AFP - A flurry of house-painting and road-paving has spun into full tilt
as the only Communist capital in the Americas puts on its Sunday best to
welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba this week.
¨Welcome to Cuba, Worshiper of Charity,¨ read hundreds of signs around
the capital, which is almost 500 years old and fabled for its crumbling
Spanish colonial-era architecture as well as frozen-in-time 1950s cars
Signs have been put up on buildings, roadsides, churches and even trees,
to greet the pontiff, including an official one in which the smiling
pope, 84, appears as if he is giving a blessing, alongside an image of
Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patroness.
"They are fixing (potholed) streets, painting some building facades,
there is a lot of cleaning going on, a lot of organization," said
Consuelo San Martin, a 74-year-old retired nurse who now works as a
doorwoman at Sacred Heart church.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the patroness, a big occasion
for the local Roman Catholics that Benedict is coming to celebrate.
"We have really high hopes. This visit is a gift from God,¨ said an
emotional Hilda Rodriguez, a deeply religious Catholic who was praying
at Our Lady of Charity church in the municipality of Centro Habana.
Cuba's Roman Catholics account for about 10 percent of the population of
11 million, after 40 years of official athiesm ended in the 1990s.
Evangelical Protestants are making inroads here as elsewhere, but most
Cubans identify most with AfroCuban belief systems, such as Santeria and
Jose Salas, 70, is a Santeria believer, a former merchant marine who
wears a typical necklace with red and white painted seeds, a reference
to the diety Chango.
And he thinks it is a great thing the pope is coming in tough economic
"The Holy Father is bringing us peace, love and unity," he told AFP.
Workers racing against the clock have pieced together the huge altar
where Pope Benedict is to say mass in sprawling Revolution Square. It
has been the venue for countless mass rallies over almost five decades
by the Communist government led until 2006 by Fidel Castro.
The altar was placed at the foot of the towering Jose Marti monument,
which honors Cuba's most important independence-era hero.
And the pope, after meeting here with President Raul Castro, will look
straight out at towering images of revolutionary icons Che Guevara and
Camilo Cienfuegos plastered on government ministries.
The late Pope John Paul II said mass in the same Revolution Square in
1998 on the first papal visit to Cuba, ushering in smoother ties after
decades of tensions between the Caholic church and Cuban state.
Now the Roman Catholic church, despite its non-majority status locally,
has evolved into the most influential non-state actor in Cuba, where the
government controls the media and economy. It has mediated in events as
sensitive as prisoner releases.
Among the popular preparations -- workers paved the heavily used Rancho
Boyeros Avenue that leads to Jose Marti International Airport, and other
streets on which the bullet-proof, pearly white Popemobile will roll by.
Even the Vatican nunciature was being gussied up as late as this week.
But unlike at the time of John Paul II's visit, Havana has not been
supplied with much in the way of commemorative trinkets like T-shirts,
pens or busts of the pontiff.