When Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba at the end of March, much of the limited coverage the trip received in the United States came from right-wing commentators perturbed by what they perceived as a soft line on Communism.
“Benedict Bombs in Havana,” proclaimed Jack Fowler at National Review Online, calling the visit “a failed and tone-deaf pastoral mission that did PR wonders for the Brothers Castro.” The editors of the Washington Post decried the “church’s coldness toward peaceful pro-democracy activists,” and accused Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, of becoming “a de facto partner of Raul Castro.” At his Council on Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams pronounced the visit “a sad event that did little or nothing to bring moral or religious support to those suffering in the struggle for liberty in Cuba.”
These and other observers seemed to think that Benedict and the Cuban bishops had lost their nerve or, worse, had simply given in to the government. The Wall Street Journal’s editors couldn’t resist noting “the contrast” between the pope’s failure to meet with a particular protest group, the Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”), and his “inevitable meetings with the Castro brothers.”
It’s true, the pope did meet for about half an hour with the retired dictator and his family. Much of that time was spent in introductions among the several people with Castro and those with the pope, and then in translation from Italian to Spanish and back again. The Miami Herald reported that Castro asked “why the Mass has changed since he was a child” and “what specifically a pope does.” He also asked the pope for books on Catholic theology. Maybe there’s some truth in what Castro’s daughter said in Italy—that her father has “come closer to religion and to God.” The future will decide on that. In any case, a meeting with the former dictator was de rigueur under diplomatic protocol. John Paul II, who came in for no criticism in the comments I’ve seen on Benedict’s visit, spent almost an hour with Castro in 1998.
As for the Damas de Blanco: the original Ladies in White were the wives, mothers, and daughters of dissidents swept up in the Castro crackdown of the Primavera Negra, the Dark Spring of 2003. Most of the men were members of the Varela Project of Oswaldo Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement. They were imprisoned, many for very long terms, usually far from their homes, making it difficult for their wives and families to visit.
Following the death of dissident hunger-striker Orlando Zapata in May 2010, the Ladies’ weekly protest walks along Havana’s Quinta Avenida were violently attacked by government-directed goons. Cardinal Ortega wrote to Raul Castro protesting the attacks. The two men met, and by July, Castro agreed to release the political prisoners. The men are free today, most of them living in Spain with their families, thanks to the initiative of the cardinal and the willingness of Raúl Castro to solve one of the problems he inherited from his brother.
Today’s Ladies in White are for the most part not the original Damas. And they had no more claim on the pope’s extremely limited time than any number of other human-rights activists in the country. They just had better PR. The eighty-five-year-old pope did not meet with priests, religious men and women, seminarians, or others who would have loved a minute’s audience. Nor did he meet with Cuba’s ecumenical and interreligious community as John Paul did. The Ladies in White have no particular cause for resentment. In truth, they are deeply in debt to the church—to Cardinal Ortega, and to the bishops conference, whose headquarters is in the same Santa Rita Church from which they emerge each Sunday to walk silently along the Quinta Avenida. The church some have accused of neglecting them has offered them a kind of sanctuary. Just weeks before the pope’s visit, hostile goons began to harass the Ladies, shout, spit, and throw things at them. Cardinal Ortega, capitalizing on the relationship he has carefully built with the head of state, saw to it that there would be no more attacks.
What really did happen in Cuba during the pope’s visit? Here’s my view from the ground—the very hard, rough ground of the Plaza Antonio Maceo in Santiago de Cuba and the Plaza de la Revolución José Martí in Havana. I was in both plazas for the papal Masses in 1998 and 2012, and the differences between the two were striking.
During both visits, workers were given the day off and were expected to show up, if only briefly, for the services. Still, the crowds in 1998 seemed sparser than this year’s—though they still numbered in the hundreds of thousands—and those who did attend seemed more attentive to the pope’s visit and to the Mass. Many seemed to be Catholics, or children of Catholics, discovering their faith anew. Few could make the sign of the cross or recite the Our Father, and relatively few received Communion, but there was an air of expectation. And the practicing Catholics expressed a kind of joy one rarely saw in the Cuba of that time.
Archbishop Pedro Meurice’s welcome to John Paul II in Santiago was an eloquent and extraordinary critique of a system that confused la patria with un partido, the nation with the party. One heard shouts of Libertad! and saw signs calling for freedom of political prisoners. Raúl Castro, head of the Army but not yet head of government, was seated at the front and was said to be livid, but all went off without incident.
The crowd in the Santiago plaza this year included many plainclothes state security agents, and my superficial impression was that devout or practicing Catholics were relatively few. Unlike in 1998, major efforts were made to keep potential dissidents from attending the Mass. One man, Andrés Carrión, shouted Libertad! Abajo al comunismo! (“Freedom! Down with Communism!”) and was immediately wrestled to the ground. I don’t know whether he expected others to join in his cry, but none did. Someone did film a Cuban Red Cross worker using a folded stretcher to strike Carrión over the head. I’m not sure how the International Committee for the Red Cross in Geneva has handled this non-neutral behavior.
I was in the journalists’ enclosure, thanks to a Miami Herald reporter who had taken pity on my advanced age and discomfort in the blazing Oriente sun and found me a chair. Had I not gotten out of the way, I would have been run over by the two security agents and the stoic-looking Carrión as the three moved swiftly to a waiting car that suddenly appeared. Carrión was detained for twenty days before being freed, at least temporarily.
In Santiago in 2012, as in Havana two days later, it seemed the only Catholics intent on hearing Mass and receiving Communion were the priests, religious, seminarians, and organized lay movements seated or standing in the front, while the overwhelming majority seemed to be there mainly to socialize and comply with their bosses’ requirement that they show up. They cheered the pope as his vehicle circled among them just as they might have cheered a visiting rock star. The arrival of the statue of the Virgencita de la Caridad in Santiago did seem to evoke a genuine outpouring of delight and reverence. When the choir sang the popular Marian hymn “Y Si Vas al Cobre,” many in the crowd joined in. But by and large, most of the estimated million who saw the pope in both places were the increasingly bored, frustrated, post-ideological masses of Cuba’s barely functioning society.
There is no denying that the state did everything it could to minimize embarrassments like the late Archbishop Meurice’s eloquent denunciation in 1998. A great many presumed dissidents—some reports say over a thousand—were prevented from attending the Masses or even getting to Havana. I’m sure it’s no consolation to them, but my impression from the bleachers is that they were better off watching the coverage on television.
In Havana, seeking refuge from the sun, a friend and I wandered off to a large truck by a tree and leaned against the bumper to watch the Mass, though we couldn’t hear it (the sound system in both places was poor). No sooner had Mass begun than a steady stream of people, several thousand I would guess, started pouring out of the plaza. They had done their duty. By Communion time, the crowd had thinned enough that my friend and I could get close to one of the priests distributing the Eucharist to those who could push their way to the front. Not an inspiring scene.
Nevertheless, what happened in Cuba was an extraordinary spiritual event. It was a Marian pilgrimage by an aging and frail pope to put the final touches on the Jubilee Year, the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the finding of the Virgen de la Caridad statue in the Bay of Nipe. She is the undisputed patroness of Cuba and of all Cubans, Catholic or not, and the statue had just completed an extraordinary visit to every province in the country, to be seen and venerated by more Cubans (some estimates are 5 million) than have ever set eyes on the Castro brothers. Its journey around the Archdiocese of Havana alone took two months.
The pope’s homilies could barely be heard as he delivered them, but they deserve to be read. They were eloquent in their analysis of what ails Cuba and what needs to happen for the country to become, in the words of Benedict’s parting address, “a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled…the home of all and for all Cubans, where justice and freedom coexist in a climate of serene fraternity.” He went on, “Respect and promotion of freedom…are essential.... The present hour urgently demands that…we reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints which tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective.” As a rejection of Marxism, that may be too subtle for headline writers, but the pope was clearly understood by his government hosts.
Benedict’s visit was a time to celebrate the slow and orderly emergence of civil society in a country still under the yoke of an oppressive, outmoded ideology. In Cuba there has been a gradual process of civil society achieving greater space, a process accelerated since Raúl became head of state in 2008. There is so much more open debate, so much more entrepreneurial innovation, so much more freedom than could have been imagined at the time of John Paul II’s visit in 1998. And the Catholic Church—led by Ortega and Dionisio García of Santiago de Cuba, president of the Cuban bishops conference—has helped bring this about. By carefully nurturing a relationship with the state over the past four years, the church has been a nonconfrontational but persistent voice for change and has helped create space for peaceful dissent.
As journalist John Allen wrote, “Anyone expecting Benedict XVI to turn into Dick Cheney in a cassock is destined for disappointment.” The pope believes that engagement, not isolation, not confrontation, is the best approach, a policy he has followed with regard to China and Vietnam and, now, Cuba. On his return to Rome, the pope said he went to Cuba “to support the mission of the Catholic Church, which is committed to the joyful announcing of the gospel, notwithstanding limited means and despite the difficulties which still have to be overcome before religion can offer its spiritual and educational services in the public arena.”
Where John Paul called on the world to open up to Cuba and Cuba to open itself to the world, Benedict tried to strengthen the essential dialogue between church and state and create an atmosphere more favorable for reform. Where John Paul found a country still mired in Soviet dogmatism, Benedict came to a Cuba in transition. The presence this year of large numbers of U.S.-based Cubans in the delegation to Cuba organized by the Archdiocese of Miami holds great promise for continued dialogue and future reconciliation among all Cubans, including those separated by the Straits of Florida.
Photo: Paul Haring