Clash Of Faiths

26 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary/Havana

Deep inside Havana’s Palacio De La Revolucion is the spare, book-lined office from which Cuba is ruled. It lies down a corridor lined with columns of rough native marble and ferns from the Sierra Maestra, recalling the famous mountain redoubt where the revolution was born almost 40 years ago. Few are allowed to penetrate to the heart of the last socialist bastion in the western hemisphere, one of a handful of communist regimes struggling to ride out the 20th century. Here is where Fidel Castro secretly pulls the strings guiding his country. And where he still pursues with unswerving dedication the same sacred mission he began decades ago: preservation of the revolution.

Let us imagine Fidel Castro there one day sometime in 1995. He is wrestling with complex, politically dangerous solutions to the crushing failure of his Marxist economy, but at last his nation is beginning to emerge, inch by painful inch, from the darkest years of the “special period,” when the world predicted that his country and his government would collapse, just as did that of the Soviet Union. He decides one salve to the trauma is to go ahead with an idea that has intrigued him for some time: a visit by Pope John Paul II.

The Pope too has his inner sanctum, a tiny private chapel off his sparsely decorated bedroom, which is adorned with a large bronze crucifix and a small icon of the “Black Madonna” of Czestochowa, symbol of Polish nationalism. Each morning and evening he privately speaks to God there, communing with his one true superior to shape the mission he too has pursued with relentless single-mindedness for 20 years: Go forth and spread the word.

His is a highly public reign, not limited to words and gestures. Whether preaching from the throne of St. Peter or from some makeshift altar in one of the 116 countries he has visited, John Paul II can have a powerful, concrete impact not only on the conduct of millions of Catholics but also on the unfolding of world events. In his moral vigor, he too is a revolutionary force.

Millions around the globe will be watching with fascination as these two giants of the 20th century collide this week on the little island of Cuba. The world according to Marx will touch hands with the word of God. A 100-year-old ideology that proposed a collective paradise of social justice and economic equality on earth will confront a 2,000-year-old belief in the eternal power of devotion to the divine and reverence for human dignity.

The Pope’s goal is nothing less than the global establishment of a completely Christian alternative to the once alluring Marxist philosophies of this age. Yet even after communism imploded in virtually every other corner of the planet, Fidel Castro remains faithful, a true believer in a god that failed. “History will absolve me,” he proclaimed at the start of his revolution, and he believes it will absolve him still. John Paul II is equally certain that his religion will one day soon sweep away even this last vestige of godless communism.

The men themselves are fitting adversaries. Both are absolute rulers of their realms. Both are traditionalists and conservatives within their faiths, standing firm against revisionist thinking from within. Each is charismatic and charming, larger than life, with power rooted in his persona. Each plays a dominant role on the world stage, imposing his system of belief upon millions through brilliant intellect and sheer force of will. They are both skilled politicians, adept at tailoring their messages to the moment, yet each always has his eye on the ultimate judgment of history. Each dresses in the uniform of his vocation, the Pope resplendent in the robes of peace, Castro clad in the olive-drab fatigues of class warfare. Even their backgrounds are curiously alike: Catholic schooling, top students, athletes.

Both are also in that sad twilight of their life, when the body begins to betray even an indomitable spirit. When Castro addressed an election-eve rally on Jan. 9, all his 71 years were recorded on his face: a beard grown gray, deep bags pouching out below red-rimmed eyes, age spots dotting his forehead. His hands, always a forceful punctuation to his orations, jerked spasmodically. Rumors abound of strokes, Alzheimer’s and other infirmities.

The 77-year-old Pope looks even worse. Last week he nearly fainted as he walked into a solemn Mass. He was always a physical leader who knew how to speak with his body. Now the long, bounding stride of his early pontificate has been reduced to a slow and agonized shuffle in which he barely lifts his feet from the ground. He takes care to hide the shaking left hand that signals the onset of Parkinson’s disease, but he cannot disguise the frozen features and slurred words that at times betray the illness. Rumors of cancer and of the Pope’s imminent demise swirl about him too.

Yet each seems ready, even eager, for the epochal encounter we are to witness this week. Their clash of faiths is mostly symbolic; Pope and President will meet only briefly during John Paul II’s emphatically “pastoral” visit to his Cuban flock. The Pope will be center stage, watched by millions on global television, while Fidel will be largely out of sight, watching it all intently from behind the closed door of his Havana office. Who will emerge triumphant?


You have to wonder how much Fidel Castro admits to himself that much of his dream has turned to ashes. Even this idealist–and he is that–has been forced to stop practicing what he still preaches. He has to be concerned that the political and economic systems he holds dear have exhausted themselves everywhere else. Yet his heart is not in economic reform or in political liberalization, and he has grudgingly done only the minimum required to survive.

Even in Cuba, the ideology of communism is virtually dead. The ego-destroying experience of the special period has robbed the country of its material well-being and shattered national confidence. If daily life for most of Cuba’s 11 million citizens is less miserable than it was during the darkest days of 1993, it is still a grinding round of poverty, hunger and dead-end jobs. Even the cradle-to-grave health, education and welfare systems, once proudly held up as the “achievements of the revolution,” are badly compromised. Prostitution, that humiliating hallmark of the Batista years, is back in force; dollar legalization has undermined social equality; the centralized economy has yet to deliver basic necessities to most citizens. Unemployment, not known for decades, looms for hundreds of thousands of redundant workers. Dissidents languish in jail.

Still, those who predicted four years ago that Castro’s regime was doomed have been proved wrong. The economy has emerged from the abyss. At the depths of the special period, the country had almost no petroleum, electricity, food, transport or production. Today Havana blooms with chicly renovated hotels, neon signs, crowded restaurants and nightclubs. The U.S. dollar has swallowed the Cuban peso. Farmer’s markets and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs fuel a production boom of sorts. Cars outnumber bicycles again in Havana, and many of them are 1990s Nissans, not 1950s Chevys. Foreign investors not only share ownership of new projects but also own some outright and ship much of their profits home. Modern telecommunications have replaced worn-out phones, and shops and markets offer plenty of goods to those who can afford to pay.

If Castro is an introspective man, he keeps his reflections on all this private. Even those who know him well shake their head and say, “Ask Fidel,” when questioned about his mood these days. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of People’s Power and an intimate of the Comandante’s, insists that he is “very happy,” but that seemed to refer mainly to his “victory” in the Jan. 11 National Assembly elections, where only one candidate designated by the party could run for each seat.

A friend who has known Castro since their university days, film-institute president Alfredo Guevara, describes Fidel as obsessed. His friend was always a volcano “that sometimes does harm but sometimes fertilizes the soil.” For 40 years he has obsessed–Guevara keeps using the word–over the “consummation of the revolution that we know has not been fully achieved.” Yet Fidel is intensely proud that he has again defied world predictions of his imminent demise, as satisfying a triumph to him as any that went before.

Fidel, it seems, thinks about little else than the revolution. When he gets together with old friends, they reminisce on the glorious past of the revolution. Every day he personally takes charge of large matters, like the relationship with the church, and small, like details of a financial transaction with a foreign investor. No matter what subject comes up for private discussion, Fidel soon turns it to preservation of the revolution. Aware than many in the country no longer believe in the orthodoxies of Marxism, he has cleverly redefined the revolution into a code for Cuban sovereignty, national identity and social justice that all Cubans can still share.”His passion is so intense for the destiny of the country,” says Guevara, “that you cannot ever get away from it.”

Castro has always said, “Revolutionaries never retire,” but he has been planning for the inevitable “biological transition” that will bring a new leader to that book-lined office. His brother Raul remains the designated successor. But starting perhaps half a decade ago, he began systematically replacing old revolutionary comrades in the government with young, educated technocrats. Today many party leaders, National Assembly members and Fidel’s own top advisers are under 40, a form of insurance that dedicated followers of his ideals are prepared to carry on his revolutionary mission.

Now that Cuban survival is no longer at risk, frustration is rising as people seek something more: the end of rationing, decent apartments they do not have to share, jobs that pay adequate salaries. Discontent has not driven Cubans into the streets though: they are too timid or too fearful of an unknown alternative for that. They still do not harbor the loathing for their leaders that finally drove East Europeans into open revolt. “Cubans are always waiting, for someone from the state, from outside, from God, to change their circumstances,” says Rolando Suarez, director of the Catholic charity Caritas. “People are not willing to act in their own behalf.”

But many have lately been seeking to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the hollow, lifeless phrases of Marx. The sip of individual initiative permitted in recent years is nurturing a taste for more personal freedoms, not so much for U.S.-style democracy or the overthrow of the regime as for a vague longing to choose things for oneself, profit from one’s own effort, speak one’s own mind. “Before, it was either the party or this.” Gliceria Cabrera, 57, is firm: “From now on we can say that God is God.”

A modest religious revival is under way in Castro’s Cuba. Catholic Church attendance, baptisms, confirmations, religious weddings and funerals are all on the rise. In this traditionally Catholic nation, almost equal numbers attend Catholic Mass or evangelical services, and the religion with the most adherents of all–perhaps half the population–is the Afro-Cuban rite of Santeria. Its babalaos (spiritual guides) far exceed the Catholic priests in influence, but its home-based, loose network of competing sects poses no political threat. Economic hardship is a powerful motivator: many of those new congregants of all faiths are searching for material sustenance in the food and medical aid of the church charities, including Caritas, that are now allowed to funnel foreign contributions into Cuba. The church appeals more as a spiritual sanctuary than as a locus for political rebellion. But in a slow, steady way, people are absorbing Christian ideas about individual worth and human rights.

Fidel Castro has always been a redoubtable tactician, adept at sensing the public temper and clever at catching up with the times. He is also ready to “correct the errors we made in correcting our errors,” as he once put it, when it suits his purposes. National unity is a precious component of his authority, and so he will tack when necessary to preserve it. “Fidel wants to authorize what people are already doing spontaneously,” says Raul Rivero, a poet and independent journalist. It’s like the dollar. When the black market in American currency grew too strong, Castro co-opted it by making greenbacks legal tender. “If Cuba is turning back to religion,” he says, “Fidel will in effect sanctify it.”

The idea of a papal visit has actually intrigued Cuba’s leader for nearly two decades. It is not so strange as it might seem: from the very start of his revolution, Castro has sought political pilgrimages from the influential and famous as a sign of international approbation. And Castro has never feared talking to his adversaries. Although he barred Christians from the Communist Party, nationalized Catholic schools, expelled foreign priests and nuns, he never shut down the churches or prohibited religious worship or broke relations with the Vatican.

In 1979 Castro met some liberation-theology priests in Nicaragua and, says Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, “decided that social justice, greater equality and caring for the poor were not very different goals from those of the Cuban revolution.” So he invited the Pontiff to stop by during a Mexican tour that year, but the “technical layover” Castro offered held no appeal to John Paul II.

By 1985 it seemed to Castro that signs of nonconformity and a search for new ideas were infecting the populace. Little by little, people were going back to church. So he spent 23 hours talking to a Brazilian Dominican friar, Frei Betto. The subsequent book, Fidel and Religion, became a national best seller. Here was the apostle of Marxism expounding on his Catholic upbringing and attitudes toward religion. He recalled his devout mother and his rigorous parochial education. He had been baptized and was taught biblical history and Catholic catechism. At his upper-class Jesuit high school he absorbed the determination and discipline of these militant teachers who prophesied in his yearbook that he would make a brilliant name for himself.

While he called Christ “a great revolutionary” whose teachings coincide with the aims of socialism, Castro insisted that “no one could instill religious faith in me through the mechanical, dogmatic methods that were employed. I never really held a religious belief.” Later on, he said, “I had other values: a political belief which I forged on my own, as a result of my experience, analysis and sentiments.” Nevertheless, the rebel wore a small cross on his guerrilla garb in the early days of the revolution. In the book, he astonished Cubans with the extent of his religious knowledge and the flattering comparisons he drew between Christianity and Marxism. “Karl Marx,” he said, “would have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount.” Christians, he added, had been excluded from Cuba’s government not for ideological reasons but for historical mistakes in supporting the prerevolution status quo. Suddenly the subject of religion was no longer taboo.

Castro hinted to Frei Betto that he was interested in meeting John Paul II, but not until the conditions were “guaranteed” for it to be a “fruitful meeting.” He did, however, modulate the government’s relations with the church from confrontation and hostility to the exploration of mutual interest. Neither Fidel nor the Pope suspected then how close to ruin the Soviet edifice was, and Cuba’s leader was more concerned with how to manage the influence of liberation theology: while he supported its radical preachings in the rest of Latin America, he saw those same ideas as a threat to his power at home, a church-led attempt to steal the banner of social justice away. Cuban Catholic leaders, representatives of a church that had catered mainly to the upper classes, not the masses, never embraced those doctrines. Cuba had already had a revolution, they said. What it needed now was reconciliation.

The church asked for more “space” in Cuban society, the chance to play a larger role within the traditional Catholic concerns of education, charity, public worship. The dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall crushed all that, eliminating any interest Castro had in rapprochement with the church. He needed every ounce of his strength and ingenuity to protect the revolution. The Catholic Church lost much in that period too. The young fled the island in record numbers, seeking salvation in the American Dream. Priests had no resources to provide the charitable aid people desperately needed; Cubans were too busy scrounging for necessities to attend religious services. But as they gradually sought spiritual sustenance amid the hardships imposed on them, and as Castro loosened his grip to let religious charities deliver what the government could not, all Cuba’s churches grew stronger.

In 1991 Castro rescinded the ban against Christians’ joining the Communist Party, and in 1992 he declared Cuba a secular, not an atheist, state. Sometime around 1995, Castro regained enough equilibrium to reopen serious talks with the Vatican. Some speculate that he was more relaxed, more confident he would not be overthrown. Some say he was convinced that what the Pope had done to galvanize Poland’s anticommunist crusade could not be replicated through the weak Cuban church. Some think he realized it was time to embrace the religious hunger in the nation and find ways to dampen discontent. But he was probably driven as much by practical concerns as Cuba begged for European investment to sustain its hard climb out of economic catastrophe. The more Castro wanted foreign money, the more he had to recast Cuba in an acceptably Western light. A visit from the Pope would help solve so many of these problems.


No mystery shrouds what this Pope is up to. His ambitions and his methods have been plain to see ever since his ascent to the throne of St. Peter. He is the quintessential missionary: this most traveled of Pontiffs believes absolutely in the personal laying on of hands, and if his message is often politically incendiary, it is invariably couched in the lofty language of Christian values.

Even if John Paul is physically slower these days, his pulpit is still the world. He spends hours every day writing by hand the stream of speeches, homilies, letters to bishops, even best-selling books, that get his message out. He continues a punishing daily round of public Masses, official audiences, meetings with visiting bishops, working breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When he is preparing a foreign trip, he uses his morning Mass to practice the appropriate language, though Spanish is one of the eight he speaks fluently.

“Sometimes at lunch with bishops, he will joke about his popular appeal,” says Paul Cardinal Poupard. “He will say, ‘That’s the charisma of Peter.'” Yet intimates also say he is insistent that his role as Pope not be confused with his own person. He doesn’t use the papal we but always says, “I think,” “I believe,” “I wonder.” He is a good listener who asks questions and puts people at ease, says a senior Vatican official. “After five minutes you forget you’re talking to the Pope. It is like friends talking over coffee.” Though he devotes much of his attention to weighty subjects, there are also lighter moments. “He likes to tell stories, anecdotes, jokes,” says this official. “He has a good sense of humor.”

In his dealings with Cuba, the Pope has always insisted on the same huge outdoor Masses, dramatic rallies, religious pilgrimages to national shrines and high state meetings he has turned to such advantage in country after country, right wing or left. There is a remarkable clarity about this Pope: he believes that preaching the Gospel means promoting human rights, that Christ cannot be excluded from man’s history anywhere in the world and that there is no future if the dignity of the individual is trampled upon. He remains as determined to rekindle Catholic faith and promote Christian values among the lingering remnants of communism as he was when Marxism was in its full flower.

So what the Pope says in Cuba won’t surprise anyone who has listened to him these past 20 years. “What’s going to be dramatic,” says Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who runs the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., “is that he says it in front of Castro.” Cuba, he adds, is a great challenge for the Pope. “It’s like spores waiting for a little water.” Can he make freedom sprout even here?

The Pope’s insistence on human rights, says Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has shaped a “new moral doctrine.” But unlike Fidel, John Paul II realizes that it makes no sense to try to impose that doctrine: people must be convinced that it is right to act according to certain values. “The Pope,” says Navarro-Valls, “is not interested in beating people into submission but in showing them and convincing them this makes sense.” John Paul II, says a papal aide, “won’t come as a conquistador.”

When he met for 35 minutes with Castro at the Vatican late in 1996, the Pope did not wag his finger or lecture the revolutionary Comandante. Instead, he listened. He let the eternally voluble Fidel talk. He treated him with the respect Castro craves. And he disarmed Fidel. Not only did the Cuban leader at long last issue the invitation for a pastoral trip, but also he gushed afterward about “the strong emotional impact” of their meeting, calling it a “miracle.” He sang praises to the Pope’s “greatness” and his “brilliant intellect.”

A Cuban official close to Castro says the President was immensely “impressed in personal terms” and that a “mutual sympathy” developed between these two formidable men. They discovered common bonds in their goals. “Notwithstanding their philosophical differences,” says this official, “they are two strong believers in the capacity of the human being to improve, to be a better man, to build a better society.” For the aging revolutionary, there is no greater sin than quitting. In John Paul II he saw a man who has stuck by his principles, no matter what the opposition. He liked the Pope’s resolute style.

The only uncertainty facing the serenely confident John Paul as he undertakes this historic mission is his health. He recovered slowly but well from an assassin’s bullet in 1981; he survived colon surgery in 1992 and an inflamed appendix in 1996. But the bathroom fall that broke his leg in 1994 took an enormous toll on his physical capacities. The first skiing Pope can no longer schuss down slopes; his beloved mountain hikes have been replaced by slow strolls around his Vatican terrace. His public appearances have been reduced, though his attitude is, Don’t stop until you drop.

The Pope doesn’t seem to care anymore what he looks like or how he walks and talks. “Se crollo, crollo [If I collapse, I collapse],” he barked at aides who recently suggested he skip a few of his normal appointments. He shrugs off suggestions of retirement with a joke: “Who would I give my letter of resignation to?” John Paul is determined to lead the church into the next millennium, says Richard John Neuhaus, an American priest and author recently in Rome. “He’s not hesitating to exhibit his physical frailties,” says Neuhaus, “which I think is intended both as a pastoral help to people with similar frailties and also as a sharing in the suffering of Christ.” If the Parkinson’s gets worse, he adds, “people could get used to a Pope in a wheelchair.”

Those close to him say the Pope retains all the mental drive of his early days. Vatican aides say he has not dropped any of the reins of church government. “I’ve watched him deal with extremely complicated decisions,” says a Vatican bishop, “and the way he works them through shows that he’s still very sharp and in full control.” Important decisions are “the Pope’s and his alone.”


Here in Havana, Cubans are of very mixed minds about the Pope’s visit. “So many people do not even know who the Pope is,” says Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana. Is he a President, a businessman? Is Fidel paying him to come? Even many Catholics are ignorant of the papal biography and doctrinal bent. In a country where abortion ends roughly 40% of all pregnancies and copulation begins in early adolescence, Cubans will be shocked by John Paul II’s stern views on sex. His reverence for the family will seem odd in a society where illegitimacy is common.

Nonetheless, the Cuban government knows these five days are fraught with risk. The Pope has been as hard on Marxist repression as on “savage capitalism,” and his critique of Castro’s human-rights record in full view of 3,000 foreign journalists could sting. Instead of spotlighting a “normal” country at its most open, benign moment, the way Castro hopes, the press might fill their dispatches with lurid stories of teenage prostitutes and an oppressed, despairing citizenry.

“The Cubans are pretty smart about how they’re playing this,” says a senior State Department official in Washington. “They are unlikely to have gone ahead with the visit unless they thought they could control it.” Castro is betting that he will reap significant rewards. His aides may bristle at the word, but legitimacy is something Fidel has always sought. Just appearing on the same stage with the Vicar of Christ lends a powerful measure of respectability to the Cuban Comandante. At the same time, the regime will seek to replenish the threadbare rhetoric of the revolution by emphasizing the moral link between Christian and socialist ideas. A papal critique of unbridled capitalism is anticipated by the socialist government. Officials hope the reception they accord the Pope will accelerate the rapprochement between religious and secular segments of society.

And although Cuba’s leaders adamantly deny that the visit is in any way political, Castro very much wants to hear the Pope condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. John Paul II has criticized American economic sanctions before, but Washington officials say the Vatican has assured them that the Pope will not castigate the U.S. directly. And they scoff at any notion that John Paul will move Castro to the kind of reforms that would prompt a reversal of U.S. policy. “Anyone who looks at this as a big opportunity for change in the relationship,” says another State Department analyst, “will end up being disappointed.”

It is here in Cuba itself that history will measure the Pope’s impact. Ana, a 28-year-old single mother scraping by on 148 pesos ($6) a month, is a devout student of the Bible, religious but not Catholic. She expects “no benefits for me or my family” from the Pope’s visit, though she is grateful that in his honor she was allowed to celebrate the “first true Christmas” of her life. She thinks she also owes a rare year-end ration of cooking oil to papal politics. Jannet Hernandez, a 13-year-old attending Mass on Sunday, is certain the Pope’s visit “will change many things,” though she cannot say what exactly. “What he leaves behind will be good,” agrees Troadia Correa, 77, “but we do not know what it will be.”

Religion professor Lopez expects the church to consolidate its position as an active participant in Cuban society and even expand its role. “Before, we were only inside our temples,” he says. “Now the church is able to go out into the streets again.” Caritas director Suarez thinks the impact will largely be personal. The Pope’s message, he says, is not to be “politically active but to be personally active.” A Cuban government official says the sign of improved relations with the church will offset human-rights criticism and favorably impress potential European investors. “Nothing will happen automatically because he was here, though there may be subtle consequences,” says Alarcon. “But having everyone watching him here in a normal way, the same as if it were Paris or Chicago, is enough.”

John Paul II will no doubt take pride in carrying off an effective mission into Castro’s communist stronghold. He is asking the government to admit more foreign priests, expand church social work, permit access to the mass media. But he has little to lose; the Pope is convinced the battle between communism and Christianity has already been won.

As long as everything goes well, with peace, friendliness and abrazos all around, Fidel can also claim a personal coup. He proves he can withstand the challenge of this singularly anticommunist Pope. He plays host to the democratic world’s greatest champion, his own head unbowed. “God has come to him,” says an intense critic. “It’s all about him and history.” Fidel, many say, sees himself not merely as the head of a tiny nation but also as a player on the world stage, of equal status to the greatest figures of the 20th century. “When other men like that come to him, he can feel his stature is acknowledged, his historical position secured.” The Pope, says spokesman Navarro-Valls, has never asked himself questions about his legacy. “He simply keeps carrying on his dialogue with modernity.”

Fidel Castro and John Paul II are but men, and both will soon pass from the scene. More important is the fate of the faiths they so passionately espouse. Christianity is about to be 2,000 years old. Cuba’s revolutionary government is barely 39. One day, perhaps even his last day, Castro will summon his 24-member Politburo and formally anoint the one who will rule Cuba next. John Paul II has no such power: his successor will be chosen in secret conclave by the 100 or so Princes of the Church. But it will matter far less who that particular individual is. The Catholic Church will survive the death of the 264th Pope, its institutions and its beliefs far stronger than any single man. Few believe the disfigured Cuban revolution can outlive Fidel Castro.

–With reporting by Tammerlin Drummond and Aixa M. Pascual/Havana, Greg Burke/Rome, Richard N. Ostling/New York and Douglas Waller/Washington

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