HAVANA (Reuters) - White-robed priests burned incense as they marched slowly through Havana’s narrow streets, giving Catholic faithful a rare glimpse of Cuba’s patron saint outside her remote eastern home.
The ceremony was one of many witnessed by tens of thousands of people across the communist-led island in recent weeks, after the Roman Catholic Church was given permission for the first time in decades to stage processions with Cuba’s beloved Virgin of Charity of Cobre icon.
Flanked by motorcycle police and Church organizers, the shrine’s tour is the latest sign of improving Church-state ties in the historically Catholic country, which was overtly atheist after its 1959 revolution until the early 1990s.
“We hope (relations) get better like they’ve been doing up to now with the state and the Church. We always have hope that they’ll get even better,” one housewife named Maria said last week as she waited for the Virgin in central Havana.
Pope Benedict XVI - whose last namesake declared the statue of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre as Cuba’s patron in 1916 -- said on Monday he would visit Cuba and Mexico before Easter and Vatican sources said the trip would be at the end of March.
Sidelined for decades by the communist government until Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, the Catholic Church has now carved out a role as an interlocutor with the government on domestic issues.
It has won praise for securing the release of dozens of political prisoners over the last year and a half, and raised hopes it could do more to broker reforms and perhaps even help improve frayed U.S.-Cuba ties.
President Raul Castro - who took over when his brother Fidel fell ill in 2006 - has said the Church and the state do not always agree but have a “constructive” relationship.
Changes begun under Fidel Castro, such as the visit of Pope John Paul and allowing the Church to operate more freely, have taken off under Raul with officials attending some Church events and Catholic press even criticizing the pace of reform.
While the previous pope’s trip to Cuba was widely seen as a major step, Benedict’s visit will likely be aimed at simply cementing better ties.
“In terms of the wider public the pope’s visit will not raise expectations of change as the last one by John Paul II had,” said Bert Hoffman of the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies.
“However, for the Cuban Church it means solid symbolic backing for its course of respectful cooperation with the socialist authorities.”
In an 18th Century seminary on the edges of colonial Old Havana, Father Yosvany Carvajal runs a Catholic cultural center that now offers a masters in business administration, another sign of change in a country where the Church’s educational programs were for long-thwarted under communist rule.
“The major changes that have to occur in Cuba are the attitudes. We’re not in an era of confrontation nor are we in the era of the Cold War or anything like that,” Carvajal said.
“We must change attitudes on both sides. We’re not a Church that has to recover space. This is the Church that has to fortify the nation, that has to give back to Cuba. For the government, it’s changing the attitudes rooted in the past.”
Some signs of that can already been seen.
Besides better relations with the Church, the country’s largest and most socially influential institution outside of the government, Raul Castro has pushed through reforms in an attempt to strengthen the struggling Soviet-style economy.
They include slashing more than a million government jobs, cutting subsidies, encouraging more private enterprise, giving more autonomy to state companies, encouraging more foreign investment and reducing state spending.
The visit of Pope Benedict comes as Cuba is changing - a different scenario from John Paul’s trip more than a decade ago when many outside observers thought he might bring swift transformation to the country.
After leaving Cuba in 1998, John Paul, recalling a trip to Poland that inspired opponents of communism during the Cold War, hoped that his visit would bear similar fruit, but experts say Benedict’s intentions will be less ambitious.
“The pope’s visit will concentrate on reinforcing the role of the church and using that to promote more opening in Cuba in terms of the economic and political systems, but in Cuban terms,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Denver.
“The Catholic Church is not trying to have a second Poland in Cuba.”
The Virgin is very much a symbol of Cuban nationalism.
Antonio Maceo, a hero of Cuba’s independence wars, is said to have paid tribute to her before he left to fight. Sometimes she is called the Virgin of the Mambises after the name of 19th century independence fighters.
Historian Olga Portuondo wrote that after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution crowds surged to the shrine to give thanks for the end of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.
The most popular history has it that three boatmen discovered a floating wooden statue of the Virgin in the 17th Century in the Bay of Nipe in northeastern Cuba and brought it to El Cobre, a copper mining town.
The Virgin is depicted as mulatto, making her attractive across Cuba’s kaleidoscope of races. She also has an appeal beyond pure Catholicism as a Santeria deity, a religion of African origin, that came to Cuba with the slaves.
The Virgin was part of the reason that John Paul came to Cuba, and Benedict’s planned trip coincides with the 400-year celebration of her discovery.
Outside a church dedicated to the Virgin in Old Havana, whose once-crumbling streets and buildings are being renovated by the government, mother-of-two Ivette said she hoped the pope’s visit will give Cubans new strength.
“I think he is going to be with us with everything that’s happening in the country right now. He’s going to support us religiously and he’s going to support us politically,” she said, holding her baby boy.
Reporting by Jack Kimball; Editing by Kieran Murray