HAVANA — Two old lions, Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro, circled each other last week in this Cuban capital. It was purrs instead of roars - claws were sheathed, all outward signs were respectful. But the two were at a most serious zero-sum game in which one gains what the other loses. It may be some time before the outcome is clear.
Any idea the pope would bring down communism in Cuba, as he had in Poland and Eastern Europe, was vain from the start. Mr. Castro is no one's puppet. He has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, with all it stood for. He has managed without the billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies. He has dealt with nine American presidents through nearly four decades of economic embargo. And he is secure enough to admit that, not being able to beat the Roman Catholic Church, he is cooperating with it.
Had he thought the pope's presence would threaten his regime, Castro would not have invited him. The visit had, in fact, been in the air since 1989, when the Cuban bishops first proposed it. But that was a time of such uncertainty that Fidel couldn't risk it. The bankruptcy of communism in the USSR discredited the ideology that propped up his power at home. And the end of Soviet aid precipitated economic crisis. It was a question whether his revolution would withstand this storm. To broaden his base, Castro felt it politic to make certain gestures of conciliation. The constitutional definition of Cuba as an atheist state was altered to secular state, and the Communist Party opened its membership to religious believers.
Today, though the economy is still crippled, and life for the most part is pretty miserable, Castro and his comrades remain in power. The security network appears intact, the pampered Army is loyal, the press is under control, and the people are cowed.
The pope's words that his visit was pastoral could be taken at face value. Dramas of this Catholic country rising against the regime have no basis. Throughout Latin America, while most people were nominally Catholic, the church had power only through the kings of Spain, and the Spanish empire is long defunct. Cuba was a backwater even earlier. The institutional church here was essentially stagnant. Catholic scholars describe it as marginal and unimportant in Cuban life, linked to the Spanish elite and visible mainly in the cities. One Catholic survey in 1957, before the revolution, revealed that more than half the rural population had never laid eyes on a priest; nearly 90 percent never attended mass.
The pope came to help a hierarchy already bent on change to make the church a part of life. His appearance in Cuba was spectacular. Three of his four public masses were in the provinces far from Havana, to enormous congregations. In Havana, hundreds of thousands assembled in the Plaza of the Revolution, until then exclusively the scene of Castro's biggest demonstrations. This, after decades in which the public exercise of religion was forbidden. It was done with the official, respectful permission of Fidel and logistical support from the Army and the government.
Everywhere, the pope hammered away at what he called his "message of truth and hope," both in short supply here. He preached the family, not the state, as the foundation of civil society, and he urged youth to find fulfillment in freedom and moral responsibility. His drill came close to the official nerve when he spoke of the people's right and duty to enter public debate on the basis of equality and of the church's duty to oppose political and economic corruption. Cuban state television carried it all live, professionally, even reverentially.
The country discovered how many would gather voluntarily for hours of waiting and participation in an observance that could not enhance their standing with the state. It also saw the evidence, maybe unsuspected, of imaginative crowd-handling by the church and an outreach that welcomed to the mass nonbelievers and believers in other faiths. Adding to the appeal, the pope emphasized the church's role as a patriotic Cuban institution.
At some point, the pastoral becomes political, and Castro may be having some second thoughts. His original purpose was surely to gain in prestige and legitimacy abroad and at home, to draw more support from believers, and to flaunt John Paul's opposition to the US economic embargo.
But to get such short-term benefits, he has taken long-term risks. In a one-man system, he has now accepted a second moral authority that stresses its independence of the state and opposes communism. He will try to contain it, as before, by denying access to the media, the reopening of Catholic schools, and freedom of charitable work. The expected release of some prisoners at the pope's request would be a gesture of small importance.
Rome can wait, building quietly on the strength it has shown here in the past week, determined to be on hand as a social force when Castro is no longer here.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.