In a strategic reconciliation between two longtime antagonists, Pope John Paul II Tuesday met with Fidel Castro and accepted the Cuban leader’s invitation to visit Cuba next year.
The Vatican hopes the 1997 trip will revive the church in Cuba after almost four decades of Communist rule. In negotiations leading up to the meeting between the anti-Communist pope and the Marxist revolutionary icon, the church said it would not accept a Cuban visit without guarantees the Roman Catholic leader could travel freely in the country and meet with anyone he chose.
After Castro took power in 1959, at least 350 Catholic schools were nationalized and more than 100 foreign priests expelled. Freedom of worship and religious instruction is limited to church premises. But Cuba’s increasing isolation in the world has made Castro more amenable to making peace with the church.
Set adrift by the fall of the Communist regimes that once supported the island with economic and technical aid, Cuba’s leadership has presented the papal visit as an international public relations gesture aimed at breaking the U.S.-led economic embargo of the island. The church opposes the 34-year-old American blockade, contending it causes suffering among Cuba’s poor.
Western diplomats agree the papal visit could weaken the already shaky economic embargo, which is opposed by Canada and other normally staunch American allies. But many diplomats also see the Catholic Church as a powerful force that, if granted more freedom in Cuba, could help open Cuban society.