For the first time in almost four decades of Communist rule, the Cuban government Tuesday let the leader of Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church address the nation live on state-run radio and television.
The free, late-night air time for Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, was the latest dramatic concession Cuban leader Fidel Castro has granted the church in advance of Pope John Paul’s five-day visit here next week.
A top Cuban official called it a “positive” example of new cooperation between church and state in a nation where all religions were discouraged for decades.
But Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, stressed that his government is “not at all concerned” the anti-Communist pope’s visit here will inspire dissent, opposition or any of the political changes that followed papal trips through Communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
“We are not stupid. We are not crazy,” Alarcon told reporters before Ortega’s latenight address Tuesday. “We are receiving a friend who happens to be the head of a state that has had good relations with Cuba always.”
Alarcon conceded the papal visit will have “political and social meaning,” but he asserted that it will be confined to developing “cordial and friendly ties” between the Cuban government and the Vatican and between the Cuban church and society.
As proof, Alarcon cited national elections held here last Sunday that he called “a massive confirmation of our political system by the people.” Official tallies announced Monday night showed that more than 98 percent of Cuba’s registered voters turned out to elect all 601 candidates for a new National Assembly in polling that took place without violence, fraud or a single opposition candidate.
Diplomats and other analysts here said the vote appeared to be timed in advance of the pope’s visit to demonstrate strong popular support for the 71-year-old Castro - who was among those re-elected - and the Communist rule he introduced after overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.