WILL HISTORY REPEAT: IS POPE'S VISIT TO CUBA A FOREBEARER TO OPEN TRADE?

WILL HISTORY REPEAT: IS POPE'S VISIT TO CUBA A FOREBEARER TO OPEN TRADE?

When Pope John Paul II lands across the Florida Straits in Cuba next week, the eyes of the world will be on the island nation to see if yet another closed, autocratic nation undergoes major change on account of his visit.

Credited with using his moral stature to accelerate the political and economic openings of Eastern Europe, Chile and Paraguay in the 1980s, the pope's arrival in Cuba next Wednesday carries enormous political and trade implications.In this week before the papal visit, precedents have already been set and strong messages have been sent. Communist Cuba on Tuesday allowed the highest ranking Catholic Church official on the island - Cardinal Jaime Ortega - to deliver a first-ever televised address to the nation.

''It opens up space for the one organization in Cuba that is independent. I think what it will do is make the playing field a little bit bigger,'' said Max Castro, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami's North-South Center. ''I think it's more likely to be a step in a marathon, rather than a quick sprint toward change.''

Significantly, Cardinal Ortega called for an end to the 36-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba - putting the Clinton administration's Cuba policy at odds with the only high-profile dissident group.

''It will focus attention once again on the fact that the people whom we believe our policy is supposed to benefit don't agree with it,'' Phil Peters, a senior fellow specializing in Cuba at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Va., said of the papal visit.

US ON SIDELINES

During this decade, Canada, Spain, France and Caribbean countries have lined up to do business with Cuba's infant tourism and energy sectors.

U.S. companies have been relegated to the sidelines because of the embargo upheld by every president since John F. Kennedy.

But in what may be a significant breakthrough, a new coalition was formed this week to support legislation that eases the trade embargo against Cuba.

Some of the heaviest hitters in U.S. trade politics got behind Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Dwayne Andreas, the chairman of Archer Daniels Midland, are among those seeking a policy that allows U.S. companies to export food and medicine to Cuba.

''We view food and medicine as a very important first step,'' said John Howard, a policy analyst with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber argues the embargo and extraterritorial laws like the Helms-Burton Act - which punishes foreign firms in the United States if they do business with Cuban companies on expropriated property - hurt U.S. companies outside of Cuba because they have drawn retaliatory measures in other countries.

''You can't win either way. Companies cannot operate that way in today's global market,'' said Mr. Howard.

When Congress reconvenes later this month, opponents of the embargo hope the pope's visit will provide the high profile needed to quickly move legislation.

''It's hard to argue with the pope. It gives (the effort) a tremendous amount of moral authority,'' said the University of Miami's Mr. Castro.

LIBERALIZATION SLOW

An isolated island with a population of 11 million, Cuba is hardly a country on the verge of economic explosion.

But, with a large and wealthy exile community in Miami, an exotic location for European and Canadian tourists and arguably the best education system in the region, Cuba is viewed as a diamond in the rough.

Over the past several years, Cuba has taken small steps toward capitalism, allowing for ''paladares'' - restaurants and other small home-based businesses.

But since 1996, Cuba has attempted to rein in those small firms, increasing inspections and taxes to prevent them from being too lucrative.

One of the areas Cuba experts will be watching after the papal visit is whether there will be a relaxation of regulation and more economic freedom for citizens.

''I think they are in a holding pattern now. I don't think the pope's visit is going to move the Cuba government on the economic decisions in front of it,'' said Mr. Peters.

BRIDGING THE GAP

But if the Catholic Church is allowed a greater role in daily life, it is likely to promote the freedom of association that, over a longer period, is central to economic life.

To some degree, the church's growing role in distribution of humanitarian aid has already created a second force in Cuba and one that may play a large role in bridging the transition from a communist holdout to Cuba's rejoining the community of nations.

''The interesting thing to watch after the visit occurs is the relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government,'' said Mr. Peters. ''The Catholic Church is the only nationwide institution that is not the Communist Party.''

Cuba watchers will also study how or if the communist regime will treat foreign investment differently. It has allowed some joint ventures in its agriculture sector, and its largest opening has been in its booming tourism industry.

It is in tourism that Spanish investment has poured in, and Caribbean companies have become important suppliers to that industry - which needs everything from air conditioners to shampoo to perishable food products.

Sometime during the first quarter of 1998, the Caribbean Export Development Agency, based in Barbados, will open a trade office in Havana.

Elected Caribbean heads of state have invited Fidel Castro to their meeting in Grenada in March, a further sign of Cuba's measured assimilation into the regional economy.

When Cuba opens, it is unlikely to undergo overnight transformation.

With little legal or political participation in multilateral bodies like the World Trade Organization, Cuba will first have to undertake measures like adopting an independent judiciary and passing investment-protection laws to attract investors and traders.