Cuba and its patron saint await Pope Benedict
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (Reuters) - The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre is a gold-clothed, doll-like figurine which, according to Cuban legend, three fishermen found floating in a bay as Spain colonized the region with the sword and the cross.
She is Cuba's patron saint and Pope Benedict will visit her in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on March 26 to mark the 400th anniversary of her discovery.
Benedict's visit was agreed as the Catholic Church's relations with Cuba's communist-run state have improved in recent years.
Some residents are conjuring up great expectations.
"We will all be at the plaza to greet Pope Benedict because his blessing will surely bring a miracle," said hard-pressed Isabel Fernandez, who earns the equivalent of $10 per month at the local Coppelia ice cream parlor in Santiago de Cuba.
When asked what miracle she might want, the 38-year-old single mother responded, "an end to the (U.S. trade) embargo and peace between the United States and Cuba."
Fernandez pointed out that President Raul Castro had just pardoned nearly 3,000 common prisoners ahead of the papal visit, a positive sign, she insisted, that promised even better things to come.
Residents here say they are honored by the visit and the attention it will bring to their city, country and patroness, especially as it comes so soon after that of Pope John Paul II in 1998, but their wry wit can't resist poking fun at authority.
Papa means pope in Spanish, but also potato and more generally food.
"What we need is papas, not the papa," goes one joke, and another: "We do not need the papa for a day, but papas for a month."
The city's breathtaking colonial-era cathedral is being spruced up. The shrine of the Virgin of Charity in the nearby town of El Cobre was recently renovated and the parking lot is getting a much needed paving.
Benedict will preside over an outdoor mass in Santiago's Revolution Square and visit the shrine before going to Havana on March 27.
The island's patron saint is often affectionately referred to as Cachita and is worshipped by just about all Cubans regardless of their faith.
She has been a national symbol from the independence wars through the 1959 revolution and more recent trials and travails.
"People come who are not Catholic ... and they say 'I'm not a believer but no one is going to take the Virgin away from me,'" said Father Jorge Palma, curator of the shrine.
It is hard to imagine a more picturesque, tranquil place than Cachita's refuge in a hilltop church nestled within the Sierra Maestra mountains from which Fidel and Raul Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara led the 1959 revolution.
Local residents appear on the two-lane mountain road approaching the shrine, selling colorful flowers to offer the Virgin.
Stalls, piled with mementos for sale, greet visitors in El Cobre, named after a copper mine. A deluge of local men try to stop cars to sell their wares and around the shrine itself a few beggars lurk, hawking El Cobre's sacred earth, small stamps and other trinkets or simply asking for money.
Inside the neo-classical church, built in 1927, people light candles and leave offerings to the Virgin icon, perched high above the altar, that range from war medals and gold chains to more simple fare such as pins and toys.
Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for many years, gave his 1954 Nobel Prize for literature medallion to the church.
Thousands of pilgrims come to the refuge each year seeking the Virgin's help when, for example, a family member is sick or facing some other crisis.
The unofficial reason for the papal visit is to cement improved relations with communist authorities that have led to unprecedented visibility for the Church and a bit more space to carry out its work, after decades of hostilities.
He will be greeted by President Raul Castro in Santiago, then hold talks with him in Havana.
But it will not be easy to erase the tension that followed the revolution when the Church sided with the United States and Miami-based exiles as Fidel Castro transformed Cuba into a communist state that banned Christmas and was openly atheist until the 1990s.
Suspicion remains within both the Church and Communist Party ranks.
"For a number of years, perhaps well before the first papal visit, there was progress in terms of religious freedom and the Catholic Church, and I believe new, interesting steps are being taken," said Archbishop Juan Garcia of central Camaguey state.
"But there is still a long way to go to become a normal Church in Latin America. We need the right to run religious schools for those who wish to attend and there is little access to the media," he said.
"There are occupied churches and buildings being used for other purposes and some have simply been closed for years and not returned to the Church," he said.
A local Communist Party member said a number of church buildings were now used for public education and healthcare.
"The Church always complains and always wants more. In the end, what they really want is to run the country," he said.
The Church is Cuba's most influential institution outside of the government and has taken a bigger role since Raul Castro succeeded his older brother Fidel as president almost four years ago and began a dialogue with Cardinal Jaime Ortega in 2010 that led to the release of 130 political prisoners.
Since then Raul Castro has praised the Church in just about every speech and Ortega, in turn, has repeatedly praised Castro's efforts to reform the moribund, Soviet-style economy.
Last year, the government allowed a replica of the Virgin of Charity to be taken around the country, providing the Church with an unprecedented opportunity to proselytize and be identified with the patroness.
"The number of people visiting the shrine multiplied last year," Father Palma said, attributing it to improved relations with the government and the replica's tour.
"Invisible barriers have been destroyed; it appears the glass has disappeared," he said, while cautioning, "there is a more positive political discourse, but realities will have the final word over time."
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Kieran Murray)