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Cuba: Pope John Paul II visits the communist island on January 22, 1998


It was a historic moment. On January 22, 1998, Pope John Paul II traveled to Cuba, giving rise to the first visit of a sovereign pontiff to the communist island. After years of anti-Catholic repression, Fidel Castro’s regime decides that day to open its doors to the pope. The editorial staff of Europe 1 tells the story thanks to its archives.

On January 22, 1998, the trip of Pope John Paul II marked a turning point in Cuba. For the first time, a sovereign pontiff visits the communist island. A five-day visit which was eagerly awaited by Fidel Castro who wanted to see the pope stand up against the embargo imposed by the United States since 1962. The Cubans were hoping for a little more flexibility from their regime, as the says Jean-Bernard Cadier, the special envoy of Europe 1 who covered the event.

“May Cuba open up to the world and may the world open up to Cuba”

“I hope that the pope will come out in favor of freedom of expression. Gustavo is the only one who wanted to speak out on this issue. Which proves that there is still a long way to go”, we hear at the microphone of Europe 1. On occasion, the Castro regime had pulled out all the stops. He had authorized Cubans to celebrate Christmas a month earlier, a first for more than 30 years, and had called on them to attend the pontifical mass of John Paul II.

Upon his arrival, the pope was greeted by Fidel Castro himself, who for the occasion had swapped his usual military fatigues for a tie suit. Attentions to which the sovereign pontiff replied without ambiguity: “May Cuba open up to the world and may the world open up to Cuba”.

In other words, that the embargo of the United States is lifted. John Paul II prayed that Cuba would offer everyone a climate of freedom. A message welcomed with immense joy, especially by practicing Catholics on the island, who have been silenced since the 1960s.

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The fervor of those who escorted the popemobile through the streets of Havana was greatly felt: “Dios ti amio”. “God loves you,” sings a group of Catholics. “He brings us a message of peace, fraternity, harmony and love, all that we miss so much”, testifies a Catholic.

A turning point in the history of the island

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, we can hear at the microphone of Jean-Bernard Cadier. Practicing Catholics hardly believe their eyes, they have the right to sing hymns on the Place de la Révolution, in a country where processions are still prohibited by law.

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But this change in tone still left a whole section of the population very skeptical. “Not everyone is religious, Catholic because before everyone was normal, now it’s the fashion,” says a resident.

A visit that marked a turning point in the history of the island: several political and religious prisoners were released at the request of the Vatican, Christmas remained a public holiday and relations between the Cuban Church and the regime gradually standardized. John Paul II also paved the way for his successors, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, who also set foot on the lands of the communist island.

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