Two years before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, then-Defense Minister Raúl Castro cracked down on a half-dozen young academics who had dared propose market reforms for the island’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 Raúl 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 “a living memory of the Soviet model of society,” yet the island’s Catholic Church had managed to endure and “give witness and provide hope against hope,” 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 “a more defined place in society,” there’s a church-state dialogue and Cuba “is living a process of transformations and reforms,” Marquez told El Nuevo Herald. “That’s the Cuba that Benedict wants to meet when he comes.”
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 government’s eroding social security net.
Yet critics say that the improved church-state relations came at the price of silence on government human rights abuses. All but 12 of the jailed dissidents were taken directly from prison to airplanes that flew them to exile in Spain, they noted.
“The church is now the only independent actor recognized by the government as an ally. Today, there is a quasi-concordat [an official agreement] that was not there before,” said Haroldo Dilla, one of the Center for the Study of the Americas academics attacked by Raúl Castro in 1996.
When the Polish-born John Paul visited Cuba Jan. 21-25 of 1998, he was a fierce opponent of communism and a healthy Fidel Castro had just addressed a Cuban Communist Party congress from a stage under large portraits of Marx and Lenin.
John Paul died in 2005 and Fidel Castro, now 85 years old, surrendered power the following year after emergency surgery. And when brother and successor Raúl Castro addressed another party congress last year, there were no portraits at all on the stage.
One constant from one papal visit to another has been the crisis in the Cuban economy, which shrank by about 35 percent in three years after Moscow halted its subsidies to the island, estimated at up to $6 billion a year, in 1992.
Yet the ways in which the more ideological Fidel and the more pragmatic Raúl dealt with the economic problems were vastly different.
Fidel grudgingly embraced some basic free-market reforms, like allowing “self-employment” such as family-owned restaurants, party clowns and manicurists. But as soon as the economy stabilized in 1995, he began retrenching.
By most accounts, Fidel ordered Raúl to crack down on the Center for the Study of the Americas’ too-eager reformers in 1996. Communist Party ideologue Raúl Valdés Vivo branded Cubans who favored capitalism as “piranhas” the following year.
But today Raúl is pushing a string of far more ambitious economic reforms, including leasing millions of acres of fallow state lands to private farmers, allowing more and larger private businesses and offering government loans to support them.
“That is not because he wants to open up, but because he has no other option” after decades in which the hallmarks of the Cuban economy were inefficiency, lack of productivity and corruption, Dilla told El Nuevo Herald.
One clear change between the two papal visits is the way that Cuban exiles in South Florida view the trips.
In late 1997, the archdiocese of Miami was forced to cancel a cruise ship charter that would have taken thousands of pilgrims to Cuba to witness John Paul’s visit, because of stiff and highly vocal opposition from Catholic exiles.
Today, the archdiocese is plowing ahead with arrangements for air charters to take pilgrims to Cuba for Benedict’s visit, and exile opposition to the charters has not been as strong or as loud.
And while 11 bombings shook Cuban tourist spots in 1997, blamed on exile Luis Posada Carriles, today the idea of armed struggle against the communist government has been dropped by all but a handful of the most recalcitrant exiles.
Cuba’s peaceful domestic opposition also has changed and grown significantly over the past 14 years, while the government has shifted the ways and means it uses to repress dissent.
In the late 1990s, most of Cuba’s top dissidents were older intellectuals who had initially backed Fidel Castro. The late Gustavo Arcos participated in Castro’s 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks before he became a dissident. Elizardo Sánchez taught Marxism before he became a human-rights activist.
Fidel Castro had little tolerance for dissidents and put many of them in prison. Arcos served seven years in prison and Sánchez served eight. And a crackdown in 2003 sentenced 75 dissidents to up to 28 years in prison. All were freed by last spring.
Dissidents today tend to be younger, more working-class and more aggressive. They stage street protests and ask tough questions at pro-government events. One even filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the Justice Ministry, making some headway before losing.
The Ladies in White now have tacit government approval for their protest marches after Sunday Mass at a Havana church — unthinkable under Fidel — although police and pro-government mobs have crushed their efforts to do the same in eastern Santiago de Cuba.
Scores of Cuban dissidents and othersd now have cell phones and blogs, like Yoani Sánchez’s Generacion Y, that they use regularly to rail against the communist system and disseminate their complaints in Cuba and abroad.
“In 1998, the ideological and political controls were much harder than now,” said Dilla. “Today it is evident that the system is more tolerant, but it can turn tough and even brutal when needed.”
Security officials in recent years have largely stopped subjecting dissidents to trials and lengthy sentences, and instead mostly detained opposition activists for a few hours or days in order to intimidate and harass them or block planned activities.
Such “express detentions” totaled 85 in one four-month period in 1997, according to one news headline. In 2011, according to Elizardo Sanchez’s Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, they totaled more than 4,000.