Pope John Paul II helped bring down the Iron Curtain in Europe, but he was no match for Monica Lewinsky in Cuba. Shortly after the Pontiff arrived for his historic visit to the communist island in 1998, the media horde stampeded back to the U.S. to cover the emerging sex scandal engulfing Bill Clinton's presidency. But John Paul was probably just as glad the journalists left: it helped lower expectations about what he was supposed to accomplish. Cuba wasn't Poland--Fidel Castro was a more daunting despot than Wojciech Jaruzelski--and John Paul knew that democratic change wouldn't arrive on the island until after Castro died. In the meantime, his task wasn't to bring the Cuban dictator to his knees; it was to help the Cuban church back to its feet.
Fourteen years later, John Paul has passed away and the 85-year-old Fidel and his younger brother Ral, who has taken over as Cuba's President, are still alive. But the Roman Catholic Church that Pope Benedict XVI will find in Cuba when he visits March 26--28 is nothing less than reborn--and nothing less than the island's first and only alternative institution to the Cuban revolution.
Cuban Catholics are celebrating a new seminary for priests--the first since Fidel all but shut down the church 50 years ago--and the 400th anniversary of their patroness, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity). But they're also hailing the recent release of 115 political prisoners, brokered largely by their 11 bishops, as well as the church's increased training of civic leaders and entrepreneurs, including courses for that iconic capitalist degree, the M.B.A. "We're breathing an atmosphere of change," Cuba's top prelate, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, told me.
The papal visit intends to shine a halo on the most important change the church is generating in Cuba: decommunizing the economy. The island is so cash-strapped that Ral will have to lay off up to a million state workers--almost 20% of the labor force--in the next year or two. To absorb them, he's broadening the private sector; he recently decreed that Cubans can buy and sell personal real estate. And he's decided the church is the only noncommunist entity he can trust to assist in that shift, mainly by grooming Cuban capitalists, without seriously challenging his rule. Last year Ral, who is 80, even offered a mea culpa for decades of blacklisting "Cubans with religious beliefs."