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Pope's Visit to Cuba Could Stir Political, Religious, Economic Pot

Cuba," says my exiled Cuban friend, "is not Poland."

He means that Pope John Paul, when he visits Cuba next month, will not have the same transforming effect as the Polish pope had on Poland when it lingered under communist influence.

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Fidel Castro is intent on orchestrating the pope's visit to his own advantage. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul will focus a sharp spotlight on religion and human rights in Cuba at a time when the country is in quest of a new - albeit not necessarily noncommunist - identity.

Much significance attaches to a visit this week by a Vatican advance party that will make two extraordinary demands.

One, says an expert close to the negotiations, is that Cuba restore Christmas Day as a holiday. "How," this expert asks, "can the pope visit a country that refuses to let its people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ?"

The second requirement is that the pope's program - including a mass to be held in Havana, as well as several others in outlying cities - be covered live on Cuban TV. If this condition is met, it will ensure that the pope's message on both religion and human rights will be seen and heard in its entirety by tens of thousands of Cubans, and not filtered through edited government broadcasts at the end of each day.

The Castro regime clearly is ambiguous about the church's role in Cuba. Recently, in government decree No. 144 of 1997, it withdrew from church officials the right they had previously enjoyed to shop in dollar stores for computer and other imported equipment. The regime also ordered Roman Catholic priests to abandon a popular program for providing meals to older citizens unless they secure special licenses.

Over the years, Castro has not had much to fear from the Roman Catholic Church because it has retained an aura of colonialism dating back to the Spanish-American War. When Castro assumed power, he shipped several hundred nuns and priests back to Spain. Since then, the Vatican has kept a low profile. The church in Cuba has not generated a core of Cuban priests but has been heavy with priests from Mexico and France. Without a nationalist flavor, the church has not developed a huge following.

Castro apparently anticipates that he can enlist the pope's support in the campaign to thwart American economic sanctions against Cuba, without affording the pope the opportunity to erode Havana's governing communist regime. But the pope has made it clear that he intends not only to address the spiritual concerns of Cuba's peoples, but also to speak of the need for a better life on earth that includes freedom and human rights.

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The question is what religious and even political stirrings may all this cause when the pope, aged but charismatic, broadcasts his message over live television?

Another political complication for President Castro is the recent death in Miami of Jorge Mas Canosa, the influential and hard-line leader of many Cuban exiles in the United States. Mr. Mas, a wealthy businessman, had remarkable access to a string of American presidents, and many observers felt sure that he Ionged to return to Cuba as its president after dislodging Fidel Castro.

While alive, Mas performed a useful political purpose for Castro. Castro demonized him as an opposition leader who plotted to bring back from America to Cuba thousands of exiles who would purge collaborators, take back land and businesses, and generally return Cuba to Batista-like days.

Now Mas is no threat to Castro. Different viewpoints are emerging in the Cuban exiled community about how Cuba should be freed. The fact is that while Cuban exiles in America will have the same lobbying impact as do Irish-Americans, Chinese-Americans, or Jewish-Americans, most of them will not return to Cuba after Castro's departure from the scene to threaten Cubans who chose to live with his regime.

WITH the powerful Mas no longer holding its toes to the fire, the Clinton administration is gently probing the prospects of softening its opposition to Castro. The top American diplomat in Havana and the Central Intelligence Agency's chief Cuba analyst met recently with foreign ministry officials in Havana to reinforce the message that America would improve relations if Cuba made significant economic and political changes. But European nations had already conveyed a similar message earlier and been sent packing by the Cubans.

Cuba is in economic distress. The critical sugar crop - once between 7 and 8 million tons a year - is now down around little more than 4 million tons a year. Some modest changes in direction may loom. But Castro gives no sign of abandoning communism, nor of fading quietly away.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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