January 1998 was a moment of discovery and creativity, of unprecedented scenes and audible prayers. John Paul II visited us, and in the Plaza of the Revolution -- ground zero or, better yet, Ground Red for Cuban atheists -- he offered a sermon in which he mentioned the word "freedom" more than a dozen times. But beyond the ritual and liturgy, at the level of the street and ordinary people, life was also tumultuous.
Jokes multiplied -- a veritable avalanche of jests and satirical stories whose protagonists were both the Pope himself and then-president Fidel Castro. Just when we thought our sense of humor had abandoned us, when our smiles had been transformed into grimaces by the economic hardships of the "Special Period" -- that time after the collapse of the Soviet bloc when our economy shrank by a third -- our mockery and laughter were reborn.
Pepito, the eternal mischievous child of our stories, reappeared on the scene, to the surprise of those who thought he had taken off from Cuba's shores during the Rafter Crisis of 1994. With the papal staff on its right and the olive green-clad guerilla on its left, a disheveled little head mocked the human and the divine, the ancient and the immediate.
But now, shortly before Joseph Ratzinger lands on this island, our store of sarcasm seems dry and exhausted. Only one ridiculous and trite joke has been making the rounds -- a crude and stupid quip that explores the similarities between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Vatican, playing off the fact that the Spanish words for "pope" and potato" are the same. The punch line: "Yes, I know, in 50 years they both have produced only four popes/potatoes."
The reference, of course, is to the near disappearance of potato production -- a topic of conversation, rumors, and even extensive reports on state television these days. But the real question is whether our satirical impoverishment is a measure of the low expectations that surround the arrival of the head of the Catholic Church -- if humor, or the lack thereof in this case, is a barometer. Or, better yet, it might reflect the apathy that runs through our society, best summed up by the phrase, "Nothing is going to change, nobody is going to manage to make things change."
At the end of the nineties, Karol Wojtyla inspired us to hope. But now, in 2012, national cynicism conspires against enthusiasm. We already know, for example, that the phrase, "Let Cuba open herself to the world and let the world open itself to Cuba," never became more than the beautiful intention of the Polish pope.
In the nearly 15 years between one papal visit and the other, the Church has gained ground in the public life of our nation. But to do so its hierarchy has had to make concessions that have disappointed some of the faithful, laypeople, and even some hopeful atheists. When priests are asked about the slow and cautious steps the Cuban Church has taken, they always respond with the line, "We have survived two millennia despite worse difficulties, we cannot be rushed now."