Even a small gesture by the Pope would embolden Cuba’s dissidents.
When Pope Benedict XVI arrives today at Antonio Maceo Airport in Santiago de Cuba on Cuba’s eastern edge, he will find a nation much in need of the “new evangelization” that is at the heart of his pontificate.
The Vatican and the Cuban Catholic Church have repeatedly stressed the pastoral, that is to say apolitical, purpose of the pope’s visit. Though a majority of Cubans identify as Catholic, very few — roughly 5% — practice their faith. As one Cuba watcher put it to me, “Catholicism pervades Cuba, but the practice of Catholicism does not.”
But Benedict’s pilgrimage, the first papal visit to Cuba since John Paul II’s 1998 trip, also provides an opportunity for the pope to speak up for and encourage the country’s weary dissident community, many of whom criticize the Church for being overly conciliatory toward the Marxist regime.
On Friday, Benedict perhaps offered a preview of his message during the three-day visit. “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality,” Benedict told reporters accompanying him on his flight from Rome to Mexico, where he spent the weekend. “In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way.”
Benedict added that the Church wants “to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society.”
For its part, the Cuban government sees the pope’s visit as a chance to bolster its withering credibility. A contact in Havana tells me there are signs and billboards across the city welcoming the pope. The state-run newspaper, Granma, has featured stories promoting the visit for weeks.
The relationship between the Church and the Cuban government hasn’t been this strong since the early days of the regime. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, he announced that his revolution was informed by Christian principles.
This prompted the Franciscan journal La Quincena to praise the revolution as a “decisive and transcendental stage for Cuba” and to state that the “doctrine of the Fidelista revolution can be characterized as social-Christian.” The archbishop of Santiago de Cuba even held a mass to celebrate the revolutionary triumph.
It was not long, though, before Castro had declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and Cuba a socialist state. He began closing Catholic schools, killing and expelling priests and other religious, and discriminating against Catholics seeking state and university employment.
The Castro regime barred Catholics from joining the Communist Party, the country’s sole political party, and religious instruction was abolished in the new government-run schools as the Church was portrayed as an enemy of the poor. The Church was prohibited from printing independent newspapers, from establishing schools and hospitals and from training or importing priests and other religious.
After the Soviet Union’s demise in the late 1980s, Cubans lost the massive oil and food subsidies they had received from their communist brethren. Desperate to rehabilitate its image, the regime began reaching out to the Catholic Church. Castro met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996 and invited him to visit Cuba.
Castro also began making concessions to Cuba’s Catholics, lifting the ban on practicing Catholics joining the party and amending the constitution to turn a previously atheist Cuba into an officially secular one.
In 1998, John Paul II became the first pope to set foot in Cuba, prompting more concessions, including the release of more than 300 political prisoners.
Since then, the government has given the church greater freedom to do its pastoral work, import priests and renovate its churches. A new seminary was even opened, in 2010, the first since the revolution.
But Cuba has made no real progress in recognizing the basic human and political rights of its citizens. Cuba is still designated “not free” by Freedom House and is still among its “worst of the worst” countries and one of “the world’s most repressive regimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, sham trials, arbitrary arrests, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents’ families are widespread.
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