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The men themselves are fitting adversaries. Both are absolute rulers of their realms. Both are traditionalists and conservatives within their faiths, standing firm against revisionist thinking from within. Each is charismatic and charming, larger than life, with power rooted in his persona. Each plays a dominant role on the world stage, imposing his system of belief upon millions through brilliant intellect and sheer force of will. They are both skilled politicians, adept at tailoring their messages to the moment, yet each always has his eye on the ultimate judgment of history. Each dresses in the uniform of his vocation, the Pope resplendent in the robes of peace, Castro clad in the olive-drab fatigues of class warfare. Even their backgrounds are curiously alike: Catholic schooling, top students, athletes.
Both are also in that sad twilight of their life, when the body begins to betray even an indomitable spirit. When Castro addressed an election-eve rally on Jan. 9, all his 71 years were recorded on his face: a beard grown gray, deep bags pouching out below red-rimmed eyes, age spots dotting his forehead. His hands, always a forceful punctuation to his orations, jerked spasmodically. Rumors abound of strokes, Alzheimer's and other infirmities.
The 77-year-old Pope looks even worse. Last week he nearly fainted as he walked into a solemn Mass. He was always a physical leader who knew how to speak with his body. Now the long, bounding stride of his early pontificate has been reduced to a slow and agonized shuffle in which he barely lifts his feet from the ground. He takes care to hide the shaking left hand that signals the onset of Parkinson's disease, but he cannot disguise the frozen features and slurred words that at times betray the illness. Rumors of cancer and of the Pope's imminent demise swirl about him too.
Yet each seems ready, even eager, for the epochal encounter we are to witness this week. Their clash of faiths is mostly symbolic; Pope and President will meet only briefly during John Paul II's emphatically "pastoral" visit to his Cuban flock. The Pope will be center stage, watched by millions on global television, while Fidel will be largely out of sight, watching it all intently from behind the closed door of his Havana office. Who will emerge triumphant?
You have to wonder how much Fidel Castro admits to himself that much of his dream has turned to ashes. Even this idealist--and he is that--has been forced to stop practicing what he still preaches. He has to be concerned that the political and economic systems he holds dear have exhausted themselves everywhere else. Yet his heart is not in economic reform or in political liberalization, and he has grudgingly done only the minimum required to survive.