Pope Visit to Cuba | another dose of temporary faith?


Tomorrow the Pope will once again speak in Cuba. For you non religious types, no, it’s no longer Pope John Paul II, who blessed Cuba 14 years ago in 1998. This time, Pope Benedict once again takes the churches blessing back to an unchanged Cuba this week but, is this visit nothing more than another financial Bonanza veiled in religion for Cuba´s one party communist government?

Let’s draw some parallels for those who can remember what Raul Castro´s brother Fidel did just before the Pope´s visit in 1998.

In 1998 – Fidel Castro allowed the first of the Paladares to open in Cuba, just prior to the Pope´s trip, along with Casa Particulars. Permits were handed out incredibly quickly from June 1997 and 1000´s of Cubans signed up to pay anything from 100 to 400 USD per month as a “license” to be able to rent rooms in their houses to tourists. Other Cubans cleared up their garden terraces or, made their dining rooms into 12 seat restaurants. Yes, back then only 12 chairs were allowed at Paladares, a rule which has remained intact, ominously, until just before Pope Benedict trip.

However, shortly after the colorful signs portraying Pope John Paul II were pulled down, many Cubans who had opted for the self employment option began to experience problems. Inspectors were showing up and fining them for having “contraband” like prawns, lobster and beef on the menu, these items having been prohibited from the menu by the government so as not to allow paladares to compete with the regimes restaurants. License renewals were rejected without explanation and, as quickly as their freedoms came they were taken away. Ironically, the old passage from the bible “The Lord Gives, the Lord Takes Away” was jokingly summoned as a motto for these swift cancellations of liberties.

Few outside of Cuba remember those times. However, for Cubans on the island, 1998 looked like a glimpse of hope and extended freedoms, from a government world renowned for suppressing personal liberties. These freedoms swiftly vanished with the authorities finding any excuse to close the casas and paladares, barley a handful remained less than 18 months later.

Yes, it was all a charade of extra liberties, deftly rolled out by the communist regime like some manufacturing “just in time” parts delivery service for Pope John Paul II, his entourage and the world to see.


Fast forward to 2012 and Pope Benedict´s visit to Cuba. It’s been a long 14 years for some Cubans. Forced back in line and banned from doing anything other than working for the state for just 24 dollars a month for another 168 months. Well, in fact, not exactly 168 months because just 6 months ago, once again, Cuba´s Raul Castro who was handed power after his brother abdicated through poor health in 2006, has been basking in blathering compliments emanating from Washington to London and, Delhi to Sydney. Journalists, politicians and world leaders, either too young to remember 1998 or, simply hoping that this time the extra freedoms are not cancelled again.

Oddly, the modus operandi of Raul Castro prior to the Pope Benedict XVI visit to Cuba is eerily similar. Some, old enough to remember, could swear that Raul Castro dusted off his brothers “operation Pope John Paul II 1998” book on “new freedoms” and ironically handed out the same order again but, 14 years later. Yes, you got it, just before this latest Papal visit, Raul Castro has been “creating more freedoms” once again, the same “freedoms” as 1998 from a man with the same surname and bloodline as the one in charge back then. More self employment, more casa particulars, more restaurants, the list looks conspicuously very “late 90´s” Mr. Castro.

Of course, those outside Cuba don´t remember, why on earth would they? The world has moved on since 1998 right? But just to jog your collective memories Bill Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States in 1998. It’s the year TechTV launched, the first blackberry 850 was rolled out, the now extinct Saturn car brand blessed US highways and, the world conquering Google was invented. Yes, lots have happened since 1998 but, not in Cuba.

In Cuba, since 1998 all of the freedoms rolled out that year were rolled back and, 14 years later they are being reintroduced by Raul Castro once again. A perverse twist on Bills Murrays hilarious Groundhog Day movie but without the punch lines.

Can anyone imagine Google having rolled back the internet, shutting down its search engine and begun selling paper books again? Some of you would probably be happy if George Bush´s presidency had been nothing more than bad dream and, who watches TechTV anyway?

Unfortunately, while the rolling back of time in the above examples is just a joke, in Cuba it actually happened. Cubans were once again returned to the monarchical rule of two brothers. Most buildings around Havana have not seen a lick of paint since then and, kids born in 1998, who are now 14, see the same people governing the nation their grandparents once did.

What’s so amusing about all of this is that every time either of the Castro´s touts more freedoms, the world waits with baited breath and heralds the changes as “milestones”. Back in 1998, Reuters announced these freedoms which, embarrassingly, few journalists today remembered when Raul Castro did exactly the same thing in 2011, expertly synchronized (again) with another papal visit. Hilariously, the LA Times called Raul Castro the “more pragmatic younger brother (of Fidel)” in an article dated August 2011 this time the article gleans praise on the leader for, once again like his brother, rolling out exactly the same “extra freedoms” to Cubans introduced before the Pope visit in 1998 then vilified and cancelled less than a year after. Yes, you got it, 6 months before the Papal visit of 2012. The timelines are so similar, if you change the year in the earlier two articles you could swear they were written in 2012 and not in 1997 when they were originally written.

Between 1998 and 2012, the communist regime of Cuba has attracted an officially recognized number of 24.5 million tourists. Official revenues from the tourism sector in the same period being 45.6 billion dollars. Since Pope John Paul II last visit, most Cuban´s would beg to know where all this money has gone.

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