HAVANA (AP) EDITOR’S NOTE: On Jan. 21, 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first Catholic pontiff to visit Cuba, and more than 20 AP writers, editors, photographers and TV staffers arrived to cover the historic visit.
Victor L. Simpson, then the AP’s Vatican correspondent, traveled with John Paul on the trip, which culminated on Jan. 25 with a Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
Seventeen years later, as Pope Francis prepares to visit the island, the AP is again making this report about John Paul’s arrival available, along with photos.
Welcomed by President Fidel Castro and multitudes of Cuba’s hard-pressed but hopeful people, Pope John Paul II began a historic pilgrimage Wednesday to this island of embattled faith and struggling revolution.
The pope told the crowd at Havana’s airport he was praying that Cuba would become a land of “freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace.”
Castro made clear he saw no reason to change the course of Cuba’s revolution, telling John Paul that “we choose a thousand deaths rather than abdicate our convictions.”
Just minutes after landing on what he called a “happy and long-awaited day,” the pontiff spoke out on the U.S.-Cuban standoff that has isolated this Caribbean nation.
“May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,” he declared in an arrival statement.
And he firmly endorsed what he called the “legitimate desires” of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba its quest for more privileges under Castro’s communist government.
For his part, Castro denounced the U.S. embargo as “genocide,” and sought to identify his revolution’s ideals with the church’s.
“Another country will not be found better disposed to understand your felicitous idea … that the equitable distribution of wealth and solidarity among men and peoples should be globalized,” Castro, one of the world’s last communist leaders, said in his welcoming address.
The pontiff’s visit, long delayed, much anticipated, may help set a new course for the Cuban church, if not for Cuba itself. At the least, John Paul wants the church to be strong enough to play a role in any transition after Castro, while the Cuban president welcomes the pope’s recognition and any help he may give to persuade Washington to loosen the embargo.
But whatever else, it immediately put this land of 11 million people on an emotional high.
When the pope stepped off his plane just after 4 p.m., to kiss a tray of Cuban earth held up by four children, the airport crowd launched into a bouncy chant, “Juan Pablo Segundo! Te quiere todo el mundo!” “John Paul the Second! Everybody loves you!”
The gray-bearded, 71-year-old Cuban leader aided the bent and ailing pontiff as he took positions for the speechmaking and reception line.
Castro may not be so solicitous when the two hold their substantive session Thursday.
En route to Havana, on his most politically charged trip since Poland in 1979, the pope told reporters aboard the papal plane he wants to hear from Castro “the full truth of his country, about relations between church and state.”
The Cuban government took extraordinary steps to make the pope’s welcome a memorable one.
Havana workers were given the afternoon off, on a sunny 80-degree day. Tens of thousands of Cubans, organized by neighborhood and workplace, lined the 12-mile route from the airport. Some sang hymns and waved tiny yellow and white Vatican flags and the red, white and blue Cuban banner. The Cuban president himself, a diehard Marxist-Leninist, urged people to turn out for the island’s first papal visit ever.
“Sure, I’ll be down at 16th and Paseo to see him,” postman Jorge Luis Jimenez, 30, said before his morning rounds. “Everybody will be out, even the ones who aren’t really believers.”
Communist party workers joined church volunteers in tacking the pope’s portrait to palm trees, telephone poles and even the backs of bicycle cabs across town. One was even spotted on the national Capitol, where Castro’s revolutionaries once declared Cuba an atheist nation.
In an instant, Havana had become a city of startling contrasts starkest of all the scene at the hallowed Plaza of the Revolution, where the papal procession route passed towering rival images of Christ and of revolutionary hero Che Guevara.
“Jesus Christ, in you I trust,” declares the one, “Until victory, forever!” the other.
The route also wound past signs of the economic decay omnipresent in Havana after years of revolutionary government and U.S. antagonism peeling pastel facades, crumbling roadways, fleets of bicycles and decrepit sedans from the 1950s.
To many Cubans, who blame the U.S. trade embargo for shortages, the pope’s visit offers a glimmer of hope.
“I hope he makes an appeal for us against the U.S. embargo,” said Jimenez’s postal partner, Jorge Puig Lopez. “That’s the No. 1 thing.”
As if in answer to Puig’s prayer, John Paul took on the embargo in a brief meeting with reporters aboard his plane. Asked whether he had a message for Washington regarding the sanctions, he replied, “To change, to change.”
It was not the first time he has spoken out against the Cuban or other embargoes. But State Department spokesman James Foley noted in Washington that the embargo enjoys strong bipartisan support.
John Paul also told reporters en route that Castro’s revolution has improved education and health in Cuba, but needs to make “progress in the order of human freedom.”
But in that case, too, those in the U.S. Cuban exile community who may hope the visit will precipitate major political change here may be disappointed. The church and the pope don’t have the kind of influence in Cuba they exercised in John Paul’s native Poland, where papal words helped galvanize the movement that toppled communism.
In fact, strengthening the Cuban church may be the most realistic goal of the papal visit, first discussed by the Vatican and Havana in 1979 but long postponed because of its political sensitivity.
Compared with other Latin American countries, the Cuban church has always been weak.
African-based “santeria” rites, developed by colonial slaves, are more widely practiced than Catholic rites. Although never banned, church activities were restricted after Castro’s revolution, Catholic schools being closed, for example.
Castro has loosened some strictures on the church since the early 1990s, but Catholic leaders want still more “space” more access to the public media, more freedom to import foreign priests, perhaps eventually even a restoration of some Catholic education.
One question that has troubled many Catholics: How well will the 77-year-old pope, hobbled by many ailments over the years, work his way through a busy five-day, four-city schedule on this tropical isle?
The climax is a Mass on Sunday in the Plaza of the Revolution, an event that may draw a half-million or more Cubans, grand finale to a week that many here hope will change their country forever.