January 26, 1998

For One Week Cuba Changes Rules


.c The Associated Press
By JOHN RICE

HAVANA (AP) - What kind of a communist dictatorship is this, anyway?

A leading churchman blasts the government - and government television carries it live nationwide.

Aides to Cuba's favorite villain, anti-Castro crusader Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, receive visas from the Cuban government.

The image of Jesus Christ towers with those of national heroes Che Guevara and Jose Marti in the Plaza of the Revolution - and Fidel Castro goes to Mass.

The visit of Pope John Paul II created a most peculiar week in Castro's Cuba, a place excoriated in U.S. laws as a totalitarian state.

Cuba in recent decades has never been as tough on dissidents as, say Syria or Iraq, and Cuban officials take grave offense at those who call Castro a dictator.

Indeed, calling him one in the past could sometimes help land a person in prison. Some 500 people - by the count of local human rights activists - are in prison for political offenses. Hundeds of thousands of Cubans over the years have closen to flee - often for political reasons.

Only one political party is permitted and there was only one candidate per seat in this month's parliamentary election, which officials boasted was a show of unity rather than the divisive affairs in other countries.

Indeed, dissidents played a crucial role in preserving the air of openness during the visit, with a lack of political protest that might have tested the government's - and the pope's - tolerance. The church made clear it did not want political protests at papal Masses.

The papal visit made Cuba, for five days, a center of the world's attention. And Castro was determined to make it a showpiece.

For a week, the most important rule seemed to be of the golden variety. And when the pope and other clerics criticized his socialist society, Castro turned the other cheek.

"For every word you have said - even those I might disagree with - on behalf of all the Cuban people, Holy Father, I thank you!'' said Castro as he bade farewell to the pontiff Sunday night.

Cuba more or less threw open the gates to foreign news media, granting more than 3,000 foreign journalist visas, half to crews from the United States, which has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for decades.

At least 40 foreign newspeople - most from Miami - say they were denied visas to cover the event. But the Voice of America sent three reporters, despite Cuba's fierce complaints about its sister station, the anti-Castro broadcaster Radio Marti.

And a bishop expelled from the country along with 130 other priests in 1961 came home to celebrate Mass before a cheering, weeping congregation.

This has been a week when old rules were broken everywhere.

Never in recent years has a visiting dignitary been given the television coverage accorded the pope, despite his several clear appeals - broadcast live - for Cuba to grant more rights to individuals and independent organizations and to free political prisoners.

At least three times this week, the Communist Party daily Granma carried more photos of the pope than of Castro, though its stories stressed the pope's condemnation of the U.S. embargo rather than his remarks on human rights.

Castro last week urged Cubans to turn out in massive numbers to welcome John Paul, saying it would prove the strength and religious tolerance of a country that was widely criticized over decades for restricting worship and repressing worshippers until renouncing official atheism in 1992.

And in massive numbers they came - given time off from state jobs to attend Masses and transported in government buses.

A government that traditionally has insisted all worship be indoors and bans open-air services and political events made the pope's visit a state-sanctioned celebration in which all sorts of religious jubilation was endorsed.

Priests and nuns danced in the street. The police response? They, too, bounced in time to religious music and moved aside for camera crews to film the festivities.

Culture Minister Abel Prieto said the government could see a "strategic alliance'' with churches on moral issues, though it will probably stop short of letting church schools reopen.

There are many who doubt that the growing tolerance of religion will extend to political dissent.

Yet the pope brought a remarkable week to Cuba.

And next week?

AP-NY-01-26-98 0238EST




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