Vatican Ostpolitik and the Death of Fidel Castro 

Upon the passing of Fidel Castro, the mainstream media are presenting the Cuban tyrant, the longest-reigning dictator in human history, in a much more benevolent way than they would the passing of any other strongman. For example, the headline in The New York Times reads: “Fidel Castro, Cuban Leader Who Defied U.S., Dies at 90.” In 2006, when General Augusto Pinochet, the bloody American-backed military dictator of Chile (whose body count was smaller than Castro’s), it would have been inconceivable for the Times to publish a headline reading: “Augusto Pinochet, Chilean Leader Who Defied U.S.S.R. and Cuba, Dies at 91.” Indeed, it is difficult to find another tyrant with a horrific human rights record whose transgressions were not only glossed over by the international media, global celebrities, and political leaders, but who in fact was celebrated by them. While Pope Francis is not a fan of Castro, he has taken an excessively diplomatic approach to his regime. His approach to the Cuban junta echoes his overall surprising relationship with communism, one that—if anything can be extrapolated from recent Church history—will only have negative consequences in the long term.

Before the communist Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuba was hardly a Shangri-La. The country faced a severely unequal distribution of wealth, and its rural provinces were especially impoverished. Meanwhile, the country was under the iron grip of Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt, brutal military dictator whose rule was marked by torture and political killings. At the same time, Cuba was becoming a model for development for much of Latin America. In the 1950s, Cuba’s per capita average income exceeded that of Japan, Austria, and Spain; meanwhile, the country boasted of the third-highest level of protein consumption in the Western Hemisphere, and became a destination for many immigrants from Europe, Asia, and other parts of Latin America.

Appalled by the corruption and political violence under Batista’s regime, many members of Cuba’s middle class and intelligentsia supported Castro’s Revolution (during which his relationship to communism was still ambiguous). However, they were quickly disappointed with what came next. In the fifty-seven years that the Castro brothers have ruled Cuba, the country has become a laboratory of communist terror: the killings and disappearances of thousands of Cubans have been documented; there are no free elections; the quality of life in Cuba has deteriorated rapidly, and many Cubans live in abject poverty; and the abortion rate in the country is the world’s second highest (which only makes Cuba’s rapidly aging population worse). Despite the left’s embrace of the LGBT agenda, the fact that homosexuals are sent to concentration camps in Cuba has not been especially well publicized in the mainstream media. The situation for political prisoners in Cuba’s jails is so desperate that many of them deliberately inject themselves with the HIV virus to put themselves out of their misery. Meanwhile, each year thousands of Cubans try to float across shark-infested waters to Florida on inner tubes to flee the appalling reality of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship.

Despite these well-documented horrors, Fidel Castro has been romanticized more so than perhaps any other tyrant. As a college student, I spent many hours verbally sparring about Castro with naïve undergraduates (and, once, a professor) who had the luxury of never having to experience communism in practice; no matter how many statistics that proved that the Cuban dictator turned his country into one big gulag I fed them, their conviction that Castro was a wily, handsome, articulate, and charismatic romantic rebel who has boldly fought against Yankee imperialism for half a century remained unchanged.

However, not only naïve undergraduates have shown surprising deference to the Cuban tyrant. Senator Bernie Sanders, who unsuccessfully fought to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in this year’s primaries, openly praised Castro in 1985 (and has refused to retract his past statements). Meanwhile, although Steven Spielberg has made films chronicling the horrors of the Holocaust and of slavery, he has been much more forgiving of communist butchers: he has called his meeting with Castro “the best seven hours [he] ever spent.”

There are many other global leaders and celebrities who have openly praised Castro. It would be an exaggeration to put Pope Francis in this ignoble crowd. However, it would not be too much to call his attitude towards Cuba Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement. During his 2015 pilgrimage to the country, the pontiff met with no dissidents. In fact, while he did call for Cuba to open up to the world, he said nothing that would make the regime uncomfortable. Rather, as is often with Francis, his homily stuck to vague feel-good phrases. During his 1998 visit to Cuba, Pope St. John Paul II used the word “freedom” seventeen times and “justice” thirteen times during his homily. By contrast, Francis did not use either word at all during his homily in Havana. This appeasing attitude was so evident that even the Washington Post published an editorial criticizing the pontiff. That’s the WaPo, folks, not the National Review; there’s a reason why conservatives jokingly called the publication “Pravda on the Potomac” during the Cold War. It is true that Raul Castro recently released 787 prisoners and claimed to be influenced by Francis’ call for heads of state to do so during the Year of Mercy, but this was not a papal appeal to the Cuban regime specifically. Fidel’s brother denies there are political prisoners in Cuban jails despite the claims of human rights organizations.

Francis’ odd relations with Havana echo his puzzling recent statements on communism. Recently, in an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, the editor-in-chief of La Repubblica (Italy’s equivalent of The New York Times or Washington Post), he said: “It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide. Not demagogues, not Barabbas, but the people, the poor, whether they have faith in a transcendent God or not. It is they who must help to achieve equality and freedom.” (This statement immediately made me think of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s observation that the difference between Christ and Marx is that the former asked his disciples to give their own property to the poor, while the latter asked his followers to forcibly take the property of others and give it to the poor).

How can we understand Pope Francis’ strange statements on communism and excessively polite relations with communist dictators? While his statement in La Repubblica wasn’t the wisest, Francis certainly is not a personal supporter of the Castro regime. In 1998, before he was a cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio published a book about St. John Paul II’s meetings with Fidel Castro; in it, he blasts the regime as “corrupt” and “authoritarian.” While Francis did not meet with any anti-Castro dissidents during his visit to Cuba, he did telephone the Ladies in White (a Cuban dissident movement consisting of the wives of jailed political prisoners who march in protest against the regime after attending Sunday Mass). This can only be seen as a supporting move. Furthermore, as a Latin American, Pope Francis must be aware of the abuses occurring in Cuba.

In my opinion, this is because of papal diplomacy. A close look at Pope Francis’ appointments to key posts in the Roman Curia shows that many of them are Vatican diplomats. Similarly, a large proportion of the archbishops Francis has made cardinals are diplomats (most recently, he gave Mario Zenari, the Italian-born papal nuncio to Syria, the red hat). It can thus be inferred that Francis, likely influenced by papal diplomats, believes that by cozying up with the Castros he can eventually politely ask them to improve the conditions of Catholics in Cuba. If this sounds like a naïve policy, then it must be emphasized that this is not without precedent.

During his pontificate, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) was a staunch anti-communist. He raised three brave archbishops who uncompromisingly fought communist tyranny—József Mindszenty of Hungary, Stefan Wyszyński of Poland, and Aloysius Stepinac (Stepinac’s relationship with Croatia’s wartime pro-Nazi collaborationist government is controversial, but no one can doubt that he heroically resisted communism) of Yugoslavia—to the College of Cardinals, and he always backed them. When, in 1956, the Hungarian people bravely rose up against their Soviet masters (and were ultimately crushed by Soviet tanks), Pius issued an encyclical praising the Magyars’ courage and condemning the Soviet invasion.

However, in 1958 Pope St. John XXIII, a holy and modest man, took over the Barque of Peter. John was a professional diplomat prior to being named as patriarch of Venice, and he took a pragmatic approach to communists that has been called Ostpolitik. He believed that by not provoking them, he could negotiate better conditions for Christians living behind the Iron Curtain. Thus St. John established friendly rapport with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (who 1956 became known as the “butcher of Budapest”) and avoided issuing a document condemning communism during the Second Vatican Council (the bishops present had requested such a statement). John XXIII’s policy did succeed in one aspect: he persuaded Khrushchev to release Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyj (whom he made a cardinal) from the gulag.

This policy was continued by John’s successor Blessed Paul VI (1958-1978), another veteran papal diplomat. East of the Elbe, newly appointed bishops tended to be those who were uncritical of, if not subservient to, their Marxist-Leninist masters. In 1974, Paul deprived Cardinal Mindszenty of the title of primate of Hungary after unsuccessfully trying to persuade him to renounce the role. In Mindszenty’s wake, Paul appointed sycophant bishops across Hungary. Everywhere, confessionals were bugged. The Hungarian Church was led underground and lost the trust of many Hungarians; only now is the Church there, now led by the dynamic and brilliant Cardinal Péter Erdő, who himself was born in the 1950s into a devout family that practiced its faith in secret, reawakening.

Pope Francis’ kind words about communism and bizarre relations with Cuba’s regime seem oddly reminiscent of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik. The latter strategy’s fruits were nothing other than devastating the Church in many communist-ruled countries and making it complacent towards communist regimes. Ostpolitik ended on October 16, 1978, when a charismatic, intelligent Pole who had fought his nation’s communist masters for three decades was elected pope. St. John Paul II wasn’t afraid of speaking the truth about communism; while he did enjoy friendly relations with Mikhail Gorbachev, he was unafraid of speaking the truth about man during his visits to his communist-ruled homeland, especially during the first 1979 visit.

Secularized Cuba is not Poland. Before the Revolution of 1959, less than 10 percent of Cubans were regular churchgoers. Now, as a result of half a century of communist propaganda, there are actually more declared atheists and agnostics than Catholics in Cuba. However, the Church there could have the potential to uplift the people and fight for change. In 1989-1991, the Church stood at the forefront of anti-communist dissident movements in countries like Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, societies that were much less Catholic than Poland.

It would be unfair to characterize Pope Francis as a friend of the Castro regime. He has repeatedly demonstrated that his heart is with the Ladies in White, not with Raul and Fidel. Yet Church history shows that his excessively proper and diplomatic dealings with Havana are unlikely to bear many good fruits. Instead, Francis should unambiguously show that he stands with the people. Throughout the 1980s, St. John Paul II visited many countries ruled by authoritarian regimes: in addition to his native Poland, he paid visits to Pinochet’s Chile, Marcos’ Philippines, Stroessner’s Paraguay, and Duvalier’s Haiti. In all these countries, he did not care about offending his hosts; instead, he met with dissidents and unambiguously condemned the human rights abuses and poverty they had brought about. These pilgrimages are widely considered to have galvanized dissidents, and all these countries are now free. Such a strategy is much more likely to bring about change than the appeasing Ostpolitik mentality.

Filip Mazurczak

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Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist. He is currently the assistant editor for the European Conservative and a correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He earned an MA in international relations from George Washington University.

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