On the streets of this crumbling colonial city Monday, Cubans talked about change, almost giddy from Pope John Paul II’s five-day visit and his recurring message of political reform.
But even those who believe their wish for a democratic Cuba is within reach managed their expectations, falling back on a saying that has long applied to Cuban yearnings: “With time and without hurry.”
“We understand patience,” said Jorge de la Cruz, a college student. “We’ve been patient for nearly 40 years.”
While the pope’s visit appears to have ushered in a new era in Cuban history, allowing the church a measure of freedom that eludes almost all of society, life for the most part will return to normal here. That means a defiant President Fidel Castro and a outdated communist state.
Cuba, Castro said Sunday night at a farewell ceremony for the pontiff, “listens with respect but believes in its ideas” and “firmly defends its principles.”
The Cuban newspaper Trabajadores on Monday paraphrased the Cuban commandante, saying with an air of vindication that the pope’s visit was a success despite “those who predicted apocalyptic events,” such as communism’s collapse.
To be sure, the church is now a player in Cuban society. John Paul II implored Cuba to initiate reforms that would allow free speech and association, in addition to pushing for the release of political prisoners, some 500 of whom are believed to be jailed in the country.
A spokesman for the archbishop’s office Monday predicted that Castro would meet the Vatican’s demand that he release some political prisoners. National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said the government would “consider” the request.
Still, the degree of change Cuba undertakes seems - at least for now - to be up to its aging leader. The upshot is economic as well as political. Castro’s post-Cold War communism, due to the end of subsidies from the Soviet Union and the longstanding U.S. economic embargo, has run the Cuban economy to ruin.
Castro is loosening his grip on the economy and the pope’s visit offered Cubans an opportunity to sample a little capitalism.
The 3,000 or so journalists covering the story were said to have pumped some $25 million into the economy, eating at so-called paladares, 12-seat restaurants in the homes of locals that have only recently been allowed to open and riding with unlicensed pirate cabbies hustling to make a buck.
But with the journalists departing in droves Monday, Cuba had to turn its sights to the European tourists who linger in the old part of the city. Few believe this industry will be enough to fend off what may well be the beginnings of a recession.
While Castro may be to blame for the despair, the pope’s visit helped lay the blame for Cuba’s economy with the embargo. A longtime critic of economic sanctions because of their impact on the poor, John Paul II called policies such as the one carried out by the United States on Cuba “deplorable.”