From his arrival in Cuba’s second city, Santiago, on Tuesday, to his departure from the capital, Havana on Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI, spoke with all the moral authority and diplomatic skill befitting the spiritual leader of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.
Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II’s historic visit, which heralded a revival of Catholicism in a country that had been officially atheist until 1992, Pope Benedict gently pressed his Communist hosts to change some of their ways and urged Cubans to build a better, “renewed and open society” based on truth, justice and reconciliation.
Notwithstanding the warmth with which he was received, the full enjoyment of basic human rights and freedom of expression is still to be achieved in Cuba. According to an Amnesty International report published on March 22 last, “The Cuban government wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights. Criticism of the government is not tolerated in Cuba and it is routinely punished with arbitrary and short-term detentions, intimidation, harassment and politically motivated criminal prosecutions.” In the Human Rights Watch 2012 World Report, Cuba was described as “the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.” And on Tuesday, the dissident Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation claimed that more than 150 opponents of the regime had been arrested in connection with the papal visit.
The Pope’s message, on his first day, at a mass attended by some 200,000 people in Santiago, was, however, conciliatory. He said that he had come as a pilgrim of charity and would pray for peace, liberty and reconciliation, even as he expressed sympathy for the “legitimate aspirations of all Cubans, wherever they are.” He also prayed to the 400-year-old statue of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, stating that he had sought her intercession for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans – a diplomatic message to the government to move ahead with its process of reform.
On Wednesday, the Pontiff held another open-air mass in Havana’s Square of the Revolution. There he told the massive crowd, estimated by some as almost half a million and including President Raúl Castro, “Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.” He added that Cubans’ quest for truth should respect “the inviolable dignity of the human person,” which has been interpreted as support for the rights of dissidents.
In balancing his message, the Pope yesterday condemned the US blockade of Cuba, in existence since 1962, as being responsible for “restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, [which] unfairly burden its people.” This, of course, is not only the official narrative of the Cuban government but also a globally acknowledged truth reiterated annually at the United Nations General Assembly, with only the US and Israel voting against the resolution in October 2011.
It is difficult to tell how much the Cuban authorities will be swayed by the Pope’s entreaties, in spite of his cordial meetings with President Castro, during which he reportedly raised “humanitarian” issues and asked that Good Friday be declared a holiday, and with fellow octogenarian, Fidel Castro, the father of the Cuban Revolution. But the visit was undoubtedly another step forward in improving relations between Church and state, even if it remains to be seen whether it will serve to increase the influence of the Church on matters such as political prisoners, political opening and human rights.
Pope Benedict’s visit also provides an object lesson in how to treat with Cuba. Caricom leaders, for instance, may not speak with the same moral and spiritual weight as the Pope, but they should take a leaf out of his book when it comes to diplomatically nudging a friendly government towards a more open society, even in the midst of their admiration for the accomplishments of the Revolution, their solidarity with a sister Caribbean country defying the 50-year embargo and the hostility of the mightiest military power the world has ever known, and their gratitude for Cuban scholarships and medical assistance.