Diplomatic Dance: Cuba's Religion Factor

By Wall, James M. | The Christian Century, June 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Diplomatic Dance: Cuba's Religion Factor


Wall, James M., The Christian Century


FIDEL CASTRO moved through the narrow streets of Old Havana, surrounded by television cameras. Polite security guards pushed ahead of him, asking those of us in the street to step inside our hotel lobby. Cuba's president was conducting a tour of a newly refurbished area when he stopped in front of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, one of the favorite haunts of Cuba's adopted literary son, Ernest Hemingway. With Castro was Jamaica's new prime minister, Percival J. Patterson, who later that evening would announce that Jamaica would upgrade its consulate in Cuba to an embassy.

That diplomatic gesture won't buy paint for the other buildings in the historic section of Old Havana still badly in need of repair. Nor will it solve the economic problems Cuba has experienced since losing financial support from its former patron, the Soviet Union. But the announcement does give Castro a morale boost as he gets ready for an even more significant addition to his diplomatic prom card: a visit from Pope John Paul II, scheduled for mid-January 1998.

The Vatican has already,sent advance teams to Cuba to plan the visit. It is expected that a permanent representative from Rome will arrive soon to work on the logistics with Cuba's Roman Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

On a recent trip to Havana with writers from U.S. religious magazines, I met the Cuban-born prelate. Ortega's elevation to red-hat status two years ago also elevated the status of the church in Cuba--a papal signal that Fidel Castro couldn't fail to understand. The fear among many Cuba watchers is that the 77-year-old pontiff might not be strong enough seven months from now to make the trip. John Paul II has just returned from an arduous journey to his native Poland, where he delivered strong messages against moral decay under a fledgling free market.

A veteran of the battle against communism, John Paul is likely to push Castro's government toward further internal reform, as well as bring world attention to the economic embargo the U.S. still enforces against Cuba. The pope is on record as opposing economic embargoes because they harm people more than they influence governments. Many Cuba experts point out that the Clinton administration would make a serious mistake if it failed to see the pope's visit to Cuba as a chance to lift the embargo on food and drugs in return for a strong papal statement calling for further political reform in Cuba--with Castro's implicit agreement.

These experts acknowledge that the White House will need political cover for any favorable gesture toward Cuba. The political fallout of such a move would be significant, especially in Florida and New Jersey, where there are large blocs of Cuban-American voters and contributors. By linking a decision to lift the ban on food and drugs to a Cuban decision to move toward economic and political reform (and to ease restrictions on religion), the U.S. could achieve both a political and moral advantage during the pope's visit.

The sudden and unexpected loss of Russia's financial support plunged Cuba into an economic crisis. One of Castro's moves to bring in revenue has been the creation of partnerships with European companies to refurbish decaying hotels and to attract tourists. The annual figure for the number of tourists visiting the island recently hit 850,000--a hundredfold increase since Cuba began its tourism campaign. Most of the visitors come from Europe, Canada and Latin America. The success in tourism has proved a mixed blessing, however, since the prostitution that accompanies tourism has become a serious problem. …

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