Politics and the Pope in Cuba

The Christian Century, January 21, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Politics and the Pope in Cuba

Two decades ago, Pope John Paul II triumphantly returned to his native Poland, a country stifled by 35 years of Soviet domination, and helped trigger the remarkable chain of events that toppled the iron curtain. Now 77 and hobbled by physical ailments, the pontiff is traveling to Cuba, one of the few remaining hardline Marxist states, with an agenda that, at least publicly, is much more limited. The objective of the Cuba trip, say high-ranking church officials, is to minister to the faithful and assure them they have the support of the Catholic hierarchy.

But according to church watchers and Cuba experts, the Vatican and the Cuban Catholic Church also have more far-reaching and difficult-to-attain objectives. If met, those objectives could have implications for the Cuban regime's grasp on power. Fidel Castro also hopes to benefit from the pope's five-day tour, scheduled to begin on January 21. Many believe that Castro, himself an aging figure bent on securing a place in history, invited a pope with impeccable anti-communist credentials in order to demonstrate that anyone can deal with Cuba. Especially since the end of the client state relationship between the Caribbean island and the Soviet Union, Cuba has been working feverishly to improve trade and diplomatic relations.

"They are both wise and shrewd leaders, and they both want to use the occasion for their particular goals," commented Brian Smith, professor of religion at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, and the author of a book on the Catholic Church in Latin America. Clearly, though, it's the church that is faced with goals that may prove difficult if not impossible to fulfill. While the Vatican and American church officials, mindful of the sensitive nature of the trip, are careful to speak publicly of the visit only in spiritual terms, others say unofficially that the Vatican hopes the church mill play a more prominent role in Cuban society.

Through either improved relations with Castro's government or the use of international opinion to pressure the regime, the church is moving to re-establish its ability to run religious schools, use the government-controlled mass media and receive permission to operate religious-based social groups, all of which Cuba now bans or severely restricts.

Yet, observers say, the papal tour calls for diplomacy, not confrontation. So if the church wins concessions, it will be because the regime agreed to changes deemed nonthreatening to its stability. "The pope is not going to Cuba to play politics. The pope is going to Cuba for pastoral purposes that may have other effects," said Jose Manuel Hernandez, a former associate dean at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and an an expert on religion in his native Cuba. "I think he wants to solidify the position of the Cuban church," Hernandez added. "The Cuban church needs more priests than it has. It needs access to the communications media."

Cuba, on the other hand, needs to continue forging economic ties with the capitalist world -- an objective that will get a boost with the visit of the pontiff, Cuba experts contend. By meeting socialism most stalwart standard-bearer, the pope highlights the hardline policies of the U.S., which refuses to re-establish-diplomatic relations while enforcing a cold-war-era embargo that has hamstrung the island since the early 1960s. The Vatican has spoken out against the embargo.

"The U.S. will stand isolated, and that's what Castro wants out of it -- the greater legitimacy that will come out of it," said Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration. Now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, Smith added that the papal tour underscores that the way to bring about change in Cuba is "through engagement, dialogue and working with the government. It is the antithesis.to U.S. policy."

Still, observers say there are pitfalls for Castro's government.

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