The altar prepared for the Pope’s Sunday Mass in Plaza de la Revolución, is simple. Francis will be celebrating beneath a giant image of his fellow Argentinian, Che Guevarra. A white canopy and a dark wooden chair upholstered in red velvet have been positioned on a yellow platform. A simple cross rises up from behind the canopy. All around symbols of the revolution, Hasta la Victoria Siempre, the statue depicting José Martí, blend with the sober posters welcoming the Pope to Cuba. One banner, which hangs above the National Theatre, depicts the Holy Father washing the feet of the neglected and welcomes him as a Misionero de la Misericordia, a missionary of mercy. Here, the Castro regime hopes to receive two gifts: backing to convince the United States to lift the embargo in light of the thaw in relations and a political message that manages to at least salvage the goals of the revolution if not its results.
“Like our father”
Alejandro came here with his guitar beneath claps of tropical thunder, to practice the musical pieces for the Mass along with other young members of the choir; “The diocesan organizers were adamant that they wanted only Cuban music. And we are happy to play it,” said the 30-year-old, donning glasses and an ever so slightly unkempt beard, his smiling wife at his side. He could easily be mistaken for an entertainer in some European parish.
“We are lucky enough to have seen two Popes already in our lifetime – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – but I must admit, this time it is different,” he said. “We feel Francis much closer to us. Maybe it’s because he’s Latin, he speaks Spanish and he comes from our culture, but it’s like meeting our father. And then there’s everything he’s done.”
“The revival of relations with the US. I don’t know if people on the outside can see this, but for us it means that there is a hope our lives may really change now. And we know that it would not have happened without him.”
“People are going to come in droves”
Alejandro predicts that “people are going to come in droves,” particularly young people.
“Many more than the authorities expect to come,” he anticipates.
Speaking of the authorities, they want the visit to be a success but not too much of a success. They estimate that around 150,000 to 200,000 people will turn up for the Pope’s Mass on Sunday. These figures are low according to sources close to the Vatican but many faithful may opt to stay at home for the following reason: To get a ticket you have to give your name, surname and address: “In other words,” says one female source from within the organizing team, “attendees are going to be registered. Catholics will therefore have to decide whether they wish to profess their faith in public, putting it down in black and white and risking surveillance and potential discrimination, or to guard the privacy of their home, as they have been doing for over half a century.”
The perennial dilemma is this: Does one follow in the footsteps of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has never defied the regime, believing that it is more important to keep churches and seminaries open, or stand up to it?
Close to the poor
Speaking on the telephone from Miami, Ofelia Acevedo, the widow of Catholic dissident Oswaldo Payá, pointed towards a possible path: “The Pope is a religious leader and his motivation for coming to Cuba is spiritual. But his pastoral care mission is very much focused on the poor and he will sadly see many poor people on the island. It is the result of over half a century of dictatorship.”
Ofelia is not asking Francis for any grand gestures: “No, nothing. The Pope is a very wise man. He is well aware if the situation and will say all the right things. Change in Cuba cannot come from the outside: it has to come from the Cubans. But it is important for them to feel the closeness of a pastor like Francis because then they will know they are not alone and it will give them the courage to live their faith without fear.”
Paya, who founded the Christian Liberation Movement to oppose the one-party Communist rule in Cuba, died in a mysterious automobile accident in July 2012. The government claims the accident was the driver’s fault, while a surviving passenger in the car insists the car was deliberately run off the road.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Havana in August, Acevedo asked him to request the results of her husband’s autopsy. It had never been released in order not to arouse suspicion. But she does not intend to present any such request to Pope Francis: “He already knows all there is to know. There’s no use.”
The speech Francis gave in Bolivia
Diplomatic sources say the regime was astonished by the speech Francis addressed to popular movements in Bolivia, and they are hoping he will send a similar message in Cuba, possibly without absolving the revolution but recognizing that there were no ill intentions behind it and that it is not to be written off completely. They are also expecting the Pope during his US-Cuba trip to put pressure on US lawmakers to lift the decades-long embargo. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, on a recent visit to the island, explained: not everything all together, but bit by bit, with bylaws for every provision.
But Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez warns: “The Pope will have to perform some very delicate diplomatic acrobatics in order to achieve the things he wants for the Church and the people, avoiding the risk of being used by the regime.” The Damas de Blanco—the Ladies in White—relatives of political prisoners who meet every Sunday in the Church of Santa Rita in Miramar, go further, asking for concessions in exchange for dialogue. For example, the regime has freed 3,522 common prisoners to celebrate the Pope’s visit , but just last Sunday, it had 40 or so people arrested during a Damas procession.
Francis is aware of this. He may well visit Fidel but without forgetting history; and above all, without losing sight of the future.
This article appeared originally at LaStampa’s Vatican Insider and was used with permission.