Pope Francis’ Limited Public Response to Cuba Protests Draws Mixed Reviews

Some Cuban dissidents say the Vatican should be more forcefully supporting political reform, while other voices say Church leadership is focused on preventing violence and promoting religious liberty.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims in Havana's Revolutionary Square before Mass September 22, 2015.
Pope Francis greets pilgrims in Havana's Revolutionary Square before Mass September 22, 2015. (photo: Vatican Media)

Since demonstrations swept across Cuba on June 11, a parade of U.S. politicians, foreign nations and even pop stars have spoken up with gusto in support of the anti-communist protests and against the island-nation’s authoritarian government and its crackdowns. But one voice has been comparably limited: Pope Francis’.

Just once since the demonstrations began has the Holy Father publicly addressed the political crisis in Cuba — a country where the majority of people are baptized Catholics despite more than 60 years of communist rule — and then only briefly. At his July 18 Angelus address, his first public appearance following a minor surgery, the Holy Father expressed his closeness to the Cuban people “in these difficult moments.”

“I pray that the Lord might help the nation construct a society that is more and more just and fraternal through peace, dialogue and solidarity,” said Pope Francis, before urging all Cubans to entrust themselves to Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patroness.

Several Cubans were in St. Peter’s Square to hear the Pope’s words, many of them waving their country’s flag. According to one report, those gathered drew solace from the Holy Father’s address.

“All we wanted was for the Pope to have mercy and to intervene because were able to leave [Cuba] but our siblings are not living in freedom,” Deborah, a Cuban in attendance who was identified only by her first name for fear of government reprisal against her family, told Crux. “It’s comforting to know that he didn’t disappoint.”


Criticisms of Pope Francis, Church Leadership

But for other Cubans, Pope Francis and the wider Vatican response to the crisis in Cuba has been, in fact, a disappointment. Church leadership has been criticized for a failure to speak up more forcefully against communism and in favor of the protesters calling for political change.

Maria Victoria Olavarrieta, a Cuban teaching at a Catholic school in Miami, wrote a widely circulated letter to the Holy Father, telling him that the Christian people do “not need a social leader or a diplomat. We want a pastor, a firm stone where the Church can be sustained.” She added that the Cuban people feel abandoned by their shepherd amidst government repression and asked that the Holy Father “pray and act so that no more people die” in Cuba, or in Venezuela or Nicaragua, two other Latin American countries under repressive rule.

Other Cubans opposed to the government in their homeland have expressed frustration with Francis and Church leadership over a seeming “false equivalence” drawn between protesters and the regime, arguing that calls for dialogue fail to acknowledge the imbalance of power in play and the violent means to which the Cuban government is willing to go. Shortly after the protests began, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel called on his supporters to violently confront protesters in the streets. One person has reportedly been killed, with hundreds more arrested by government officials or otherwise missing.

Carlos Paya, a representative of the dissident group Christian Movement for Liberation (MCL) who resides in Spain, said Church leadership has to act more boldly in solidarity with the Cuban people, who are legitimately and peacefully demanding greater freedom. He characterized responses from the Church hierarchy as “only trying to save their image,” clinging to the minimal improvements Catholics have gained in Cuba recently instead of calling for sweeping changes that have been needed for decades.

“Splitting the distance between the victim and the murderer favors the murderer,” he said, in criticism of the official Church response, noting that if the Church is unwilling to throw its public support behind the protest movements, more violence could follow and the moment could pass without achieving reform.

MCL’s leader, Dr. Eduardo Cardet, went even further in his criticism of Church leadership, describing the Church hierarchy’s response as “very regrettable” and incongruent with the Gospel call to be in solidarity with the oppressed.

“The Church needs to let go of political alignments and other shady interests and identify totally with human needs, fighting for the well-being of man no matter where he is,” said Cardet, who claimed Pope Francis has shown “clear signs of sympathizing with the ideas of the left” and criticized his cordial relations with Cuba’s communist leadership. Francis visited the island in 2015 and met with then-Cuban president Raúl Castro.

Papal Diplomacy

But not everyone with Cuban connections or familiarity with papal diplomacy is in full agreement with these assessments.

Enrique Pumar, a Cuban-American and chairman of the sociology department at Santa Clara University, says the history of the Catholic Church under communist-rule in Cuba offers some important lessons. For instance, while open confrontation with Fidel Castro when the revolutionary leader took office resulted in the exile of hundreds of priests and a crackdown on the public practice of worship, a more conciliatory approach has allowed the Church to regain some freedom in recent years, in turn allowing it greater capacity to meet the spiritual and material needs of the Cuban people.

And while he says he emphasizes with “the movement” and calls for political reform in Cuba, Pumar doesn’t believe open confrontation will be the most fruitful path forward.

“In Cuba, quiet, behind-the-scenes articulation of demands goes a long way, but is rarely acknowledged,” he said. “We have to remember that we are dealing with insecure, autocratic leaders that do not appreciate voiced dissent.”

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, a distinguished professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, agrees with Pumar’s assessment.

He suggested that instead of a lack of concern for the plight of the Cuban people, Pope Francis and the Vatican are likely taking a more publicly restrained approach in order to avoid making the crisis any worse, which would have the greatest impact on the poor and vulnerable.

“The Church’s motives in these difficult situations tend to be humanitarian and to promote religious liberty,” not regime change, said Father Christiansen, who formerly directed the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Some have criticized Francis for not following in the mode of Pope St.  John Paul II, who famously confronted communist and other authoritarian leaders and was more public in his calls for political change. But Father Christiansen said John Paul’s “personal charisma” allowed him to uniquely employ such tactics, while the Polish pope and the current Holy Father actually share a more important quality: a disillusionment with military intervention.

Some have called for the U.S. or an international body to intervene in Cuba with the aim of protecting its citizens from their own government.

But Father Christiansen warns that such a move could ratchet up conflict, the avoidance of which he says is a hallmark of both popes’ approaches to papal diplomacy and also in their moral teaching, as expressed, for instance, in John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Francis’ Fratelli Tutti.

Both take very seriously the human cost of war, which, in the modern context, tends to disproportionately include civilians. Relatedly, both tend to avoid aggressive language that could contribute to bloodshed on the ground. In fact, Father Christiansen suggested that the Pope felt more comfortable being blunt with his criticisms of former U.S. President Donald Trump and his immigration policy, for instance, precisely because this criticism was not likely to result in violent reprisal or crackdowns on the Church — which cannot be said for the situation in Cuba.

Father Christiansen does see room for prudential disagreement about the best course of action and adds that the condition for a just rebellion as taught by Pope St. Paul VI — “long-standing tyranny” — applies to the situation in Cuba. 

But he says Pope Francis is going another route. Given the role the Holy Father played in lifting the U.S. embargo of Cuba in 2014, he says the Vatican has some influence with the Cuban regime and is more likely to bring an end to injustices being committed against the Cuban people — if not also political reform — through conversations behind closed doors. He says this approach is similar to how Pope Pius XII operated during World War II, when he refrained from public criticism of the Nazis but worked to counter them in private.

The Georgetown professor said he sympathizes with the Cuban people but is doubtful that armed intervention is likely to produce desired change.

“It’s legitimate [for the Cuban people] to ask for more defense of human rights on the part of the Church because that’s part of the Church’s teaching. But that doesn’t mean the Church is forced to uphold a rebellion or intervention by the U.N. or other neighboring states.”

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