Cuba is changing - despite Fidel Castro's best efforts to resist. By revealing how many people in Cuba want things to change, and how deeply they want it, Pope John Paul's visit to the island last month has probably accelerated the pace of change.
There are other reasons to expect that pace to quicken. As time passes, Castro's ability to impose his will on the country is diminishing. The economic changes that survival has forced on the Cuban government are provoking further changes, not only in the economy, but also in Cuba's politics and social relations.
While this is happening, while the Roman Catholic Church actively promotes political and religious opening in Cuba, the US government is holding its breath and keeping its fingers crossed that, somehow, things turn out all right.
A peaceful transition to democracy has been the stated, and widely accepted, goal of US policy in Cuba. This is the right goal, but the Clinton administration - hamstrung by congressional legislation and political timidity - is not doing anything to achieve it. In fact, by inaction we may unwittingly increase the chances of a violent and chaotic transition. That is too bad, because there is a lot that the US could do.
First, we could help to alleviate Cuba's humanitarian crisis. The Cuban economy is in dire straits, and people are suffering. Cubans are short of food. Hospitals are desperately in need of medicine and supplies. The US is not to blame for this tragic situation - but we could do a great deal to help.
In recent weeks, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and the Cuban-American National Foundation - arguably the two most implacable foes of the Castro regime - have recognized the need for humanitarian assistance. Cuban-Americans in the US are already sending hundreds of millions of dollars to their families on the island. The pope made the needs clear, and the Catholic church has now asked the administration to approve direct flights to bring medical supplies from Miami to Havana. Surely, there must be some way to get over the political hurdles and help bring an end to the most visible suffering of ordinary Cubans.