The pope's invasion of Castro's Cuba Isolation broken: Visit to mark watershed in Communist island's relations with world.

January 21, 1998

POPE JOHN PAUL II did more to undermine communism in Eastern Europe a decade ago than any other individual, not by shunning but by engaging it. Fidel Castro, who made Cuba Communist, did his utmost to suppress the Catholic religion, the faith of most Cubans, and also the Protestant sects that have been gaining in the Caribbean. Both men are in their 70s, having little else in common.

The visit to Cuba by the pope, his health permitting, planned for today through Saturday, will change that island nation's history. Indeed, it already has.

In preparation, Mr. Castro for the first time last year allowed public celebration of Christmas. It is a trade-off between two men of firm conviction, each knowing what he wants. Though the older and more frail of the two, the pope as steward of an ancient institution appears on the side of history. The dictator, apostle of modernism, is at best delaying his arrival at history's dustbin.

The pope's mission is to strengthen the church and the faith of the faithful in communism's one outpost in the Americas. That would have been subversive there and not allowed by the dictator until a few years ago. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba has gotten poorer, lost its source of Soviet aid and become desperate to find international acceptance, investment and trade. Tourists and tourism developers are pouring in from Canada and Europe. To strengthen his respectability in the new world order, Mr. Castro will even do a deal with the pope.

U.S. constructive engagement with countries of Eastern Europe in the 1980s contributed to communism's downfall in them. That ac- complished, Washington reacted the opposite way with Cuba, deciding the time had come for communism to end there and that the way to end it was to squeeze. The embargo was stiffened. A foolish attempt was made to impose it on other countries. This has spectacularly backfired, provoking international anger at Washington's arrogance rather than Havana's.

The pope's visit to Cuba, preceded by Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, eloquently repudiates U.S. policy. It will inevitably provoke a new debate in this country on the proper course of policy toward Cuba. This was also made likely by the death in November of Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, whose strength of character dominated U.S. policy toward his native island at the cost of U.S. national interests.

This debate is long overdue. Before it can begin, the nation must watch to learn what the pope can accomplish by his methods that this superpower has failed to achieve with ours.

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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