Cars are driven as the sun sets over Havana's seafront boulevard. President Raul Castro has begun to open the Cuban economy to its citizens and there is cautious but visible change on the island. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

The setting was historic. The looming 18th-century Seminary of San Carlos in Old Havana. The attendance remarkable. A hall packed with professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists, diplomats. The subject matter once unthinkable.

Just after Pope Benedict XVI left Cuba about a week ago, the Catholic Church hosted a talk by Miami millionaire Carlos Saladrigas, who politely but directly said here in a public forum that socialism — the bedrock of the revolution — wasn’t working anymore on the Communist-run island.

“To be honest,” Saladrigas said later, “who could have thought such a meeting possible? Not me. Never.”

The meeting was a sign that there is cautious but visible change on the island.

Saladrigas, a Cuban exile entrepreneur and former hard-liner who has flourished in Miami, said “big changes in the next few years” were inevitable, and he advised young Cubans to stay put. Although Saladrigas said Cuba’s state-run economy needed to be opened to free enterprise, the investor, 63, also blamed the U.S. government and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles and their politicians in South Florida for perpetuating a standoff that has hurt Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.

“Change is not easy, I know this personally,” he said.

“This was an event of tremendous importance, the first time that a prominent Cuban from abroad could express these thoughts in a large forum,” said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent Cuban economist who attended the meeting. He said Saladrigas and the dozen people who stood at the microphone criticized both the Cuban and U.S. governments — and even offered a few solutions — in voices respectful and calm.

There were tough questions, too, directed at Saladrigas. Participants asked how the Miami exiles could really help Cuba while supporting the 50-year-old embargo. The questioners wanted to know how U.S.-style capitalism could replace Cuban socialism without turning workers into wage slaves and leaving the most vulnerable at the mercy of the markets.

In the past three years, President Raul Castro has begun to open the Cuban economy to its citizens. The government allows small businesses — such as car washers, shoe cobblers, pizza makers — to operate, even hire employees, although it restricts the size and ambition of the enterprise.

The streets are filled with legal bazaars (and some black-marketeering) as fledging entrepreneurs dip their toes into the capitalist stream. Some neighborhoods in Havana look like a perpetual garage sale.

For-profit produce stalls are piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables; the government bodegas that issue staples such as rice, beans and oil still serve as a safety net in a country where the average monthly wage is $25, although they seem less vital and look empty.

The state is trying in fits and starts to trim its unproductive workforce. It is beginning to shutter state-run cafeterias and has even floated the idea of ending ration cards. Fallow lands have been offered to free-enterprise farmers, although they complain they can’t get access to tractors or fertilizers. Citizens can buy and sell their cars — just not new cars — and their homes, too.

Although the Internet is limited and mostly dial-up slow, there are 1.5 million cellphones. Just a few years ago, ordinary citizens were barred from owning them.

Church-state relations

Under Castro, the government is also allowing more space for criticism — although not dissent. One of the main beneficiaries of that change is the Catholic Church, which is providing community outreach programs, offering the kinds of services — breakfast for the elderly, free pharmacies and computer, business and English classes — that were once the sole responsibility of the state.

The church and the government appear to be working side by side. When he was in Cuba, the pope pressed for more religious freedom. The Vatican wants the church to run schools and hospitals here. There was no official response to the request. But Castro granted the pontiff one wish — the government declared Good Friday a paid holiday.

If Havana is changing, so, too, is Miami.

When Pope John Paul II came to Cuba in 1998, it was Saladrigas who organized mass demonstrations — and backroom arm-twisting — that led the Catholic Church in Miami to cancel plans to charter a cruise ship to bring South Florida pilgrims to the island to greet the pope.

Saladrigas now says he was wrong, and he vowed not to make the same mistake twice. In the past year, with sponsorship from the church, the Cuban government has awarded Saladrigas four visas to visit the island. (In the years preceding, he was turned down eight times).

The Catholic Church in Miami brought 800 pilgrims in five planes to Cuba to celebrate Mass with the pope, led by the Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

The exile community in Miami has more confidence in the Catholic Church in Cuba to act as a force for positive change, Wenski said, to help negotiate a “soft landing” as Cuba makes the inevitable transition to post-Castro realities.

“Of course, not everyone wants a soft landing. Some people want chaos and bloodshed and civil war,” Wenski said, “but those people are in the minority now.”

Wenski said the pope’s visit advanced everyone’s cause, at least a little bit. “Everyone needs the church in Cuba, even Raul. Maybe especially Raul.”

Moving toward engagement

Joe Garcia, the former director of the conservative Cuban American National Foundation, based in Miami and Washington, said opponents of the last pope’s visit learned that they missed an opportunity to engage.

“This time, there was no real opposition. In Miami, we saw the visit by the pope as mostly a good thing. Not great, but good,” Garcia said. “Though, of course, there were a few people who wanted to see the pope get off the plane like Rambo and take out the leadership.”

Garcia said that people in Miami were mostly disappointed the pope did not meet with dissidents on the island and that the pontiff did not speak directly to the harassment they faced.

In the eyes of militant exiles in Miami, Saladrigas was a traitor to the cause who had gone soft with his talk of reconciliation with the Cuban state and society.

Now they are watching him on television.

To the Castro government, Saladrigas once represented the enemy, the conservative, wealthy Miami fat cat, the true gusano, the worm.

Now he is granted visas to visit.