BY VIVIANE HEWITT
POPE' JOHN PAUL II, whose papacy has been characterised by his passionate crusade against Communism, may visit Cuba next month. In what many see as a personal mission to topple one of the world's last bastions of Communism, Vatican sources revealed this week that the Pope had ordered his diplomats to prepare the ground for the historic mission to Fidel Castro's Cuba as early as 1992. The Pope, according to Vatican diplomats, hopes to include the Caribbean island in his itinerary for Latin America, during which he is to visit El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
To prepare the way for his mission, John Paul II last July despatched Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, to Havana, where he held a private talk with Cuban leader Fidel Castro on 12 July in the Vatican's Nunciature.
Sources in the Vatican have confirmed that "very senior members of the hierarchy" have also had several telephone conversations with the "lider maximo".
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission had held a secret meeting with Castro five years ago. The Pope, whose role in the downfall of several Communist regimes was hailed in Margaret Thatcher's memoirs as "key", has been regarded as instrumental in the toppling of dictatorships of Right and Left from Baby Doc in Haiti, to Pinochet in
But Vatican sources have been pointing out this week that the Pope wants to bring
Castro's island nation closer to the West, and in private has urged that US embargoes against Cuba decreed 34 years ago should be lifted. Sources claim that John Paul II will ask US President Bill Clinton to lift the embargo at their forthcoming meeting in Newark, New Jersey. Cuba is unable to seek financial aid from the large international donors because of the US embargo. Relations between the Vatican and the Cuban dictatorship have been approaching a rapprochement for some time now. The Vatican has been financing £20 million worth of medical supplies and equipment to Cuba, while Castro extended a warm welcome to a group of St John of God Missionaries who set up medical facilities in Havana.
In 1993, Cuba's 11 bishops published an unprecedented message to the Cuban regime requesting "frank, free and friendly dialogue" and free debate in a spirit of "amnesty and reconciliation". The appeal to the 69-yearold dictator was followed by a letter to then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, from the American Catholic Conference of Bishops, expressing their hope that Washington would eliminate some of the harsher aspects of the embargo. In October 1994 Castro allowed 2,500 Cubans to travel to Rome for the consistory at which Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino of Havana was made Cardinal. A representative of the regime later attended the Cardinal's installation in Havana Cathedral.
But in a speech last summer, Castro blamed the growing contact with capitalism for the rise in corruption. He said the young were being "carried away by the thirst for hard currency and are ready even to sell their souls."