WHEN Pope John Paul II visited Cuba,
the whole world was interested in his historic
meeting with President Fidel Castro. But it wasn’t
the first time the two had met. In November of 1996
they had an exchange in the Vatican. For the first
time, a Cuban President was received by the highest
authority of the Catholic Church.
audience, conceded by the Supreme Pontiff to the
Cuban leader, who was in Rome attending the UN Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Summit, caused a
stir in the press and many expected disagreements to
surface. Both state leaders, however, emphasized
statements of respect and mutual admiration.
The journalist Luis Báez reported
that "ten minutes before the time scheduled for the
audience, the caravan of vehicles in which Fidel was
traveling crossed the historic St. Peter’s Square
and passed through the San Damaso courtyard into the
heart of the tiny Vatican state, from where Fidel
was taken to the Holy Father’s private library."
"Welcome, thank you for your visit,"
John Paul II said to him. The Cuban President
responded, with a slight inclination, "Your Holiness,
it is a great honor for me to shake your hand."
"The conversation lasted about 35
minutes, unwitnessed," Báez continues. The dialogue
was in Spanish. Saying goodbye, Fidel repeated his
invitation to the Pope to visit the country, "Your
Holiness, I hope to see you soon in Cuba."
"Thank you. My blessings for all the
Cuban people," was the answer.
The meeting became a leading news
item in the most important media around the world.
The Mexican agency Notimex, reporting from Rome
wrote, "Fidel, in the World Food Summit and his
meeting with John Paul II, was able to counteract
efforts by the United States, seconded by Spain, to
isolate his government."
Vatican radio disseminated an
interview with the Cuban leader, in which he
reiterated, "We want to create a climate of trust
and good relations with the church."
The Spanish newspaper El País
described the handshake between the Pontiff and
Fidel as "historic."
Fidel himself, in a press conference
following the meeting, said that the meeting had "a
"I was able to observe his truly
kind and noble face. I have seen a good, noble, kind,
healthy man. I truly felt very moved to meet such an
outstanding figure, who has played such an important
role throughout the entire world.
"We talked about history, about
Latin America, about the world’s problems. I
explained to him that our Revolution had never been
"I met a Pope with great personality,
with exceptional characteristics, who has played an
important role in today’s world and, therefore, was
necessarily a meeting of a special nature for me.
Later, in January 1998, a few hours
before the scheduled arrival of the Supreme Pontiff
in Havana, Fidel made an appearance on national
television and recalled the meeting.
"He was very friendly, very
respectful, we could even say affectionate. He is a
man with a noble face – that was the impression he
gave me – he truly inspires respect. This was the
impression all of the compañeros there had,
as well. It was easy to converse with him, he speaks
Spanish as well as any of us, with great fluency –
we spoke Spanish. He is a precise man in everything;
he knows how to listen and listens with a lot of
attention - in such a way that I truly came away
with a good, pleasant, impression. That’s how I’ve
expressed it; there in Italy at the time, when they
asked me, and I’ve communicated it on other
occasions as well.