Will Pope Francis Prevail in Cuba?

The enormous Christ of Havana statue overlooks the harbor and city of Havana, Cuba.

The enormous Christ of Havana statue overlooks the harbor and city of Havana, Cuba.

There are many who feel profound concern over the new “thaw” in US-Cuba relations. Some have denounced it, saying it leaves Castro’s regime in power. What is the Pope’s vision?

It was an announcement both historic and unexpected. On December 17, the United States and Cuba agreed to restore diplomatic ties that had been severed for 50 years.

After 18 months of secret talks, reported Reuters, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro had agreed “on a breakthrough prisoner exchange, the opening of embassies in each other’s countries, and an easing of some restrictions on commerce.”

President Obama also called for an end to the US embargo against Cuba — which needs congressional action — and said he was ending “an outdated policy of isolating Cuba that had failed to achieve change on the island.”

As if that wasn’t surprising enough, it was soon revealed that the Vatican — and more specifically, Pope Francis — had played a major role in the agreement by writing both leaders, and authorizing Vatican diplomats to help facilitate it.

Describing the details, Time magazine commented: “When it comes to Cuba, Pope Francis is continuing the work of his predecessors. Just over half the Cuban population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and the Vatican stepped up its relations with the country over the past two decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012. At an outdoor Mass, he urged Cuba to ‘build a renewed and open society, a better society one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.’”

Of course, Cuba was then and still remains a Communist tyranny — a fact made painfully clear just days after the agreement was reached.

In a defiant and blustering speech, Cuban President Raul Castro — successor to his brother Fidel, and like Fidel, a dictator, never freely elected — declared that Cuba had “won” the Cold War against the United States. He also reaffirmed the Marx­ist principles of the Cuban revolution, and said any reforms would reflect the country’s system of “prosperous and sustainable Communism.”

Shortly thereafter, the world found out what that meant. Cuban authorities suppressed a planned gathering of the country’s long-suffering human rights advocates, detaining and harassing 50 of them. Dozens more detentions followed. These actions only heightened the fears of those who believe the papal-sponsored deal was, at the very least, imprudent.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush — a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination — strongly criticized the deal, stating: “Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record, and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators. The benefactors of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro brothers, who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio — another presidential contender — also sharply objected, bringing Pope Francis into the discussion: “I ask His Holiness to take up the cause for freedom and democracy,” he said, adding, “The people of Cuba deserve to have the same chances at democracy as the people of Argentina have had, where he’s from.”

It was a direct and heartfelt challenge to the Pope, from a Catholic senator whose own family left Cuba shortly before the Castro regime came to power.

But the Pope’s supporters say Francis shares Senator Rubio’s ultimate goal of liberating Cuba — whatever their differences at the moment — and that this will emerge in the coming months and years.

Francis’ support for the US-Cuban agreement, they argue, is only his first move in a long-term strategy to free the country; and they also stress he knows there will be setbacks, and is well aware of the brutalities of Castro’s regime.

US President Barack Obama greets Cuban President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) before giving his speech at a memorial service on December 10 for late South African President Nelson Mandela.

US President Barack Obama greets Cuban President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) before giving his speech at a memorial service on December 10 for late South African President Nelson Mandela.

Pope Francis is no political naïf. During his years in Argentina, he battled Marxists on the Left, and fascists on the Right, and did so with exceptional cour­age. He has never been passive toward fundamental human rights; and that is especially true of Cuba. Early in his papacy, he met and blessed Berta Soler, the leader of Cuba’s courageous “Damas de Blanco” (Ladies in White), the island’s most famous human rights group, endorsing their cause. Last May, Francis met with the family of the late  Cuban freedom fighter Oswaldo Paya — widely believed to have been killed by Castro’s secret agents — and discussed the urgent need for freedom and human rights in Cuba.

But even before these two significant events, back in 1998, after St. John Paul II visited the island, Francis (then an archbishop) wrote a book in which he asked for an end to the US embargo against Cuba — as did John Paul II and Benedict — but also condemned the Castro regime for its inhuman ideology and crimes.

Francis’ track record against political tyranny, therefore, is not one of appeasement, but clear-eyed Christian realism.

Critics of the Pope’s approach argue that extending American relations with Communists in Vietnam and China hasn’t led to more open societies in those countries, and a similar failure is likely to follow the Cuban deal. But there is one huge difference these critics ignore: the moral and spiritual power of the papacy.  Francis won’t simply be relying on diplomatic and economic initiatives to change Cuba, but on his own personal outreach.

No Pope has ever been allowed to travel to Communist Vietnam or China, but two Popes already have visited Cuba,  and Francis is almost certain to follow their lead — but in a new and dramatic way.

The hope is that just as the Polish Pope confronted the Communists in his own homeland — sparking a movement that eventually led to the liberation of Eastern Europe — Francis, as the first Latin American Pope, will speak truth to power in Cuba, and inspire his fellow  Latin Americans to recognize the profound evils of Communism, and cast them off forever.

Pope Francis with Berta Soler, leader of Cuba’s courageous “Ladies in White".

Pope Francis with Berta Soler, leader of Cuba’s courageous “Ladies in White”.

It is something that will obviously take time.

It took a full decade for the impact of John Paul’s visit to Poland in 1979 to be felt — the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 — and it may take a similar time frame to see the effects on Cuba of a visit by Francis.

This past September, upon the feast of the patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity, Pope Francis sent a moving message to Cubans, urging them never to lose hope amidst the cross of Communism: “Every time I read the Sacred Scriptures in the passages that speak of Our Lady,” he said,  “three words stand out to me: rejoice… arise… and persevere….

“Christ gives to his own the necessary strength not to be sad or overwhelmed by thinking about the problems that cannot be solved. Sustained by this truth, the Christian does not doubt that which is done in love engenders serene joy, the sister of that hope which breaks the wall of fear and opens the doors to a future of promise.”

One famous Cuban hoping that the Pope’s vision prevails is Andres Carrion Alvarez. His name is not that well-known, but his image certainly is. During Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit to Cuba, it was Carrion who was seen, at an outdoor papal Mass, shouting: “Down with dictatorship! Down with Communism!” and “Don’t be fooled! The Cubans are slaves!”

He was immediately dragged away, jailed and beaten by Castro’s thugs, and likely survived only because of international pressure to free him. He has finally made it to America, and in a recent interview, Carrion said that he “is hopeful for Cuba’s future.” Fidel Castro is 87 years old; Raul is 82. With their eventual deaths, Carrion sees the potential for change. “You just got to keep fighting,” he said. “Maybe in less than 10 years it can happen.”

Maybe — and with prayer and fortitude, God willing, Francis can help lead the way.

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