'For us, it's incredible' Papal visit: The political center of Communist Cuba blooms with once-forbidden religious emblems.

January 21, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- Gladis Pose, clutching a plastic bag of groceries, walked across Plaza de la Revolucion yesterday morning and saw an unbelievable sight: a giant picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus overlooking the Communist nation's political center.

"I don't have words. I don't have words," said the 56-year-old woman. "You can see the tears in my eyes."

As Cuba welcomes Pope John Paul II, who arrives this afternoon for the first papal visit to this Caribbean island, the capital has exploded with religious images that would have been illegal to display just a few years ago.

Until about a week ago, there were few outward signs that Cuba was expecting a papal visit, save for a few banners draped across churches.

Now, on almost every telephone pole is a light blue poster with the smiling visage of Pope John Paul. The same poster is hanging on the doors of hundreds of homes in the city.

The pedicabs that ferry tourists along the Malecon, Havana's famous waterfront promenade, are emblazoned with posters welcoming the pope. Billboards that just a few days ago featured the image of President Fidel Castro urging citizens to vote in last week's one-party elections for the national assembly have been papered over with a purple message: "Bienvenidos Su Santidad, Juan Pablo II." Welcome Your Holiness, John Paul II.

But it may be the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus overlooking the Plaza de la Revolucion, the site of some of Castro's most important rallies and speeches, that is the most startling for Cubans. Normally the only visage keeping vigil at the plaza is the modernistic black wrought iron relief of the socialist saint of the Cuban revolution, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"For us, it's incredible," said Lazaro Lopez Lima, 61, who came to the plaza to see the image of the Sacred Heart. The picture is extremely important for Roman Catholics and a copy hangs in many churches, as well as on the wall of the homes of the devout.

The famous image, showing Jesus with his heart displayed in front of him, is attached to the National Library, and will be visible behind the altar where Pope John Paul will celebrate the final Mass of his five-day visit Sunday.

"It's been 39 years since we've seen something like this," Lopez said. "You can't imagine the happiness we feel."

Barbara Bare brought her two daughters, Judaisi, 22, and Jusneli, 16, to see the modernistic altar that workers were finishing yesterday morning before going on to practice in the choir that will sing at Sunday's Mass. The 41-year-old woman said she and her daughters have been practicing for the papal visit for months.

"This is such a proud moment for Cuba and Cubans," she said.

Jusneli said she has an extra reason to celebrate. "It's also special because my birthday will be on Sunday," she said. "What a great gift from God for me."

After his arrival about 4 p.m. today, Pope John Paul will travel in the popemobile along a route in Havana that has been lined with banners alternating in the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag and the gold and white of the Vatican flag. Tomorrow, the pope goes to Santa Clara, about 180 miles east of Havana, where he will speak during Mass about family values. Tomorrow night, he is scheduled to meet with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana.

On Friday, he travels to Camaguey, about 350 miles east of Havana, where he will speak about issues of concern to youths. On Saturday in Santiago de Cuba, the birthplace of the Cuban revolution, he will address the theme of patriotism, telling Cubans there is no conflict between faith and love of country. And the final Mass in Havana is scheduled for Sunday morning.

There had been some concern and speculation that turnout for the pope's Masses might be light. Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega repeated an often-stated complaint during a news conference Monday that the Catholic Church has not been given adequate access to the state-owned media. "In that respect, it has been deficient," he said. Ortega was given an opportunity last week to speak on television for 30 minutes.

But there are signs that the Cuban government is trying to rally its citizens to turn out for papal events. Late last week in a nationally televised interview, Castro urged Cubans to attend the pope's masses. "I've said that the public ought to participate in these activities" Castro said. "Why? Out of a simple sense of courtesy, of consideration."

To encourage attendance, the Labor Ministry announced yesterday in Granma, the state-run daily newspaper, that workers will be given time off with pay today to attend the pope's arrival. Workers in the other three cities where Pope John Paul will celebrate Mass will also be given paid time off to attend. The government has said it will provide about half of its transportation to get people to Masses.

It was also announced yesterday on the front page of Granma that the pope's arrival today will be carried live on Cuban television. Previously, there were plans only to televise Sunday's Mass.

Alberto Martinez, a Cuban journalist who is Catholic, said he expects a large turnout at the pope's public events.

"The visit of John Paul is an historic event for Cuba. It is big news for everybody," he said. "Many people are going to go simply out of curiosity. But many people are not just going to see him as a representative of God, as a representative of the Catholic Church, but as a representative of truth and hope including for those who don't profess any religion."

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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