Our Man In Havana

A dissident labor leader, a faithful Cuban Catholic, said it best. Speaking with a group of Americans at a Havana hotel during the pope’s trip this past January, he explained, “What has Castro got on his side? La fuerza (force). That’s it.” Anti-Communists everywhere routinely make such statements, but this was not abstract talk. The labor leader had personally received jail sentences totaling thirty years for various “crimes” against the Castro regime. When he described where he and his people stood, he was not talking about a political position but about a way of life some Cubans are now brave enough to live: “We are like Solidarity in Poland, a revolution not of arms, but of souls.” The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal may have preempted the media coverage in America, but this was the kind of spirit unfolding in Cuba over the four days of John Paul’s pilgrimage.

Students of this papacy have rightly emphasized that the Holy Father went to Cuba primarily as a pastor seeking to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. Rather than make partisan political statements inappropriate for the leader of a universal Church with a billion members living under all sorts of political systems, the pope more often speaks of the Christian view of man and the evangelization of culture. But there are places where preaching the Good News is a revolutionary act. Cuba is such a place. No one should reduce the Cuban pilgrimage to merely a political event, but it has been one of the hallmarks of this pontificate that John Paul II refuses to leave any of God’s people in bondage. When, after returning to Rome, the pope said he wished the Cuban visit would have the same effect as his first trip to Poland, he was clearly stating his hope, like the dissident labor leader, for a peaceful revolution in Cuba.

The Cuban people sensed the revolutionary nature of the pope’s intentions. The regime made a point of putting up a large sign near the entrance to Havana’s harbor in the very heart of the old city to proclaim its alternative creed: “We believe in socialism.” But in private conversations throughout the island other beliefs were beginning to surface. People were talking about how the final papal Mass on the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana would be the first such event since Castro’s rise that the word muerte (“death”) would not be mentioned—a curious testimony to what Cubans think about their government when they are not under surveillance. Castro remains fond of inciting crowds to chant “fatherland or death” and “socialism or death.” But the Holy Father’s homilies spoke of peace, reconciliation, liberty, truth, and development—all progressive notions that are far more revolutionary in Cuba today than the slogans of a half-century of revolution. Perhaps that is why he was interrupted by applause more than twenty times during the Havana homily.

In a little-noticed interview on the plane going over to Havana, John Paul was asked by reporters what he thought of the Cuban revolution. He shrewdly demurred, saying he was not an expert on the subject and was trying to learn more. One reporter observed that some people were talking in terms of a meeting between an angel and a devil. Fidel, reflecting his new-found respect for religion and exploitation of the same, said it would be a meeting of the angels with the poor. The Holy Father, ever the moral realist, corrected both views, saying it would be a meeting between two men with their own personal histories. But when asked what he wanted to hear from Fidel Castro, he did not pull any punches: “the truth, always and everywhere.” And, he added, the revolution of Christ leads to peace and reconciliation, while the revolution of Lenin leads to “hatred, revenge, repression.”

Playing for High Stakes

It is often said that the Cuban regime is desperate enough to risk some internal fallout from the papal visit for external gains. There is a grain of truth in this claim, but it is important to look into the exact nature of the alleged desperation. Communist regimes have a long history of ignoring the material, let alone the spiritual and moral, welfare of their people. Fidel did not host the pope merely because it might help with economic problems, as profound as those now are. He had larger aims in view.

Anyone visiting Cuba today cannot help but notice the unmistakable signs of a nation in regression. Buildings constructed before 1959 with a blend of vibrant modernism and Caribbean exuberance now verge on collapse. The seaside strip called the MalecOn, once one of the most stunning pieces of real estate in the world, looks as if it had been bombed out in a war. In some of the poorer areas of Havana and the rest of the island, it appears no paint has been applied, no window washed, no grass cut, no pothole filled in forty years. And that is just the most obvious material misery.

The average Cuban today is paid a salary of eight to ten dollars a month from the government. Food is rationed, but the average family still needs five or six times that amount for the monthly grocery bill. Consequently, everyone, even doctors and lawyers, works in the black market. (Ironically, in Spanish they are working a la izquierda, which is to say, “on the left.”) Working, though, does not quite describe the reality. People steal from the government—tires, clothing, food, building materials—and barter with one another for goods and services. Prostitution is rampant, drawing in unemployed middle-class university graduates; even in the better neighborhoods of Havana, prostitutes work on every corner. Little else is available for sale except cigars and rum. Partly as a result of economic conditions, the average Cuban woman has had three or four abortions.

There has been a lot of talk about the Castro government seeking foreign investment, especially for tourist facilities, but hardly any of that money reaches the people. In the typical arrangement, foreign hotel operators agree to pay $9500 a year per worker. The money goes directly to the Cuban government, which turns around and pays workers the average monthly salary—leaving a large amount for government coffers. The U.S. embargo and the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies are Castro’s excuses for what he euphemistically calls the “special period within socialism.”

But even before the “special period,” this explanation was self-contradictory. For many years, Castro and his sympathizers claimed that U.S. investment and trade in the prerevolutionary Batista decades had caused Cuban poverty. Today, they claim their absence does the same. Both cannot be true. Similarly, Castro argues that the loss of Soviet support has worsened conditions in Cuba. That is true, but in 1986, even with $15 billion in Soviet subsidies over the years, the Cuban government was in such sad shape that it had to suspend payments on its foreign debt. Five years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had already become an international basket case.

We should not assume, however, that any of this bothers Castro very much, except insofar as it harms his international prestige. His regime has always preferred political theater and posturing to real gains for the Cuban people. So it was only to be expected that, all other avenues now closed off, he would try to tap into the immense prestige of the pope and the Church to make it appear as if his failed experiment is aligned with vibrant moral forces. Castro is a shrewd judge of men and historical currents, and he sees quite clearly that the world respects no other figure—not the UN secretary general, not the Dalai Lama, not the president of the United States—the way it respects John Paul. As one journal put it, the moral leader of the free world did not give the State of the Union address this year: He was on the way home from Havana to Rome that day. The pope’s visit provided a good opportunity for Cuba to occupy center stage internationally.

When the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal drew the television anchors back to Washington, the Cubans were visibly annoyed. They claimed to have wanted to make the papal visit to Cuba the best of all of them, and Castro had hoped to make it appear that Cuban solidarity and Catholic solidarity are close cousins, both with world historical significance. This is an odd claim for a regime that puts armored troop carriers in the streets to transport rapid response forces to crush “illegal” public demonstrations. Though this practice was suspended while so many foreign observers were in Havana, it resumed hours after the pope’s departure. One U.S. bishop, who claimed to have visited every country in the Soviet Bloc except for Albania prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, remarked in Havana that it was the most repressive regime he had ever seen. Castro’s daughter Alina, now living in exile in Paris, recognized what was really going on, observing that her father was playing “a kind of psychological game.”

Calculated Moves

A few weeks after the visit, the Cubans announced that they were releasing more than 200 political prisoners at the pope’s request, among them some of the most prominent political dissidents who were on a list that the Vatican submitted to the Castro government. The announcement was welcome in humanitarian terms, but, as with other Castro ploys, does not represent any large shift in policy. Roberto Robaina, the Cuban foreign minister, denied the release means any change in the regime’s view of human rights. Latin governments traditionally grant amnesties to prisoners during special celebrations, and past visitors to the island of far lesser stature than John Paul—Jesse Jackson, Danielle Mitterand, and others—have also secured the release of prisoners. The Castro regime seems to be playing to international sympathies in the hope of ending Helms-Burton (the law requiring the U.S. government to penalize foreign corporations that do business in Cuba and in the U.S.) and the U.S. embargo. With Castro, you are never quite sure what he’s about. He may need the embargo to continue as an excuse. It is worth remembering that in 1996 Cuban MIGs shot down unarmed planes operated by the U.S.-based Brothers to the Rescue, precisely at the moment Helms-Burton was being debated. Without that display of ruthlessness, President Clinton would probably have vetoed the legislation. In their need to show intransigence and bravado, the Cuban leaders sealed their own fate.

Because of another show of brashness, the Cuban government ended up giving in to Vatican demands that papal events be covered by Cuban television. Just prior to the visit, an electronic bug was discovered in one of the rooms the Holy Father was to occupy. That discovery put the regime in a weak position in the negotiations. (Castro claimed, quite implausibly, that the bug was left over from the Batista government.) Cuba’s Channel Three wound up having to transmit (far more impartially than CNN) all John Paul II’s public appearances.

Semper Fidel

Fidel encountered problems from the very first moment the Holy Father landed at Jose Marti International Airport. By prior agreement, the two were scheduled to give brief speeches. After one sentence of welcome, Castro went into a familiar rodomontade about the history of the Americas worthy of the most rabid anti-Eurocentrists. The whole of Cuban history until the revolution is, in Castro’s telling, one long tale of murder, rapine, rape, slavery, and holocausts—several holocausts—primarily of Blacks, Indians, and Cuban patriots after independence. Castro claimed to have been taught as a teenage student at his elite Jesuit high school in Belen that other religions were evil, and in rebellion, he is supposed to have asked why there were no black students. In his welcome, he expressed respect for various religious traditions and opined that the state has never mistreated the Church: “If there have been difficulties, the revolution is not to blame.” And he concluded with a profession of admiration for the pope’s openness about the Church’s past misdeeds and for his vision of global solidarity.

The Holy Father, however, was not about to be embraced in such terms. With his very first speech, he began a dual task that would be continued over the subsequent days in the masses at Santa Clara, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, the capital, and during a discourse at the University of Havana. John Paul offered a different reading of the nation’s history and of the leavening effect of the Gospel on Cuban culture: “I thank God, the Lord of history and of our personal destinies, that he has enabled me to come to this land which Christopher Columbus called ‘the most beautiful that human eyes have seen.'” The very mention of Columbus must have galled Castro. In 1992, during the quincentenary of Columbus’ discoveries, Fidel—a pure-blooded Spanish descendant of relatively recent immigrants—was brought up short during one of his anti-European tirades when someone remarked, “But Fidel, if it weren’t for Columbus, you wouldn’t be here.”

Latin America has long struggled with this split psyche. The Holy Father tried to heal the divide by characterizing his arrival as a celebration of “the mystery of divine love in order to make it more deeply present in the life and history of this noble people who thirst for God and for the spiritual values which in these 500 years of her presence on this island the church has not ceased to dispense.” Instead of the obsession with past grievances, John Paul expressed his wish that “Cuba . . . open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.” Many read this as a first hint of the pope’s condemnation of the U.S. embargo. Beyond the political reading lies the great theme of this pontificate, openness to the truth of Jesus Christ and fearlessness about its full meaning: “A people that follows this path is a people with the hope for a better future.”

Two paths had been starkly laid out before the pope had even left the airport: one of lament about the past, the other of confidence about the future. As the pope ascended the popemobile and left Castro behind to begin his travels through the island, it was not difficult to believe that a new era in the history of Cuba was beginning as well.

Past, Present, and Future

The Holy Father has long said that he opposes the American embargo, as do the Cuban bishops, and he did not align himself politically with the United States during the visit. But he did something far more important: He laid down criteria by which we can measure whether Cuba is opening itself up to the truth. As is always the case on his pilgrimages, he began his series of homilies by explaining how Jesus Christ has revealed the full truth about man. Among those truths, said John Paul in Santa Clara and Camaguey, are the notions that the family is the first institution of society and that practices like divorce and abortion seriously harm it. (One unexpected gain from this frankness came when, a few weeks after the pope’s visit, Fidel surprised Cubans by announcing his opposition to abortion.)

Only after establishing those core truths did he take advantage of the Mass in Santiago, the island’s primatial see, to criticize human rights abuses and to call for legislation to allow the Church to carry out her proper mission. Among the things he and the Cuban hierarchy would like to see are Catholic schools, wider latitude for the Church to communicate through electronic and print media, permits to repair Church properties and to construct new buildings, access to public space to hold events, and, eventually, the freedom to criticize government policies.

The Castro regime has given the impression that it is possible for Communism and Christianity to coexist in Cuba. The pope called the Cubans’ bluff by asking for concrete steps toward true coexistence. Responding just after the pope’s departure, Ricardo AlarcOn, president of the Cuban National Assembly, announced the release of the political prisoners but vehemently denied that Catholic schools would ever be permitted. AlarcOn claimed that this sanction ensured equal education for all, but it is clear that even today’s more liberalized Cuba knows there are some steps it cannot take.

Not surprisingly, the American press failed to understand this gambit. In fact, several commentators, ignorant of the fact that John Paul II has made “Be not afraid” the watchword of his papacy, began saying that Castro was showing a “no fear policy” toward the churches! But there are many signs that Fidel’s government has long feared and continues to fear the power of religion on the island.

In our country, the idea of independent religious schools; of print and other media outlets for the churches; of the religious operation of hospitals, orphanages, and youth groups; and the right of churches to speak out publicly for social justice are so taken for granted that we find it hard to believe anyone would regard them as a threat. But in Cuba, such basic liberties are considered perilous. If Cuba has no fear of religion, it would be easy to fix this problem. Instead, the Castro government has sharply curtailed public expression of the two most independent religious groups, Catholics and Evangelicals. It has co-opted the mainline Protestant church quite effectively. And it takes every opportunity to promote Santeria, a syncretistic cult combining African and Catholic elements. Encouraging Santeria kills two birds with one stone, making the regime appear to favor the poorer black sectors of Cuban society while enfranchising a religion that presents no serious social opposition.

Pressure from the Cuban Church is crucial to any reform. The archbishop of Santiago gave a blistering speech during the pope’s visit to that city about false political messianisms and the identification of the nation with a single party. A high party official characterized this as reminiscent of “a lamentable era . . . when some cherished an unpatriotic attitude.” That evening, back in Havana, Cuban intelligence agents were busily calling on visiting Church figures to find out if that was really the Church’s line. The next day, at the final Mass in Havana, Jaime Cardinal Ortega took a more conciliatory tone. Perhaps this was all planned out in advance as a good cop/bad cop strategy. But Cardinal Ortega, sometimes thought to be less confrontational that the Vatican would like him to be, has been bold in his own way, building and restoring Church properties in his archdiocese without asking permission, and presenting them to the regime as a fait accompli. He has opened up important space for himself and all the Christian churches without waiting for the liberalizing legislation the pope requested.

This is no small achievement. According to one leader of the growing Baptist convention in Havana who admires both John Paul and Cardinal Ortega, the Baptists have gotten permission to build only one church in the last decade, and that was in a rural area of the Matanzas province. Reportedly, several of the evangelical “house churches” were asked to suspend activities for no apparent reason right before the pope’s arrival. Yet by all accounts, things are still much better for the churches than before the end of the Cold War. Prior to that, one Protestant leader recounted, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors were invisible men; when they walked the streets, people deliberately avoided eye contact, lest they be accused of friendliness toward religion. Now, priests and pastors are more typically thought of as men of importance within the community.

John Paul appears confident that the clear signs of religious rebirth in Cuba portend a revolution in hearts, if not immediately in politics. Baptisms are multiplying; Church attendance after his visit has reached pre-Revolution levels. Many media commentators, repeating the regime’s line, speak of the historical weakness of the Catholic Church in Cuba compared with its strength elsewhere in Latin America. But to see the large crowds that turned out to greet John Paul, to hear their enthusiastic responses to his words, and to feel the energy of their faith gives strong reason to believe that the seeds he planted all over the island will bear fruit. Whatever its past, Cuba’s religious future may be something unprecedented.

We have come a long way in the last two centuries, ever since the Enlightenment project promised that liberation from “superstition” and adherence to so-called rational social practices would free us from want and fear. As we near the new millennium, however, in the Americas it is the only remaining ideological dictatorship that fears giving religion a full and regular hearing in the public square, and endures great want for its stubborn rejection of the larger world. The pope threw all this into high relief in just four days. It remains to be seen now whether the Cuban government will be held to its professed willingness to accommodate religious freedom. If not, we will have indisputable proof of who is afraid of whom—and why.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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