Washington, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Why is Pope John Paul II going to Cuba? According to a joke making the rounds in Havana, he wants to face the devil, see the miracle of how Cuba lives on nothing, and experience what hell is like.
Official perspectives are of course rather more serious. But government officials and church dignitaries also want to see a miracle of sorts produced by the pontiff's presence on this time-frozen Carribean island.
The U.S. government, the Cuban government, the Vatican and Cuba's Catholic community all share a hope that frail and tremulous though he may be, Pope John Paul's five-day visit, starting tonight, will be a force for change, improving life for Cuba's 11 million citizens and making a difference in international relations.
President Bill Clinton told reporters Tuesday the U.S. "wants Cuba to move toward freedom and openness."
White House spokesman Michael McCurry later elaborated, saying "we hope his (the pope's) visit will help hasten the day in which human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and other important fundamental human rights are fully respected in Cuba."
Cuban President Fidel Castro, the last Marxist ruling dictator in the Western Hemisphere, made a six-hour televised speech at the weekend, trying to portray the most widely respected man in the world as an ally, sharing in a common struggle against the excesses of capitalism.
Castro, aging at 71 but still maintaining his trademark revolutionary beard, said the pope is, as he put it "a big headache for the unipolar hegemonism of the United States...and of imperialism."
He urged people to view his forthcoming meeting with the pontiff, set for Thursday, as "a meeting between two angels who are friends of the poor, rather than a meeting between an angel and the devil."
Diplomats in Havana have said Castro, an atheist, invited the pope in part because he expects him to reiterate longstanding criticisms of capitalist extremes and of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
Castro has blamed many of his government's continuing economic problems on the embargo. In place now for more than three decades, it limits travel and prohibits U.S. trade and investment.
American critics say the sanctions have been ineffective and that nothing would hasten Castro's downfall as quickly as lifting the embargo to take away his scapegoat and allowing floods of American tourists, academics and businessmen to interact with Cubans.
But President Bill Clinton repeated Tuesday that the U.S. will not change its policy and must first see a move toward openness in Cuba. If there is, he said "we will respond, that has always been our position."
Cuba's top Roman Catholic official, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, says the papal visit has spiritual, not political, aims. "The visit of the pope is to the church, to the Cuban people, to talk about a visit to the regime is to devalue somewhat this event," he said.
Cuba's catholic community -- only an estimated half a million people -- look to the Pope for a message of hope and redemption after years of communist oppression. Ortega said at a news conference earlier this week that preparations for the visit have already made a difference. "The fruits of the pope's visit began months ago and will be seen into the future," he said.
He was allowed last week to appear on national television for half an hour to discuss the papal visit. It was the first time that Castro permitted a Cuban cardinal to address the nation through the mass media.
Ortega has said to reporters that the church would like unrestricted access to the media and a serious dialogue with the state. He said that little progress was made during the year of preparation for Pope John Paul's visit.
But in outward appearance at least, communist Cuba has put on a decidedly uncommunist look to greet the pontiff.
The crowning event of his visit will be the celebration of an open-air Mass Sunday on Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion to be broadcast live on television.
The building of the National Library at one end has been painted for the occasion with a colossal, eight-story high mural of Christ, hand gently raised in blessing. Across the square is another huge image -- Che Guevara in black beret and red star, the revolutionary who helped lead Castro's guerrillas to victory in 1959. His portrait on metal has been there for decades, attached to the wall of the former Havana Hilton hotel.
Pope John Paul will celebrate Mass in three other cities during his stay but the government has said they are unlikely to be televised.
Castro, in his weekend speech which has since been reissued daily as a special supplement in state-controlled newspapers, urged a big turnout calling on Cubans to fill the Plaza on Sunday and to attend earlier Masses in the cities of Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago.
The government is mobilizing its supporters, providing hundreds of buses to transport them to the sites of the Pope's appearances and organizing the party faithful into human cordons along his motorcade routes.
During his stay, Pope John Paul also plans to visit a center for leprosy and AIDS patients, run by the government and an order of nuns. Sister Maria Elena Garcia Castro, sprucing up the grounds in preparation, told reporters she hopes his visit will help revive faith and hope in her country.
She said the papal visit could, as she put it " change a lot of hearts, it could change ideologies, it could reactivate faith which we have forgotten, which we have denied."