Looking For Friends, Castro Loosening Reins On Church

HAVANA - More and more Cubans have been making the annual mid-December pilgrimage to the Church of San Lazaro here in search of miracles.

For decades they have laid their infirmities at the feet of God and his saint and prayed for cures. But when they came a few weeks ago, the most impassioned plea was for improvement of the condition of the nation and, implicitly, some deliverance from the aging revolutionary, Fidel Castro.

The priest started it. In the catalog of intentions, he asked God to protect the thousands of political prisoners in Cuban jails, arousing a startling clamor from the 500 or so worshipers.

"Libertad! Libertad!" they chanted, intoning the Spanish word for liberty.

It was a small moment, but it reflected a growing boldness after 34 years of Castro's rule.

"The problems are so terrible, the people have nowhere else to turn but to God," said one priest.

MORE PERMISSIVE

Wisely, perhaps, the Castro regime has become more permissive about the churches, which are predominantly Catholic.

"They know that their own revolution was planned in churches," said another priest at San Lazaro. "And they want to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Others speculate that the Communist Party has begun to recognize the internal and international benefits of a more congenial relationship with religious groups.

Foreign diplomats say that since Cuba was plunged into devastating economic hardship by the collapse of the Soviet Union - the island's chief partner in trade and ideology - Castro has been casting about more desperately for new international alliances.

Demonstrating a respectful relationship with religious groups would be very important for most countries - particularly the overwhelmingly Catholic countries of Latin America.

And by allowing the church greater freedom, Castro also stands a better chance of holding onto support among his own people, says Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana.

Late last year, Castro also saw that the church can be a source of important economic and moral support.

In defiance of the United States' 30-year-old embargo against Cuba, a group of U.S. ministers escorted several tons of educational and medical supplies to Havana last November. On the receiving end of the shipment was Pastor Raul Suarez, who runs the Martin Luther King Center on the east side of Havana.

PRIEST IN ASSEMBLY?

Equally unusual, in February Suarez is expected to win a seat in Cuba's National Assembly, which would make him the first religious official permitted to hold national office since Castro seized control of the country in 1959.

"The government recognizes the power of the church in helping to broaden it's social base and maintain its popularity," Lopez says. "For the first time, there will be representation in the National Assembly speaking for people who have never been heard."

Lopez also sees a possible - if somewhat Quixotic - route of appeal to the United States with the ascension of Suarez.

"He is Baptist, and Bill Clinton is Baptist," the professor notes. "And most blacks in the United States are Baptist. So, for the first time, someone in the Cuban government will have a direct, amicable relationship with sectors in the United States."

Suarez says he hopes to serve as the "moral conscience" of the government and says he repeatedly pleads with Castro to be just to the people of Cuba.

"I will be on the side of the revolution when it promotes justice and when it promotes human dignity," he said.

"But, there are some things about the revolution that I don't understand and don't agree with," he adds quickly. "And with my office, I will try to discuss these things with other leaders."

Leaders of dissident groups say that the election of a religious official to the National Assembly would be insignificant because the assembly has practically no power. It meets for less than two weeks each year and acts as little more than a rubber stamp for Castro's programs.

Moreover, the dissidents say that Suarez has never acted strongly to protest government activities, including political imprisonments.

"This could just be an effort by Fidel to show the world that he is allowing all kinds of candidates to participate in the elections," says Ramon Cernuda, leader of a Cuban human rights group in Miami. "The government may be allowing him to say controversial things because they know he is not a threat."