As Cubans inside and outside the country absorbed the news that communist leader Fidel Castro had stepped down, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque prepared to welcome Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, who visits the country from 20 to 26 February.
Pérez Roque emphasized that Cuba and the Holy See are in agreement on various international issues, including the need to eradicate poverty and the right of all nations to development.
But in spite of better relations overall there has been tension about the autonomy of the Church, with a history of Catholic resistance to the socialist revolution that took root after Castro came to power.
In recent years the major Protestant churches made a kind of peace with the regime, which has been praised internationally for its social and health policies, but condemned for lack of democracy and political prisoners.
The Cuban government blames the devastating impact of the long-standing US blockade for lack of freedom and economic progress. Fidel's successor, Raul Castro, has already given indications of likely reforms.
Some hope for the move towards a democratic form of socialism, combining market reforms and political freedom with a continued commitment to greater equality and social justice. Others (especially right-wing emigres in Mimi and elsewhere) believe the regime is un-reformable.
The official Communist Party paper Gramna reported Foreign Minister Pérez Roque as saying that the Vatican visit would be an official and a pastoral visit, and was in response to an invitation from Cuban authorities and from the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bertone’s planned visit is in the context of the commemoration in Cuba of the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the island.
The cardinal’s schedule during his stay includes planned meetings with Cuban authorities and pastoral activities, including masses in Havana, Villa Clara and Guantánamo. He also plans to bless a monument dedicated to Pope John Paul II in the city of Santa Clara, says Granma.
The Cuban foreign minister said that "our opinions coincide in terms of criticizing consumerism and neoliberalism, and also in terms of protection of the family, spiritual values and the promotion of culture."
He said that they also agreed on the need to protect the environment, the degree of danger implicated by climate change, the need to defend peace and reject violence and the threat or use of force in relations between states; and likewise, on condemning terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
Currently, three archdiocese operate in Cuba, with eight dioceses and 523 parishes, two seminaries and more than 1,500 Catholic Church mission houses, Pérez Roque said, noting that there are 92 Catholic religious orders, both men’s and women’s, "20 more than at the time of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution."