Tens of thousands of Cuban Catholics and communists gathered shoulder to shoulder for the first time in four decades Wednesday, packing the airport here and lining a 10-mile parade route to greet the first pope to visit this long-isolated land.
State construction workers crossed themselves. Aging Catholics wept. Communist Party youths saluted in an outpouring of emotion as Pope John Paul II navigated a human river of believers and nonbelievers assembled by Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church and the communist state for a five-day visit that embodies the hopes and expectations of many Cubans here and abroad.
“Amazing!” shouted Beatriz Teston, a 55-year-old Catholic, as the popemobile passed. “After this whole revolution, I have finally seen him. It is just indescribable.”
The papal journey through Havana’s streets came after the pope shook President Fidel Castro’s hand and kissed two baskets of soil from a land that was officially atheist until six years ago.
With much of Cuba and the world watching live, the pope declared: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba, so that this people … may look to the future with hope.”
That, in essence, is the anti-Communist Polish pontiff’s goal on one of the most challenging of his 81 foreign missions - one that brings him to an island ruled by a single party led by a single man for 39 years, all but four of them under a punishing U.S. trade embargo.
During his journey from Rome, the pope told reporters he would demand that Cuba join in respecting worldwide standards of human rights. As for the embargo, he said he would use his Cuban stage to urge President Clinton “to change, to change.”
“Perhaps both Cuba and the United States are looking for a better way,” he added.
But Castro, wearing a dark double-breasted suit in place of his trademark military fatigues, showed no sign of softening toward America, which he called “much more powerful than ancient Rome, which tried to erase from the Earth those who refused to renounce their faith.”
“Once again, there’s an attempt at genocide, conquering through hunger, illness and complete economic strangulation a people that refuses to submit itself to the dictates and the domination of the most powerful economic political and military force in history,” Castro said in a welcoming speech, as the pope sat in the hot sun on the airport tarmac.
A senior State Department official repeated the U.S. stand that the embargo will remain in place until there are “fundamental and systemic changes” in Cuba.
Wednesday’s airport reception for what is officially a state and pastoral visit grew out of unprecedented cooperation between Cuba’s stridently Communist regime and a newly empowered church after decades of silence under Castro’s revolution.
Luisa Sanchez, 57, a biochemist, embodied the mixture in the crowd. Describing herself as a Catholic and a Communist, she said: “I always thought of Fidel, with his beard, as Jesus Christ. But I just felt the same thing when the pope passed as I did when Fidel once kissed me.”
In his 14-minute arrival statement, the pope hailed with emotion “this happy and long-awaited day. … I come in the name of the Lord to confirm you in faith, to strengthen you in hope and to encourage you in love.”
He expressed admiration for Cuba’s long-suffering clergy and the faithful here. Noting their endurance, he said, “You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history.”
Speaking on the flight about his expectations, the pope said bluntly that he and Castro represent “two opposing ideals.” He said he came to preach his own truth, hear out Castro and let “divine providence” decide the island’s fate.
He was alternately categorical and cautious in his judgment of Cuba’s revolution, which Castro told his people last weekend remains “invincible.” At one point, when asked how he could reconcile the “revolution of Christ and the revolution of Castro,” the pope suggested the two were incompatible. “There are two meanings of the word ‘revolution.’ The revolution of Christ is love. Other revolutions bring hatred, revenge, victims.”
In other exchanges, however, he acknowledged that Castro’s rule had brought improvements in Cuban health care and public education; Castro later stressed this in his welcoming speech.
“But progress needs to be made in the sphere of human rights, human dignity,” the pope quickly added. “We live between two opposing ideals - Marxist, that is, Communist, and liberal individualist. It is necessary always to search for the just solution.”
Castro has insisted that he and the pope agree on much. He has characterized their private meeting here, scheduled for today, as being between “two angels in the service of the poor.”
The pope dismissed the analogy: “We’re not angels; we’re two men.”
“The world is not guided only by us,” he added. “It is guided by divine providence. The history of the world is not only the history of peoples and states; it’s the history of salvation.”
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.