HAVANA—The ripped corner of a faded banner from Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba hangs from a crumbling stone wall in Old Havana. Whether someone hung it anew to herald the visit of Pope Francis this weekend or if it has truly stood the test of time is anyone’s guess, but there is little question that the two papal visits are very different, and the earlier one feels as if it’s from a very distant past.
When John Paul II visited this strange and wonderful island 17 years ago, he kissed a tray of Cuban soil held up by children at his airport ceremony and held Fidel Castro at arm’s length telling him in no uncertain terms that he was there to pray that Cuba would become a land of “freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace.” It was a kind of victory lap for the great Cold War crusader against Communism, given credit by many for vanquishing Fidel’s sponsors in the by-then quite defunct Soviet Union.
The elder Castro was just as rigid, using his time at the podium to say Cuba was fine just the way it was, thank you. “We choose a thousand deaths rather than abdicate our convictions,” he told John Paul as a way of greeting.