Reporting from Mexico City— Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II made his landmark visit to Cuba, his successor, Benedict XVI, arrives Monday in a changed country where the Roman Catholic Church occupies its most influential role since the communist revolution half a century ago.
The once-marginalized church's new position owes to the careful diplomacy of charismatic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the most senior Cuban prelate; the political ascension of Raul Castro, more pragmatic and accommodating than his brother Fidel, the longtime ruler; and the declining fortunes of the revolution itself.
"Benedict XVI arrives in a country that is in a process of transformation," said Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the archdiocese of Havana. "The relationship between the church and the Cuban government is qualitatively superior to that of 14 years ago," when John Paul II visited the country.
With the economy in tatters and the gains of the revolution flagging, Raul Castro has embarked on a series of reforms aimed at "modernizing" Cuba's socialism. Reforms include allowing small businesses to operate and citizens to buy and sell homes and cars, along with paring down the bloated and inefficient state bureaucracy.
"Raul needs support from the general population, and reaching out to the Catholic Church is part of that," said Margaret E. Crahan, a church expert and scholar at Columbia University's Institute of Latin American Studies. "The relationship between Ortega and Raul is deepening, to their mutual advantage."
After traveling to Leon, Mexico, for the first leg of his third trip to the Americas, Benedict on Monday arrives in Santiago, Cuba, before heading to Havana. In both officially secular countries, the Catholic Church has been gaining ground: in Mexico with the help of a pro-Catholic conservative government, in Cuba despite the presence of an atheist communist one.
Cuba's once-hostile official view of the church and religion in general has evolved. In the first decades after the 1959 revolution, priests were sent off to labor camps, church property was confiscated and people who professed religious beliefs were barred from many jobs.
Inspired in part by leftist liberation theology movements spreading through Latin America, the Castros eased up in the 1990s and tendered limited overtures to various faiths, declaring Cuba a lay state instead of an atheist one.
John Paul's 1998 visit further opened maneuvering room for the Catholic hierarchy on the island. It was a controversial visit; many in the ruling Communist Party objected to his presence, and the broadcasting of John Paul's homilies and open-air Masses was successfully negotiated only at the last minute.
None of that kind of opposition is apparent this time around. In the last few years, tension has eased considerably as Raul, who took over from an ailing Fidel in 2008, seeks greater legitimacy and the church under Ortega seeks greater freedom.
Although he has faced criticism from some exiles that he is too accommodating, Ortega, 75, has managed to tread a fine line of pushing for social, economic and church-affair changes without antagonizing the regime. Under Ortega, who was elevated to cardinal in 1994, the church has made unprecedented inroads in Cuban society.
Once virtually silent, Catholic media have emerged robustly in print and on the Internet and are often critical of government policies, such as travel restrictions; even state television has transmitted holiday Masses and recent processions honoring Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba.
The government allowed the Catholic Church to open educational and training centers for adults (still not for children, however) and to build a large seminary, the first since the revolution.
Ortega and other senior clerics have made important speeches advocating lifting restrictions on Cubans' travel outside the country and have conducted seminars on ways to transform the economy.
This month, state-run television broadcast nationwide a speech by Ortega welcoming Benedict. The pope wishes "to revive a somewhat dormant faith, a faith perhaps somewhat faded, but one that is present in the hearts of the Cuban people," Ortega said. "He comes to confirm our faith and reaffirm those Christian values."
Ortega's greatest breakthrough came in 2010, when he negotiated the release of more than 100 political prisoners, many of them arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissidents. In December, Raul Castro freed 2,900 prisoners, citing the upcoming papal visit.
As a young priest, Ortega served time in a labor camp and was released in 1967. He vowed never to leave Cuba, as so many others did after the Castros' rise to power. Yet he is often attacked today by that exile community and other dissidents, who accuse him of acting too timidly and of essentially selling his soul to the regime by agreeing to negotiate with it.
Several hundred Cuban Catholics, including prominent activist Guillermo Fariñas, survivor of a protest hunger strike, wrote a letter to the pope this month urging him to reconsider the trip. They warned that his presence might "send a message to the oppressors" that they can pursue their policies, with church approval.
Other critics in the Cuban exile community have been even more strident, saying Ortega is guilty of "compromising with dictators." Ortega came under more criticism in the run-up to the pope's arrival when he chose to use police to evict a group of dissidents who had occupied a Havana church. Numerous dissidents have been briefly arrested and otherwise harassed ahead of the pope's visit, human rights groups say.
Ortega has agonized over the path he has chosen to take, say those who know him.
"Ortega is a great spiritual leader who has shepherded the Cuban church during very difficult circumstances," said Mario Paredes, the American Bible Society's liaison to Roman Catholic ministries, who has worked with Ortega for many years.
"He has chosen to dialogue with certitude … and firmness," Paredes said. "He favors a more open society. He is very clear. He is not naive."
New opportunities for the church come at a time Cubans are losing faith in the revolution and are seeking alternative places to turn for services, nurturing and hope.
This is not to say that Cubans are fervently Catholic. In fact, the majority adhere to other faiths, including Santeria and similar practices based on indigenous and African traditions. Although recent surveys show that the vast majority of Cubans believe in "the divine," there is little institutional loyalty to established churches. Less than 5% of the population attends Catholic churches, possibly the lowest figure in Latin America.
But the Catholic Church enjoys a favored position in the eyes of the Castros, experts say, in part because it is a vertical, hierarchical organization with national reach and enormous clout in worldwide politics.
"The Castros are not spring chickens. After 50 years of revolution, they realize they have made many mistakes and they are correcting them," Paredes said.
"Raul is very pragmatic, and the Communist Party has finally realized the Catholic Church is not there to overthrow the regime. It has a very different mission, neither to overthrow, nor confirm [the regime], nor speak for the opposition, but rather a mission of faith, spirituality and values."
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