Clash Of Faiths

This week Pope John Paul II brings his message of freedom to Fidel Castro's Cuba as two of the world's giants collide

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Even in Cuba, the ideology of communism is virtually dead. The ego-destroying experience of the special period has robbed the country of its material well-being and shattered national confidence. If daily life for most of Cuba's 11 million citizens is less miserable than it was during the darkest days of 1993, it is still a grinding round of poverty, hunger and dead-end jobs. Even the cradle-to-grave health, education and welfare systems, once proudly held up as the "achievements of the revolution," are badly compromised. Prostitution, that humiliating hallmark of the Batista years, is back in force; dollar legalization has undermined social equality; the centralized economy has yet to deliver basic necessities to most citizens. Unemployment, not known for decades, looms for hundreds of thousands of redundant workers. Dissidents languish in jail.

Still, those who predicted four years ago that Castro's regime was doomed have been proved wrong. The economy has emerged from the abyss. At the depths of the special period, the country had almost no petroleum, electricity, food, transport or production. Today Havana blooms with chicly renovated hotels, neon signs, crowded restaurants and nightclubs. The U.S. dollar has swallowed the Cuban peso. Farmer's markets and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs fuel a production boom of sorts. Cars outnumber bicycles again in Havana, and many of them are 1990s Nissans, not 1950s Chevys. Foreign investors not only share ownership of new projects but also own some outright and ship much of their profits home. Modern telecommunications have replaced worn-out phones, and shops and markets offer plenty of goods to those who can afford to pay.

If Castro is an introspective man, he keeps his reflections on all this private. Even those who know him well shake their head and say, "Ask Fidel," when questioned about his mood these days. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of People's Power and an intimate of the Comandante's, insists that he is "very happy," but that seemed to refer mainly to his "victory" in the Jan. 11 National Assembly elections, where only one candidate designated by the party could run for each seat.

A friend who has known Castro since their university days, film-institute president Alfredo Guevara, describes Fidel as obsessed. His friend was always a volcano "that sometimes does harm but sometimes fertilizes the soil." For 40 years he has obsessed--Guevara keeps using the word--over the "consummation of the revolution that we know has not been fully achieved." Yet Fidel is intensely proud that he has again defied world predictions of his imminent demise, as satisfying a triumph to him as any that went before.

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