WASHINGTON — Jubilation in Cuba is assured as Pope Francis travels through the dilapidated streets of the impoverished island during his four-day visit, Sept. 19-22.
When Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, a small Marian figure, was transported from one end of Cuba to the other four years ago, some 5 million people came out, according to the Archdiocese of Havana.
And overall, the nation is upbeat, in light of newly restored diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba — a breakthrough Pope Francis is credited with helping to broker. His popularity was 80% in a recent national poll.
But it is impossible to imagine the Holy Father merely taking a victory lap around the island. He descends into a troubled land: Cuba is an economically feeble police state, where more than half of its citizens say they would leave if they could, according to a March Univision survey.
Cuba’s thuggish government exerts control over every aspect of life. It is quick to jail anyone who dares challenge its authority — and repression is on the rise, according to the Miami Herald.
For 20 years, brothers Fidel and Raul Castro have sought to use the Catholic Church, including papal visits, for their own purposes. A test for Pope Francis is to avoid being manipulated, which means Pope St. John Paul II’s historic visit in 1998 is a better model than Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage in 2012.
Bringing people back to the Eucharistic table, pressing the Gospel message on the island’s elite and encouraging justice seekers (many of whom are believers, routinely scorned and harassed by the Communist regime) are three of the Holy Father’s most worthwhile challenges in Cuba.
The Castros and the Church
Raised by a Rosary-praying mother, the brothers attended Catholic schools, including a Jesuit-run high school in Havana, which Fidel closed in 1961. Yet he promoted the book Fidel and Religion in 1985, a lengthy attempt to square liberation theory with his totalitarian project.
At three key moments in the last 20 years, the Castro brothers have turned to the Church’s highest leadership to help them escape the implications of dictatorship — and thus, to preserve their political longevity.
In 1996, in the midst of economic meltdown, desperate for new external allies and trade, Fidel Castro invited John Paul II to visit Cuba.
In 2010, Raul Castro relied on Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, to defuse tension with political prisoners by negotiating a controversial release that exiled many regime critics to Spain — a solution that cast a long shadow on Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 pilgrimage.
And in 2014, Pope Francis and his small, savvy team served as guarantors of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to normalize diplomatic relations, with no conditions related to human rights.
Is the Catholic Church allowing itself to be used by the survivalist Castros to legitimize a morally corrupt regime?
Or will the Vatican’s knack for maintaining the long view on political situations, keeping its eye on the needs of the local faithful — together with our theology of history, seeing God working through these events — ultimately protect our Church?
The First Pope to Visit
St. John Paul II’s dramatic pilgrimage grew out of a personal invitation from Fidel Castro, when the dictator visited the Vatican in 1996.
It was a desperate time for Cuba, which had been economically dependent on the Soviet Union. With the collapse of communism in 1991, Cuba lost subsidized gas, underpriced goods, including food and medicine, and a wide range of other financial benefits. The changes brought the island-nation close to famine.
It also led Fidel to make a few positive overtures toward the Church: The Communist Party opened membership to people of faith; the constitution was changed to describe Cuba as a “secular state,” rather than an atheist one; Christmas was finally acknowledged as a national holiday.
By appealing to the Pope, Fidel was hoping to tap into a major policy stance the regime and Church share: opposition to the American economic embargo, which was initiated in 1960.
As Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski has explained: “The Church in Cuba has always opposed the embargo, arguing that it was a blunt instrument that hurt the innocent more than the guilty.”
In January 1998, the saintly Pope did, indeed, denounce the U.S. embargo as ethically unacceptable. He criticized affluent countries that allow blind market forces to impoverish others. Overall, St. John Paul II inspired a distinct spirit of solidarity that had not been experienced in recent memory, according to people who were there.
The Holy Father underscored the Church’s alliance with those who suffer. He wasn’t shy about supporting political change, praying “that this land may offer everyone a climate of freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace.”
Inspiring a Movement
St. John Paul II revitalized Catholic communities on the island, especially those ready to actively work for greater political freedom. As one priest said at the time, “The Church has gained a space and a moral strength that cannot be taken away.”
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, a devout Catholic, was inspired to initiate a legal reform effort, known as the Varela Project, a nationwide signature campaign demanding a referendum on fundamental freedoms, launched by the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación (MCL, Christian Liberation Movement) — a grassroots movement founded by Payá in 1988.
“On a higher level, the Varela Project represents a critical assertion of individual dignity and worth,” Payá told the Register in a 2010 interview. “It challenges: Have faith and be inspired! There is something you can do. You can act with the freedom God gave you and no one can take away from you. Demand your rights and the rights of all Cubans. This is liberation.”
Not since Fidel Castro took power had Cubans acted in solidarity to challenge the regime. Payá, with other democratic activists, presented 11,020 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly on May 10, 2002.
A year later, Oswaldo and his wife, Ofelia, presented another 14,384 signatures to the assembly — a more somber occasion because, during the “Black Spring” of 2003, state security had arrested 75 Varela Project activists, giving them harsh sentences. The crackdown gutted MCL leadership and paralyzed the democratic momentum inspired by Pope John Paul II.
Ladies in White
To protest the miserable conditions in which their men were held, as well as the injustice of their arrests, mothers and wives of the incarcerated Varela Project activists began meeting at St. Rita’s Church in Havana, launching a silent protest after Mass every Sunday. The Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) wear white to symbolize peace, and they carry gladiolas to signify love.
When a 42-year-old prisoner of conscience, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died of starvation in February 2010 following an 85-day hunger strike, the Ladies sought to expand the protest to downtown Havana. In response, mobs stepped up counter-protests, screaming, spitting at and mauling them.
Video of the Ladies being physically assaulted attracted international media.
Appalled, Cardinal Ortega wrote to President Raul Castro on behalf of the Ladies, requesting Sunday protests outside St. Rita’s be allowed without harassment. Castro seized this opportunity to use the Church to help overcome an increasingly high-profile problem: the Varela Project prisoners and their families.
Talks between the cardinal, the president and some Ladies led to agreement on their right to march and, eventually, a plan to offer conditional release to the prisoners of conscience — as long as they agreed to move with their families to Spain.
Cardinal Ortega was deeply involved in negotiating and implementing the prisoner release, personally contacting jailed activists by phone to urge them to accept exile. Although a few held out to stay in Cuba, most accepted exile.
By this time, the Church was also playing other significant social roles on the island, from running daycares and kindergartens to caring for senior citizens, offering computer and language classes, running a new business school program to help train new entrepreneurs and filling a new seminary.
The prelate told the Register in 2010 that the Church was prepared to help the regime find a new economic course peacefully. But, he insisted, the Catholic Church can never side with one political actor or another. He mentioned that although Oswaldo Payá was certainly a good Catholic, he had “no program to offer the island.” Instead, the cardinal suggested this reporter look up Manuel Cuesta Morua, a socialist.
Cardinal Ortega’s archdiocese has since become the forum for a group called Laboratorio Casa Cuba, comprised of “professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican–socialists and anarchists),” promoting a socialist program, with an anti-American tone.
Pope Benedict’s Visit
The prisoner-release scheme did not inhibit the emergence of new challenges to the dictatorship, mainly less-coordinated local efforts, but also new forms of dissent, such as critical rock bands and blogs. As protests multiplied, so did repression.
Ten days before Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in late March 2012, a group of 13 Catholics occupied a Havana church, demanding three issues be presented to the Pope: ongoing political arrests, lack of Internet access and low wages. At the request of the Archdiocese of Havana, police removed the protesters.
Vatican Insider reported some 50 dissidents were arrested on the eve of the Pope’s arrival to keep them away from him. As the Holy Father entered a public square for his first Mass, a protester who shouted, “Down with the revolution!” was dragged away by security guards.
Regime dissidents had requested an audience with Benedict. Not only were they blocked from meeting him, the homes of some, including Payá’s, were surrounded by police to prevent them from attending Mass.
Four months later, Payá and his assistant, Herold Cepero Escalante, a young Catholic activist who left seminary to dedicate himself to Payá’s work, were killed in a car crash engineered by Cuban hit men, according to the car’s driver, who alleged he was rammed from behind, then drugged and jailed to make him lie that the accident was his own fault.
At Payá’s funeral, presided over by Cardinal Ortega, 200 state security police surrounded the church and arrested more than 50 mourners.
Pope Francis was in St. John Paul II’s entourage for the first papal visit to Cuba. In fact, Jorge Bergoglio edited a book of collected talks and homilies titled Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro.
Thus, he has deep knowledge of the island, the Castros, the tightrope walked by Cardinal Ortega and the high stakes of change. This experience helps explain why the Holy Father was able to play such a constructive role in secret negotiations to restore Cuba-U.S. relations.
In the Vatican’s view, better relations will improve the lives of the faithful on the island and open it to change.
However, the Pope’s upcoming visit to Cuba evokes the same perils faced by Benedict XVI in 2012. According to a published report, Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, predicts repression will increase as a result of Pope Francis’ trip. (The Ladies in White continue to march on behalf of new prisoners and to protest a capricious justice system that forbids dissent.)
She and other dissidents think Pope Francis’ visit could endanger them, based on three factors: repression they experienced during Pope Benedict’s visit; increased harassment at St. Rita’s over the last few months (about 100 protesters were arrested on July 5, for example, and one person’s nose was fractured); and Cardinal Ortega’s recent statements regarding political prisoners.
Cuban-Americans and island opponents are outraged the cardinal told Spanish radio in June there are no longer prisoners of conscience in Cuba. In response, several dissidents tried to give the Church leader a list with 51 names at a July 4 party hosted by the U.S. government, which led to a confrontation between the prelate and the protesters.
Yearning for Truth
No one can stymie forever the human yearning for truth — a belief that’s fundamental to our faith, even if it takes time.
A new referendum initiative has been launched under the banner “Cuba Decides” — essentially what the Varela Project initiated 17 years ago. Oswaldo Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria, age 26, is a project leader.
And as a God-given natural right, freedom is not something the Castro regime can withhold forever, despite their plan to engineer an economic transformation on the Chinese model, excluding civil rights.
Convincing Cuba’s elite to open themselves to the Gospel message will probably be the Holy Father’s hardest task.
Yet Pope Francis does seem to have a foot in the door: President Raul Castro, age 84, told reporters at a press conference in Rome he may rejoin the Church of his youth.
“I read all the speeches of the Pope, his commentaries, and if the Pope continues this way,” the dictator said in May, “I will go back to praying and go back to the Church, and I’m not joking.”