A Pope of Ironies in Cuba and Mexico

Article excerpt

Although Pope Benedict XVI's March 23-28 outing to Mexico and Cuba officially constituted one voyage, in reality it was a tale of two trips. In Cuba, the pontiff was at his most political, engaging in a delicate and controversial tete-a-tete with the Castro regime; in Mexico, Benedict instead focused on the pastoral, featuring a gentle debunking of clericalism.

Benedict's six-day journey, which took him to the LeOn archdiocese in Mexico and Santiago and Havana in Cuba, was the 23rd foreign outing of his papacy, but his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America. (The pontiff visited Brazil in 2007.)

From a media point of view, the spotlight was clearly on Cuba, where the pontiff met both 80-year-old Raul Castro, the current president, and his 85-year-old brother Fidel, father of the island nation's revolution. Benedict, who also turns 85 on April 16, reportedly told the ailing Fidel that despite his age, "I can still do my job."

As if to prove the point, Benedict walked a political and diplomatic tightrope while on Cuban soil March 26-28.

Given that the church is virtually the lone institution that has maintained some autonomy from the government, Benedict's every word was scoured for political significance. For instance, when he stood in Havana's Revolutionary Square on March 28 under a massive banner of Che Guevara and warned of "irrationality and fanaticism," it was widely taken as a challenge to Cuba's Marxist ideology.

Yet Benedict also denounced the U.S.-imposed embargo, and declined requests to meet with dissidents. Those moves led to criticism of the trip as a public relations coup for the Castro brothers.

"I'm exceedingly disappointed," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican. "[The pope] refused to meet with any members of the opposition. ... He refused to condemn human rights violations in any meaningful way."

Conservative talk show host Ninoska Perez was equally disgruntled.

"I believe the complacent attitude towards a 53-year-old dictatorship was unnecessary," she said. "To ignore the repression, the arrests of the opposition, the persons who were beaten--including right there at the Mass--is unacceptable."

On background, Vatican officials said that while Benedict sympathizes with the dissidents, he didn't want to do anything that might prompt blowback from the regime, especially for Catholics who have to live in Cuba long after the pope has returned to Rome.

One fruit of that diplomatic tact came with a decision by the Cuban government to declare Good Friday this year a holiday, for the first time since the 1959 revolution.

In Mexico, meanwhile, the pontiff largely steered clear of politics, in part because of looming national elections in July. Several senior figures in the Mexican hierarchy are perceived as aligned in favor of the conservative National Action Party, and Vatican officials privately expressed concern that the trip might be seen as a campaign rally.

The closest Benedict came to a clear social message was his denunciation of the "false promises, lies and deception" behind the drug trade. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2006, when the. Mexican government launched a crack-down on the country's notorious cartels.

Strikingly, although Mexico City has legalized both abortion and same-sex marriage, the pontiff did not directly engage those issues, restricting himself to a passing reference to "defense and respect for human life. …