Finishing Off Fidel: John Paul II Throws Down the Gauntlet

In January 1998, Pope John Paul II came to Cuba as the “messenger of truth and hope.” Thousands— even hundreds of thousands—warmly received him and enthusiastically applauded his words. In spite of 40 years of communist domination, Cuba was still fertile soil for the Gospel.

Papal visits do not happen in a vacuum. The success of his visit can only be understood if we realize that Cuban soil was not left fallow during these past 40 years. The pope found a small but nevertheless vibrant Church (only five percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics). The Church in Cuba has experienced suffering, persecution, and the exile of many of its priests and religious (including a bishop), but these difficulties have tried and purified the Church. Today she enjoys perhaps the greatest respect ever given her by the Cuban people who still live on the island. Her 269 priests (down from 700 plus before the revolution) tend to the cura animarum of the rapidly growing faithful.

The pope visited Cuba to affirm the Church there and to strengthen his brothers in the episcopacy. This visit, like his other visits, was primarily pastoral. If we fail to realize that the pope went to Cuba as a pastor we will miss the context of his visit and readily misinterpret it. Those of us who follow the pope’s activities in the secular media see how easily and how frequently this happens. Those who thought that the pope’s visit would result in immediate political changes on the island were disappointed and therefore tend to discount its importance or dismiss it as a failure.

The eminently pastoral nature of his visit did not mean, however, that the pope would mince his words in criticizing the ills of Cuban society. In each sermon he addressed a certain aspect of the society and the challenges facing both believers and nonbelievers in Cuba today.

Indeed, John Paul threw down the gauntlet to Cuba’s leaders and its people. But his words were also addressed to the international community—particularly to the United States and its large community of Cuban exiles living in Miami. On his arrival in Havana, he declared, “may Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.” And he later repeated one of the themes of his papal teaching, “in her social doctrine the Church does not propose a concrete economic model, but indicates the way.” Leading by example, he proclaimed reconciliation, dialogue, and engagement. In so doing he once again reiterated his opposition to the 36-year trade embargo unilaterally imposed on Cuba by the U.S. government.

The embargo has been the thorn in the side of U.S.-Cuban relations for decades. It was imposed against Cuba by the Kennedy administration just before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Its purpose ostensibly was to force Castro to change political direction or to abandon power. This strategy failed like so many other plans advanced by the architects of liberal-inspired foreign policy, but assumed a life of its own because it gave its proponents a sense of moral superiority in the face of a frustrating and complicated political conundrum. Castro himself understood this. And despite his public protestations to the contrary, he has used the embargo to his advantage: It is his scapegoat for Cuba’s Ills.

Castro’s Scapegoat

Since the embargo has, after almost 40 years, neither effected change in Cuban policy nor resulted in Castro being ousted from power, we should now ask the classical question: qui bona? Who profits from its continuance? The answers to this question reveal on both sides of the Florida straits a constellation of vested interests intent on preserving the status quo. Much like an inner-city street tough playing off the emotions of white liberals, Castro has effectively avoided accountability for his own failures. While providing Castro with a foil, the embargo has given his enemies, frustrated with their inability to overcome him, a sop to make them feel good. For the exiles, the embargo symbolizes their intransigence: They have not surrendered. For the American defenders of the embargo, it allows them to believe in American resolve that uncompromisingly confronts the moral evils of communism (this in spite of Yalta, the Bay of Pigs, and Vietnam).

The pope has often said that the Church is an expert on humanity. And this pope, who is no novice in dealing with the powers of this world, addresses the issue of the embargo not from the perspective of the politician or the ideologue. He broaches the issue as a pastor: What does this do to the people? Consistent with his previous declarations on sanctions in general, John Paul reiterates once again in Cuba, “economic embargoes are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy” The elderly, the children, and the poor suffer disproportionately from the effects of the embargo. And the guilty usually have the means to evade an embargo’s deleterious effects. The ends do not justify the means, the pope is reminding us. At the same time, he is saying that the means chosen will not take us where we need to go. Violence—whether military or economic—is an assault on human life and dignity. Cuba cannot be saved by its destruction. The “gradual transition” that the pope called for in Cuba can only be brought about by policies that promote the growth of civil society. A policy aimed at pushing people to revolt by denying them conditions worthy of human life is counterproductive, as well as immoral.

The Clinton administration is somewhat sensitive to this appeal. Measures were proposed to provide some relief to the Cuban people—the amount of money Cuban immigrants can send home has been increased, among other things. But Clinton lacks the moral courage and the political capital to move the issue forward. Last January, a year after the pope’s visit, he rejected a proposal advanced by Cardinal Law and several others (including distinguished Republicans) to establish a bipartisan commission to reevaluate U.S.-Cuban policy. Castro, for reasons cited above, does not make rapprochement any easier, either. In February 1999, he enacted more draconian measures to suppress dissidents on the island, making the human rights climate bleaker than before.

No Quid Pro Quo

Nevertheless, Castro’s intransigence cannot justify ours. The pope’s call to end the embargo is not hinged on any quid pro quo on the part of the Castro regime. Neither is the pope acting on Castro’s behalf in calling for the lifting of the embargo. This unfortunately is what some people think—including many who should know better—because they shortsightedly see the issue as political rather than moral. In Miami, the fact that the pope would shake hands with Castro was a scandal to many Cuban exiles. They were genuinely hurt, but, at the same time, they recognized that in this gesture the pope undermined the moral legitimacy of their intransigence. The Cuban bishops, well regarded by the people on the island, are reviled in Miami. Even our Cuban-American congressmen disparaged them as Castro’s “collaborators.”

The Church in Cuba sees the growing dialogue between Her and the government in a positive, not negative, light. She understands that great distances have been bridged—and that bridging these distances requires the humility and docility to the Spirit on the part of the Church, which does not seek any advantage except to serve. And in advocating the elimination of the economic embargo, the pope and the bishops of Cuba speak for the people, especially the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the children, who, except for the voice of the Church, have been voiceless.

In the United States today, the embargo reflects our own confusion in the post-Cold War age. On the left, the embargo has its defenders and its detractors. The same is true on the right. Unfortunately, the debate generates more heat than light. This itself indicates that emotion rather than reason lies behind the terms of the debate. It is time to listen not to the policy makers and politicians, not to the ideologues of the right or the left, but to the pastors. The hundreds of thousands who saw and heard the pope in person and the millions who also followed on television across the island gave the pope their ear. They listened to him because they knew that he and his collaborators, the bishops of Cuba, had listened to them. They knew that he understood them—their pain, their anxiety their hopes, and their fears. He did not only “feel their pain”; he prescribed its remedy: “Be not afraid to open the doors to Christ.”

As Cuba inevitably moves toward a transition, any number of scenarios could be enacted. Will Cuba resemble Poland or Romania when the inevitable occurs? Will there be a civil society through which a democratic transition can occur? Will there be reconciliation, or score-settling? Given the harsh realities of life in Cuba today, as well as the human reality of original sin, one does not find much room for optimism. But optimism is a secular value. John Paul brought hope—and hope is a theological virtue, a gift of the Spirit who, the pope reminded us, wants to blow in Cuba.

To witness, to the truth, and to the hope it inspires, we Catholics in the United States should support the call of the pope and the bishops of Cuba. Lift the embargo. Trust the Church, who stands both with and for the poor.

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