even though the Communist Party ended its ban on religious believers in 1991, Cubans generally view John Paul's visit seven years later as the landmark moment that led to improved Church-state relations after decades of hostility that followed the island's 1959 revolution. This pope's work will be more incremental, building on recent gains by the Church in its relations with the government and seeking a bigger role in a time of change under President Raul Castro.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the Cuban Church, has emphasized the spiritual side of the visit and the hope of re-energizing religion on the island that for 15 years under former leader Fidel Castro officially declared itself an atheist state. A senior Vatican official, who requested anonymity, said the pope wants to assure the Cuban government that its former enemy only wants to be helpful, not threatening, as Raul Castro undertakes reforms to improve Cuba's Soviet-style economy. "The pope wants to help Catholic leaders convince the government that it has nothing to fear from the Church in Cuba," the official told Reuters.
"The Church wants to help in education, in teaching moral values. That can only help all of Cuban society as it embarks on many changes in the political and social spheres." The Cuban rumor mill has been in full swing with speculation that, as a gesture to the 84-year-old pope, President Castro might release more political prisoners, free jailed American contractor Alan Gross or finally unveil immigration reforms he promised last year. Gross, 62, is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally setting up Internet networks in a case that has stalled U.S.-Cuba relations.
Cubans said this week they believed the pope's visit is a good thing for the country and that it could use the Church's help on several fronts, particularly the economy. "The pope comes at an opportune time because there is no work," said 19-year-old Carlos Gonzalez as he waited in line for ice cream in Havana's Vedado district. "I've looked for work for two years and I don't find it, and the jobs here have low salaries." "Young people want to leave because we don't have anything. The only thing we have is the beach and the Malecon," the thin, clean-cut teen said, referring to the city's spectacular seawall.
"May the changes come very soon," said his friend Yusniel Garcia Suarez, also 19 and jobless. He smoked a cigarette, wore a faded gray t-shirt with the words "Power Hitter" on the front and, like several people interviewed, said he was religious but does not go to church. His ambitions were not high, but they would require a lot more money than the average Cuban salary of $19 a month and immigration reforms making it easier to come and go from his homeland. "I don't want to leave Cuba. I just want to be able to go to Cancun for a few days with my girlfriend," Garcia said. Communist Party member Laurent Barredo, 46, warned that no one should expect miracles from the pope's visit because the Cuban government will only make changes at its own pace. "Nothing is going to change because of the pope. The changes that have happened are going to continue because they are the only thing that will bring internal development to Cuba," he said, adding that he thought the trip would help the government.
"It will give prestige to the Cuban revolution. I think that the principles of the Church are the same principles as the revolution. You can believe that God exists and I can believe that he doesn't, but if we are honest, work, produce and help each other, it's the same," he said. Some anti-Castro groups complain that papal visits give Cuba's communist rulers a legitimacy they don't deserve although criticism ahead of this trip has been more muted than in 1998, even in Miami, the home of many Cuban exiles.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's number two, said in a newspaper interview this week that the visit "will help the process of developing democracy and open up new spaces for the presence and activity (of the Church)."
In Havana, retired school teacher and non-believer Galicia Cabrera, 68, said she did not want Benedict's visit to bring a return to pre-revolution days when the Church was a bigger and more powerful part of Cuban society. A Church survey in 1954 found that 72.5 percent of Cubans were Catholic and 24 percent them were regular churchgoers. Today, Church officials say about 60 percent of Cubans are baptized, but only 5 percent always go to mass. "Everything is good the way it is. Don't change because now is the only way we can live in Cuba - the Church in one part and the government in another part," Cabrera said in slightly fractured English while looking up from reading Granma, the Communist Party newspaper. Osio said he thinks the pope will do something to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, which have been hostile since the revolution. The United States has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba for 50 years, which the Cuban government and many Cubans blame for their country's chronic economic woes. "It looks to me like the pope is going to help tighten or redefine relations between the United States and Cuba. Remember that I said that," he said, wagging his finger.
(Editing by David Adams and Kieran Murray)