Pope John Paul II and President Fidel Castro, after long and arduous negotiations, finally greeted each other on Cuban soil. There was something dramatic, even touching, in their meeting, ancient warriors engaged in battle, yet remarkably courteous and deferential. There were the small gestures: the increasingly frail pontiff was offered a vessel of Cuban earth to kiss in place of the airport tarmac; Mr. Castro helped the pope to a chair at the welcoming ceremonies; the two met privately at the Palace of the Revolution; Mr. Castro unexpectedly attended the pope's Mass in Havana. Then, there was the larger point of the visit: disputation, indirect to be sure, but disputation nonetheless over moral issues of the kind that ought to engage world leaders about economic justice, the moral ordering of society, and religious and civil liberties. The pope told the Cuban people to become the "agents of their own history," and he urged Mr. Castro to free political prisoners.
Though his mentors in the Soviet Union have long since thrown in the towel, Mr. Castro clings to power over a miserably failed economy and an unraveling social fabric. His self-justifications to the pope - that they both care for the fate of the poor, that they both seek social justice, that the church of prerevolutionary Cuba was repressive and intolerant - had the effect of pointing to the injustices of Mr. Castro's own government and an economy that cannot support Cuba's citizens. If Mr. Castro sees any irony in this, he gives no sign of it. The Catholic church though, once guilty as charged, is a changed and chastened church.
Can the pope's visit serve as precursor to a peaceful and just transition in Cuba? It is tantalizing to apply the lessons of John Paul's visits to Poland, but of course Cuba's own history is far different. So too is the historically marginal relationship of the Catholic church to the Cuban people. Above all, the United States, a friend of Poland, has not been a friend of Cuba. Through the embargo imposed in 1961, the U.S. government hoped to drive Castro from power. Instead we have abetted the mismanagement of the Cuban economy by denying Cuba any form of economic exchange with the United States - its natural trading partner. The more recent Helms-Burton Act reinforces these strictures. Though very tight, this stranglehold has proved useless in either bringing down Castro or changing his ideology. Unlike Iraq, where economic sanctions are also in place, Cuba poses no threat to its neighbors or anyone else. John Paul II was clear in calling for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba - a point acknowledged by President Bill Clinton, who admitted that the pope was able to say things that American politicians can not.
The pope's visit and the transitional state of Cuban society make it clear that it is time to lift the embargo and the hammerlock in which Cuban exiles hold U.S. policy. Yes, there are moral reasons to do this. But there are very practical ones as well. …