Castro Brothers and Pope Benedict Talk Past Each Other

During Pope Benedict XVI's three-day tour of Cuba, the spiritual leader and Castro brothers mixed warm smiles, seemingly ignoring the hard language being used in exchanges with one another.

The leaders at the heart of this religio-political drama appeared to be speaking with conflicting purposes, the Pope using biblical parables about cruel, long-dead kings, while the brothers spoke in their customary language of revolution and defiance to American dominance.

In his respectful send-off, President Raúl Castro made a vast understatement when he acknowledged that he and the Pope "do not think alike on all matters."

Whether or not each side’s voice was heard will not be known until next week, when Castro must decide whether to grant the pope's unusual request to declare Good Friday a holiday, despite the fact it does not have that status in the United States, much of Europe or even Mexico, the world's most Catholic Spanish-speaking country.

Larger issues, such as the church's desire for greater access to state-run airwaves, permission to run schools and hospitals, and licenses to build new churches, will take longer to address as certainly no concessions have been announced. Privately, Cuban government insiders doubt they will ever yield ground on education and health care, which are considered pillars of the revolution and core responsibilities of the government.

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Benedict clearly criticized Cuba's Marxist system even before he arrived, then followed up in sermons and speeches with repeated calls for freedom, renewal and reconciliation, as well as references to prisoners and those "deprived of freedom." One of Raúl Castro's top aides, economic czar Marino Murillo, wasted little time in responding: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform."

While the president has begun an overhaul of Cuba's economy, he has been much slower to make political changes and remains surrounded by a circle of confidantes who have been with him and his brother since their rebel days. As recently as January, he took to the airwaves to firmly defend the island's one-party Communist system, saying it is necessary given U.S. hostility.

"We should not expect popes to be miracle workers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and longtime Vatican observer. "But Benedict's visit should keep Cuba on track moving gradually toward greater freedom for both the church and society at large."

As with most sequels, the trip did not live up to the original: the historic 1998 tour by Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II.

The crowds were smaller, the quotes somewhat derivative. The agenda was also less ambitious, with large chunks of it behind closed doors. Even the personalities paled in comparison: John Paul was one of the towering figures of the 20th century, Fidel is among its most famous revolutionaries and best-known atheists.

If they share anything in common, Raúl and Benedict are both caretakers of other men's legacies.

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To longtime observers, the reactions seemed predictable as well.

In South Florida, local media focused on the harassment of the island's small dissident community and the brusque removal of a protester shouting anti-government slogans at the Mass in Santiago. While some members of a troupe of mostly Cuban-American pilgrims said their experience made them question long-held preconceptions, hard-liners said the pontiff's visit only demonstrated how little on the island has changed.

"The pope's visit helped show that there is no political space and no political liberty in Cuba," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a staunchly pro-embargo Florida Republican, told The Associated Press.

While the government repeatedly said it would listen to the pope respectfully, it also used his visit to hammer home often repeated talking points.

In his welcoming speech at the Pope’s airport arrival in the eastern city of Santiago, Castro used the  opportunity to rail against the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo, criticizing capitalist decadence and warning of a nuclear holocaust presumably wrought at American hands, while talking up Cuban achievements in health care and education.

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The following evening, Fidel Castro recalled the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, warned of a global scarcity of resources and took a shot at U.S. President Barack Obama in an opinion piece in which he announced that his much-anticipated meeting with Benedict was on for Wednesday.

When they did finally meet, Fidel and Benedict joked about their advanced years, and the retired Cuban leader quizzed the pontiff on the ins and outs of his job. Benedict, in his final comments, sprinkled references to the Vatican's long-standing opposition of the U.S. embargo with calls for more freedom.

Ordinary Cubans have heard these lines before, and many said they were taking a wait-and-see approach.

Many recalled John Paul's visit, which cemented warmer state ties with the church and resulted in headlines like Christmas being declared a holiday.

"John Paul II was a pope who undid the latch," said Jose Luis Lavin, a 35-year-old government food worker who witnessed Benedict's Wednesday morning Mass in Revolution Plaza. "Now, we'll see with this one what agreement there was, whether there will be more freedom."

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