When Pope John Paul II touches down on Cuban soil for his first visit to the Communist island tomorrow, the trip will include a meeting of two leaders who couldn't be more dissimilar - or more alike.
"We might be facing the last great political showdown of the century," says Uva de Aragn, acting director of the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. "But then again, it might just be a very peaceful and mutually beneficial meeting of two figures who in some important way are similar."
Fidel Castro and the pope both adversarial and birds of a feather? Yes.
Their differences certainly loom large. The pope is spiritual leader of a Christian flock found around the world. Mr. Castro is leader of a Marxist country of 11 million people who has said he never believed in God.
The pope is remembered for his role in helping end communism in Eastern Europe, including his native Poland. Castro is dictator of one of the world's last Communist regimes. The pope speaks frequently of human rights - including the right of political self-determination. Castro has hung on to one-party rule, disregarding international condemnation of his regime's human rights record.
But the two leaders also exhibit striking similarities.
Both are publicly critical of the free-market economic reforms that have swept most of the planet - and which in many Latin American countries have led to a widening gap between rich and poor. Both men face frequent speculation about their health and how long each will be able to continue in his post.
Most striking, both are authoritarian figures who believe absolutely in their ideology and make no room for compromise on points that put them at odds with much of the rest of the world.
Both remain steadfast against change in the face of discontent in their ranks: The pope faces a rhythm of conversions by Roman Catholics to protestantism both in Cuba and throughout Latin America. And Castro has seen hundreds of thousands of Cubans flee their home to escape a Communist system they detest.
Yet as the two men angle for benefits from this extraordinary visit - the pope seeks greater freedoms for his church, and Castro a solid international legitimacy - both have made concessions that indicate they are open to some compromise, if only slightly.
Castro granted Cubans this past Christmas as a holiday, a one-time exception in deference to the pope's approaching visit. For his part, the pope astounded Latvians, recently freed from the Soviet yoke, when he told them several years ago that Marx had some good points worth heeding.
Given the resolution of each man, Cuban analysts who know the country best say nothing too dramatic should be expected from the pope's five-day visit. "There aren't going to be any miracles," says Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington.
Some American leaders and analysts, including President Clinton, have voiced the opinion that the pope might be a force for significant change in Cuba. There have been predictions of sweeping changes ushering in democracy, or of riled crowds that rise up to overthrow, revolutionary-style, Castro and his regime. Both are "figments of someone's imagination," says Mr. Smith, speaking by telephone from Havana.
On the other hand Smith, a former director of the US interests section in Cuba during the Carter administration, says, "The pope's visit encourages positive change in Cuba."
Last week, Cuba allowed the country's Catholic cardinal to speak on state television for the first time. In what Smith calls a "careful" message, Cardinal Jaime Ortega told Cubans the pope is a foe of class divisions and spoke of his opposition to economic embargos - a position John Paul II has elaborated on before and which is music to Castro's ears. But he also referred to a need for greater freedom.
"The pope's won't be a one-sided message," says Smith. "And the greater religious freedom in Cuba, the more it goes toward a freer society in general."
Other observers say any significant impact from the pope's visit is likely to come in later months. Still, it has created an expectation among Cubans that some analysts believe could lead to a post-visit "emptiness."
"Any time you have such anticipation, there is a sense afterwards of emptiness, even if things go well," says Ms. Aragon. "It's hard to say now how that emptiness ... will be voiced."
That Cubans are ready and eager for change is clear. Havana will be carefully gauging the impact of any overtures it makes to the pope. A telling example is when Castro gave Christmas his official approval. "Within hours, there were Christmas trees up all over Havana," says Smith.
At the same time, the visit seems likely to favorably spotlight the pontiff's approach of dialogue compared with the US policy of isolation. Smith notes that as Havana went about putting up Christmas decorations, a Cuban friend told him, "You see, even before he comes, the pope has brought us Christmas."
"If anything, the visit will further isolate the US and its position on Cuba," says Smith. "If anyone is going to be embarrassed as a result of this event, it will be the US."
The Vatican's actions will be based on a long-term vision that foresees the church playing a leading role in transition, observers say. But that vision does not include precipitous, perhaps violent change. "The church is 2,000 years old and has all the time in the world," says Aragon. "It's thinking ahead."
On the other hand, Aragon says the pope's visit is so unusual in Cuba that it is impossible to rule anything out. "There's always some possibility that Castro will see the Church ... as a vehicle that can help him bring about a transition," she says - even though he reportedly explodes even at the mention of a Cuban "transition."
"That way," Aragon says, "Castro wouldn't be bowing to the US, or to Europe, or to the exiles, but to God himself. For Castro, that's the only one he could bow to."