The faithful sang and prayed Tuesday in the streets of Havana, and Cubans of every persuasion - Catholic, communist and curious - awaited a papal visit that many said could be a turning point for their nation.
In a concession to the pope that had some churchgoers in tears, a bishop expelled from Cuba at the lowest point of church-state relations was allowed to return and celebrate Mass on Tuesday in his old parish.
On the eve of John Paul II’s first visit ever to Cuba, the communist government was still working to patch and tidy up sections of the crumbling capital, which has been ravaged by a collapsed economy.
Crews poured and steamrolled fresh asphalt over the cracked and potholed roads, traveled by rusted and creaking old cars and trucks. Workers sprayed yellow paint on one school’s faded facade.
While most Cubans agree the pope’s five-day visit will leave their country changed, expectations on what will change depends on their political and religious perspective.
Foes of Fidel Castro hope it will weaken his communist regime, which took power in 1959. Castro hopes to gain stature for his revolution and support for an end to the more than three-decade-old U.S. economic embargo. And the Cuban church hopes to expand its influence.
Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal, expelled in 1961 and returning for only the second time since then, made a triumphant return to the Virgin of Charity Church in Havana to lead a Mass.
Amid scattered shouts of “miracle,” Boza entered the packed church in a procession of more than 20 priests and altar boys.
The slight, stoop-shouldered Boza, whose face bears a resemblance to the pontiff, smiled and waved his arms as parishioners applauded enthusiastically. Many churchgoers wept openly, and some left their places to approach him, bend over and kiss his ring.
“It’s a miracle,” said 62-year-old Cupertina Gutierrez, wiping away tears. “We didn’t hope to have this. We didn’t expect this.”
Boza, who lives in exile in Venezuela, was allowed back into Cuba for a visit in 1988, when he also celebrated Mass.
Boza’s falling-out with the Castro dates to September 1961, when the anti-communist prelate held a massive celebration attended by 4,000 people on the feast day of Cuba’s patron saint.
Following the celebration, participants began a procession to the presidential palace, some shouting slogans against the revolutionary government. A melee ensued, and a passing teen-ager was killed.
Later that month, the government expelled Boza and 129 other priests, and outlawed religious processions.
A nationwide prayer vigil was planned in churches throughout the country Tuesday evening. Outside downtown Havana’s Our Lady of Carmine Church, boys and girls joyously swung each other around as young and old worshippers sang and prayed as excitement continued to build for the pope, who is scheduled to arrived a 4 p.m. EST today.
At Medalla Milagrosa Church, in the Havana neighborhood of Santos Suarez, 10-year-old Claudia, dressed in a pink Snoopy sweatshirt, dreamed of shaking hands with the pontiff as she and others finished work on the last of 80,000 simple Cuban and papal flags made at the church.
“The pope is like God, a beautiful picture,” imagines Claudia.
While Castro sought to burnish his government’s image and the pope hoped for a spiritual awakening in Cuba, it was unclear which of the two men has tougher task of evangelization.
“Missions are more difficult here than in Africa or India. We have to start from scratch. We have to explain everything,” said the Rev. Jesus Luzaretta, a Spanish priest who spends two months a year at Medalla Milagrosa Church. “You can’t easily wipe out 40 years of restrictions.”
In Washington on Tuesday, President Clinton was asked what the United States was gaining by pressing the embargo against Cuba.
“We want Cuba to move toward freedom and openness, and if they do, we’ll respond,” he said. “That’s always been our position, and I believe that in the end it will prevail.”