Comment: Can Cuba emerge from the shadows?
Pope John Paul II meets then-President Fidel Castro during the pontiff's 1998 visit to Cuba
El Cobre village, with the shrine of Our Lady of Cobre in the background
A typical street scene in Cuba
Crowds throng the streets in devotion to Our Lady of Cobre, Patron of Cuba
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, Cuba
As Cuba's Christians stand on the threshold of a new era of hope and a relaxing of oppressive State controls, John Pontifex, Aid to the Church in Need's head of press and information, asks whether it really is a springtime of faith in the communist Caribbean island.
Picture the scene: millions of people gather on the streets, straining to catch a glimpse as an image of their country's Catholic patron passes by. Everybody wants to be there to enjoy this national celebration.
Nothing unusual about that, you might say, particularly as this Caribbean island had long exposure to Catholicism during its many years as a Spanish colony.
The only difference is that the island is in fact Cuba. More than half a century after Fidel Castro carried out a crackdown on the Church, Christians of all denominations are still reeling from the effects of those dark days when the regime confiscated churches, schools and other Church-run buildings and institutions and forced hundreds of (foreign) priests to pack up their bags and leave.
Until recently outdoor religious gatherings were forbidden and a nation-wide celebration of the country's Catholic patron was unthinkable.
So what has changed?
The mantle of president has now been passed to Fidel's quieter brother, Raúl, and something of a rapprochement has been reported between the Church and the State. Significantly, Raúl himself was present in November 2010 at the opening of the new national seminary in Havana, the first new religious building to be erected since the Revolution of 1959.
By that point, celebrations were underway to mark the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Cobre, Cuba's national patron.
The statue was first sighted out at sea by young boys in a boat caught in a storm off the island's south-east coast. On seeing the Virgin floating towards them on a piece of wood, the storm abated and the three lads – known as the 'Three Juans' – felt that it was the statue that had saved their lives.
They sought permission for a shrine to be erected to what became known as Our Lady of Charity (Caridad) of Cobre. All these centuries later, many praying at the Shrine of Our Lady of Cobre have felt that it is her protection that has enabled the Church to survive some very rocky times under the regime.
"A new way of interacting"
It is against this backdrop that in March 2012 Pope Benedict XVI makes his long-awaited visit to Cuba, building on what the Church hierarchy describes as a "new way of interacting with the authorities on the island".
That "dialogue", as they term it, resulted in Raúl's regime tasking Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, with mediating between the communist top brass and the so-called Women in White, the relatives of men jailed as dissidents but described by their supporters as prisoners of conscience.
Cardinal Ortega's mediation resulted in the release of 140 prisoners who were sent with their families as 'refugees' to Spain.
The full truth about what is happening in Cuba is difficult if not impossible for an outsider to understand but certainly the current 'mood music' is decidedly up-beat as the final countdown to the Papal visit gets underway.
Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Cuba builds on the success of his predecessor Pope John Paul II's momentous 1998 visit to the island.
Both at the time and afterwards, the trip was hailed as a triumph in terms of helping to heal the wounds of division and ideological differences. Christmas, which before his visit was all but banned, was now reinstated. Although the Church was not allowed access to the media, it was allowed to develop its outreach to the poor and the marginalised.
By then the Communist Party had abandoned its description of itself as an 'atheistic' regime. Now, the pace of change seems to have sped up a little.
Recently, during the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, Raúl Castro gave a statement asserting religion's importance in society. He gave the example of a militant female party member who is also a member of a Church and who had been sanctioned as such by the authorities.
The Cuban president's intention would seem to be to overcome the ideological conflicts that the Marxists always had with Christianity. The Pope's visit and the culmination of celebrations marking Our Lady of Cobre's anniversary are a crucial test of whether the Church in Cuba can truly emerge from the shadows of a difficult and at times traumatic past.