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Cuba: Analysis From Washington -- Pope John Paul Reaches Beyond The Church

Washington, 23 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul's visit to communist Cuba is likely to promote changes there every bit as profound as those that took place in Eastern Europe almost a decade ago.

But because the changes the Holy Father is seeking now -- a Cuba more tolerant of religion and an international community more tolerant of Cuba -- may seem less dramatic, many around the world are dismissing his current visit as irrelevant or a failure.

Such conclusions reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of three very different things: Cuba's current situation, the Pope's specific goals there, and the nature of his influence on social and political developments there or anywhere else.

First of all, Cuba is a very different place than the communist countries of Eastern Europe on which this pope had such a profound influence. Its government was not imposed by Soviet troops but came to power as a result of a popular revolution against an earlier dictatorship.

That revolution has gradually run out of steam as a result of the inherent weaknesses of communism and the efforts of the United States to isolate Cuba economically in order to promote political change there.

Even more than in Eastern Europe, the country is extraordinarily poor, but both its leaders and its people tend to put the blame on external factors rather than on a hated and imposed government.

And given Cuba's isolation since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, both Castro and many people in Cuba appear more willing to change than they have been at any point in the past, even if Castro himself continues to use revolutionary rhetoric.

Second, the Pope's own goals have shifted over the last decade. As someone who experienced first hand the twin tyrannies of twentieth-century Europe, he took the lead in supporting those who were struggling against that oppression.

But in doing so, he helped to bring to power many people whose ideas about the value of the human person and social justice were very different from his own.

In 1989, Pope John Paul focused his criticisms on the evils of communism. But since that time, he frequently has spoken out against the problems inherent in other political and social systems including capitalism and even mass democracy.

The spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics has noted that these systems too often fail to address the needs of the people living under them. His appeals in defense of the family and for social justice, for example, sometimes have put him at odds with his former allies and thus changed his relationship to those he had once denounced in a more thorough-going manner.

And third, and perhaps most significantly, the pope's influence on governments and societies, Cuban as well as others, has much less to do with the institutions of the church than on the moral authority of the man and his office.

Many of those who dismiss Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba as less important than his earlier attacks on communism in his native Poland are suggesting that his primary interest is in rebuilding the priesthood in Cuba and thus setting the stage for future influence there.

There is no question that the pope is interested in restoring a church decimated by Cuban communists, but he is far more interested in spreading his message now and beyond the confines of the church itself.

In his message at the start of the visit, Pope John Paul reached out beyond the confines of the church itself to speak to all Cubans from Fidel Castro on down. And his words in Havana are likely to resonate with many who would not identify themselves as believers, just as has been the case on his numerous other missions around the world.

Like so many dictators before him, Castro may be counting on his regime's police powers to continue to contain the Vatican's "divisions" by limiting the number of priests. But he is likely to discover as did they that the influence of the Holy Father has less to do with the number of religious than with the message that he and they carry.

Pope John Paul has already transformed Cuba by coming there. His words are certain to change it still more in the future, even if those changes are not necessarily along the same lines as the ones the Holy Father promoted elsewhere.