Pope Benedict's Pilgrimage to Cuba: Actions Risk Drowning Words

Regime wanted the benefits of a papal visit, but it seems unwilling to let go of its control over the masses.

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Plaza de la Revolución 'José Martí' on March 28 in Havana, Cuba. A building in the background displays an image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Plaza de la Revolución 'José Martí' on March 28 in Havana, Cuba. A building in the background displays an image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As Pope Benedict XVI departed from Havana, Cuba, March 28 in a turbulent rainstorm, the glowering sky seemed a sadly fitting tribute to a visit marred by violence.

Throughout his three-day pilgrimage, the Holy Father’s goal of preaching the Gospel to an embattled people was grossly undermined by the heavy-handed tactics of government security agents who forcibly prevented many people from hearing the Holy Father’s message.

More than 150 Cuban human-rights activists were detained, typically sequestered in police stations, during the Pope’s pilgrimage to prevent them for expressing opposition to the Castro regime, according to Amnesty International.

At least one protester at each Mass was dragged away from the assembly, beaten and hustled away by plainclothes police, as seen on video circulating on the Internet and based on reports from the island.

Havana-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who serves as the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman, issued a statement condemning “the arbitrary and wanton arrests of peaceful, pro-democracy activists throughout the island before and during the Pope’s visit.”

As she mentioned, in some cases, government critics had their homes surrounded by agents who blocked residents from leaving to attend Mass in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

The Twittersphere had numerous reports of people who had “disappeared,” including two members of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a human-rights group that has protested the incarceration of male relatives every Sunday after Mass for nine years.

The phone lines and cellphone connections of dissidents were disconnected.  The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent organization tolerated by the government, lost all phone service while Pope Benedict was in Havana, according to its founder Elizardo Sanchez.

“The government’s behavior was a real slap in the face to the Catholic Church,” one European diplomat posted in Havana told the Register by phone. “Here is a Church that has done more than anyone in the world to free prisoners, and the regime takes this opportunity to slam folks in jail, many of them Catholics. Disgraceful.”

Forced Attendance

While preventing some people from participating in the Mass, Cuban authorities required others to attend.

Government workers were given two days off and were bused to papal events. Some had to “check in” with supervisors or teachers to demonstrate they were, indeed, attending.

“It was not very pleasant,” recalled Francis Rocca, Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau chief and one of many journalists who accompanied the Pope on the trip from Rome.

“At the Mass in Santiago de Cuba, there were some in the crowd who were very detached. We know some people were ordered to go,” Rocca told Canada’s Salt and Light TV.

During the visit, the Church and the Cuban state demonstrated radically different understandings of human dignity — and what’s required to improve Cuba’s future.

Pope Benedict stressed that, in every society, the individual must be free to discover God’s truth as a precondition for authentic social renewal and progress.  Because virtuous individuals contribute to a successful nation, the Church takes particularly seriously her mission to teach and cultivate goodness, emphasized the Pontiff.

Fundamentally, it is a function of individual faith, united with others — and the search for “authentic freedom,” in the Pope’s words — that creates a better world.

As the Pope concluded in his Santiago de Cuba homily: “I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith, that you may live in Christ and for Christ, and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

But Cuba’s leaders were quick with a verbal smackdown, rejecting the notion that any person or entity, outside government, has answers for the nation’s future, especially ideas that turn on individual freedom or autonomy.

At a press conference with reporters covering the visit, Marino Murillo, who oversees economic reform as vice president of the Council of Ministers, defiantly declared, “In Cuba there will not be political reform.” Case closed, it would seem.

Murillo’s remarks, however, ignored the existence of a daring — and rapidly diversifying — democracy movement across the island.

Since Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in 1998, the most significant political development is the flowering of many advocates for basic democratic freedoms, loosely networked and typically functioning as small groups to avoid a crackdown from the state security system.

The Ladies in White are the most high profile of these groups, but there are many, as well as independent journalists, musicians and student activists. Evangelical Christians are also growing in number and favor democratic reform.

Thus, Pope Benedict’s remarks and homilies were punctuated with messages of encouragement for these democracy activists who live under duress.

In the Furnace

At the basilica in El Cobre, where Pope Benedict prayed before the statue of Our Lady of Charity (whose 400th anniversary served as the rationale for the Pope’s visit), he said: “I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.”

And central to the Pope’s March 28 homily was an interpretation of the story of Nebuchadnezzar that equated the three men of faith forced into the furnace with the suffering of regime opponents who are in the right.

The Pope observed, “In today’s first reading, the three young men persecuted by the Babylonian king preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith. They experienced the strength to ‘give thanks, glorify and praise God’ in the conviction that the Lord of the universe and of history would not abandon them to death and annihilation. Truly, God never abandons his children; he never forgets them. He is above us and is able to save us by his power.”

Meeting With Fidel

So why would the regime want such a modern-day prophet to enter Cuba?

Investigative journalist Ann Louise Bardach, who has covered Cuba since 1992, hypothesizes that the Castros were keen to stage another papal visit because Pope John Paul’s had, in their view, made the regime appear reasonable, opening some economic doors around the world.

Bardach says in her book Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington (Scribner 2009) that Raul Castro began an effort to secure a papal visit in 2008,  when he formally took the reins from his ailing brother. Raul’s first meeting as president with a foreign official in Havana was with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of State, who prominently accompanied the Pope on his pilgrimage this week. 

Bardach also suggests that the aging Castro brothers may have reached this judgment because they have recovered some of their childhood affinity for the Roman Catholic Church.

True to this analysis, Fidel Castro could not resist meeting with Pope Benedict XVI while he was on Cuban soil.

At the last moment, Fidel requested “a few minutes of his very busy time,” and the two men met at the nunciature for 30 minutes just before the Pope’s departure. Fidel brought his wife and two adult sons.

The former president is rarely seen in public. Reportedly, most foreign visitors meet with him at his residence. 

According to the Vatican, Fidel was full of questions for Pope Benedict, centering on Church liturgy and the Pontiff’s functions. He endorsed the prospect of sainthood for Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Kolkata. 

Some Cuban-Americans, especially, were upset with this meeting.

German Miret, a Cuban-American and lay Catholic leader who lives in Miami, told the Register, “I don’t see why the Pope has to meet with someone like Fidel, who is no longer the head of a country. His hands are still stained with the blood of executed Cubans 50 years ago, so I don’t think Pope Benedict should do that.”

And one of the most popular, news-filled blogs on Cuba, Alberto de la Cruz’s Babalu blog, featured the following headline with photos of the meeting: “Cuba: The representative of Christ embraces the representative of Satan.”

But could Benedict easily decline the invitation of a former leader and baptized Catholic, with little time left on this earth, based on his appearance in a revealing video released by Reuters/Osservatore Romano just after the meeting?

Observed Elizardo Sanchez to La Stampa, “It would be great if Fidel converted. But this is out of the question because he believes he is God incarnate.”

Strikingly, in Fidel and Religion (1987), a published series of interviews with Frei Betto, a Brazilian liberation theologian, Castro admitted, “If the masses of our country—the great masses of workers, farmers, and university students—had been active Christians, we couldn’t have formed a revolutionary party based on those premises; we couldn’t have done it. We couldn’t have made a revolution, either, if the masses had been counterrevolutionary—something which, of course, would have never been the case.”

Another explanation for Pope Benedict’s decision to meet with Fidel is the fact that Pope John Paul II had an unpublicized meeting with him and his family — and much of Benedict’s trip was modeled to echo his predecessor’s journey. Just as John Paul asked that Christmas be designated a public holiday — and Fidel honored his request — so Benedict asked that Cubans get Good Friday off. Raul Castro is considering the request.

The real problem with the Pope’s meeting with Fidel is that it highlighted the fact that Pope Benedict did not meet with regime opponents, especially representatives of the Ladies in White.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi explained that the Pope had no time to meet with any groups, including religious communities.

This explanation upset many, considering the range of well-respected Catholics — from former Polish President Lech Walesa to Yale professor Carlos Eire to Catholic writer Robert Royal — who sincerely urged the Pope to bless the Ladies.

A Cuban Catholic journalist currently studying in Spain opined that Havana Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino “really controlled the schedule and probably made a commitment, early on, that the Pope would not meet with dissidents.”

“Since these figures are not well known in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega risks little in keeping them away, but the opponents have international connections now, so this strategy might not be as helpful for Pope Benedict’s reputation.”

The journalist asked not to be named.

One thing that Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage to Cuba demonstrated:

Despite the end of the Cold War and decades of economic hardship, Cuba remains an aggressive, well-organized security state. 

Many expect Cuba’s communist system to wither away, quickly, upon the death of its octogenarian bosses.

That looks unlikely based on what we have witnessed over the last few days.

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.