The Catholic Thing
My Non-trip to Cuba Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba Monday. I did not. I was scheduled to travel with a group from the Archdiocese of Miami. An archdiocesan employee called shortly before departure to say that the Cuban government refused me a visa.

This is not the first time. In 1998, when John Paul II came, the Cubans kept me waiting at Kennedy Airport while Cardinal O’Connor’s plane was about to take off. At the last minute, they relented. Unfortunately – for them – I gave an interview in the meantime to a television reporter about their repressive regime. It was broadcast when we were already in the air.

My experience is only a tiny blip in the half century of the Castro catastrophe on a once vibrant island. But it suggests to what lengths a group of petty Stalinists, remnants of a Cold War now over for twenty years, are still willing to go to stifle criticism. On the plane, Benedict said, “We want to help in a spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move forward a society which is fraternal and just, which is what we desire for the whole world.” Quite right, but real dialogue only occurs where truth is spoken.

Today is the last day of his pilgrimage. The pope, along with the Cuban hierarchy, would do a great deal for the captive Cuban people if they would insist on a meeting with dissidents and critics. This would show the bare minimum that representatives of moral order expect if real dialogue is to take place.

As I learned in 1998, there are a lot of Cuban dissidents. And they’re both brave and well informed. A Catholic labor leader who quoted modern Catholic social principles with an astonishing fluency that few Catholics in the free world could muster told me: "What has Castro got on his side? La fuerza [force]. That’s it.”

A Protestant pastor spoke of the innovative ways congregations kept meeting and growing even though the government had not granted a single building permit for a new church in many years.

On the other hand, the people have been deliberately isolated. That same pastor suggested calling other leaders, but when asked about how to reach them, couldn’t tell where to find phonebooks: “You have to understand. This is a communist government. They lie about everything. They say there are phonebooks. I haven’t seen one.”

An even more striking fact: In 1998, when John Paul II’s popemobile went up into the Plaza de la Revolución, I myself heard people on the street ask out loud, “What’s that?”

          Fidel Castro greeted warmly in North Korea.

Benedict has a deep understanding of the historical forces at play in the world, and he’s nobody’s fool. But if he does not meet with dissidents, he will reinforce the impression – not wholly mistaken – that the institutional Church in Cuba has compromised itself.

It’s done so out of a wish to have the social “space” to carry out religious activity and relief efforts. And it’s succeeding in getting some room to maneuver, but – as was true of the churches in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe under communism – such compromises come at heavy moral cost.

In the 1960s, many Cuban priests and believers paid a heavy price in death, prison, or exile resisting. No one should take such witness lightly – or expect others today to do automatically what few of us can do at any time.

But there are troubling signs. For example, Cardinal Jaime Ortega recently allowed Cuban security forces to remove thirteen dissidents demanding to meet the pope from Our Lady of Charity Church in downtown Havana. While other Catholic leaders joke that the number of political prisoners is 11 million (i.e., the population of Cuba), he’s played down the numbers (over 3000 in 2011, and those are just the ones known) and said some were “guilty of crimes.” Even people sympathetic to his difficult position sometimes talk about Stockholm Syndrome.

The International Red Cross is not allowed to inspect Cuban prisons for obvious reasons. Priests who speak out too boldly either go into retirement or are sent to the boondocks, according to reports. The cardinal said mass for the health of the ailing Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez just a few weeks ago – a Christian gesture, in a way, that should probably be extended on a regular basis to some of the Catholics and others suffering injustice in Cuba.

Meanwhile, the regime has threatened a broad group of dissidents and critics, and forbidden them to leave their homes and show up at papal events.

We may yet see some papal boldness. Benedict certainly was candid on the flight into Mexico when he said that it is “evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality." But that’s an easy, intellectual point. He’s also reported to have said that it will take “patience and decisiveness” to fix the problem. [In Spanish, the reports claim he spoke of “patience and understanding (entendimiento).”]

Whichever version is true – and both might reflect Benedict’s thinking, which rightly focuses on spiritual renewal first – no one should believe the future for Cuba will be easy. There’s a lot of wishful thinking that when Fidel and Raul Castro die, somehow a democratic revolution will arise, almost automatically. But Raul’s son is running the state security services and there are lots of well ensconced, experienced thugs in power who will not turn into pious altar boys once the Castros go.

Without serious help to the internal opposition, which Benedict could still offer, Cuba could go the route of North Korea and become a multigenerational global sore spot for decades to come. The responsibility for the future does not lie solely with Benedict, of course. But let’s pray he meets and encourages those willing to put their lives on the line for freedom and justice, and nudges things in a somewhat different direction.    

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.    

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Bangwell Putt, March 28, 2012
It does, I hope, no harm to repeat something that is certainly well known and understood by the writer.

Pope Benedict has, throughout his long service to the Church, made clear his understanding that God himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will act in many and diverse ways, enlightening the minds of those who pray. The absence of overt statements and actions may indicate his faith that, while Benedict is helping others to prepare the ground, God himself will give the increase.
written by pgk, March 28, 2012
The author makes many good points, I would just add that meeting dissidents may have the reverse effect of what is intended. It may just provide more fuel for the fire of anti-Catholicism and validate in the minds of officials their claim that the Church is a seditious group. The Communists are violent thugs who do not listen to reason and are ready to crack down at the slightest hint of offense...
written by Ray Hunkins, March 28, 2012
There can be no accommodation with evil. The Cuban regime is evil. Therefor there can be no accommodation with the Cuban regime.
written by Robert Royal, March 28, 2012
We are all, of course, aware of the complex situation in Cuba and, most of the time, I would look to the local bishops to make decisions. But there are strange reports from sober and realistic people who have been in Cuba recently, whom I've met with personally in the last weeks, and whose overall judgments I trust. When Lech Walesa, who's been in the trenches, encourages the pope to be bold and meet with critics of the regime, as he has, maybe he thinks something stronger needs to happen despite the risks and possible backlash. The dissidents themselves are certainly willing to take risks.
written by Rob Federle, March 28, 2012
I think even Mr. Royal must realize that he doesn't have all the information that was available to Pope Benedict when he made his decision to see/not to see the dissidents. At some point I would choose to assume that the Pope acted in good faith, and had a proportionate, good reason to decide in the manner he did. I am disappointed that Mr. Royal could not do the same!
written by Robert Royal, March 28, 2012
I'm happy to provide an update (the pope must have read TCT this morning). The Associated Press has just reported (2PM) that the pope said during the final homily in Havana:

"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 said.

With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict issued his strongest denunciation of religious intolerance yet in Cuba, referring to the Biblical account of how people persecuted by the Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith."

On the other hand, the Ladies in White (a women's dissident group) has not been heard from in days.

I understand anyone who wants to defend Benedict, but we have the example of JPII an Communism to help guide us. Failure to confront tyrants never really works. I'm glad the pope made this final move. It just would have been better if he had shown some concrete solidarity with Cubans now exhibiting bravery, the kind of people he reminds us existed in Babylon.
written by Rene, March 28, 2012
The article suggests that the Pope should had met with dissidents. I question, however, whether the Cuban government would allow such a meeting. I was born in Cuba and lived there during the beginning of the revolution. As we all know, the Cuban Revolution is no friend of Christianity and it imposes its tyrannical will on all those living there. I thank God everyday that I left Cuba.
written by Anna, March 29, 2012
But Mr. Royal, Pope John Paul never met with the dissidents in Cuba either, so it seems inappropriate to imply that Pope Benedict lacks his courage. In fact, most agree that Benedict's words were even stronger than anything JP2 said on his historic trip.
In my opinion, he did the best that he could possibly do under the circumstances and I have no doubt that this will eventually bear fruit.
written by Henry Gomez, March 29, 2012
Sadly this pope has proven that murderous and repressive regimes don't make uncomfortable. In his youth and now in Cuba.
written by Clare Krishan, March 29, 2012
Happy for your concern for Cuba's dissenters. Did ever occur to you that much of their suffering may be induced by ... us? Did you not hear the Pope's critique of the ongoing irrational and uncharitable American embargo?

written by Robert Royal, March 29, 2012
Yes, it's true JPII never met with dissidents but in 1998 no one was claiming how much freer the Church was either. We own the pope and the Cuban bishops some deference in making these decisions. But we also owe them, ourselves, and the truth an obligation to make sure that diplmacy and prudence don't betray those who put their lives on the line for freedom and justice. Renewal of the Church will help lead to renewal of Cuba. And that renewal cannot be limited to a few government-permitted liberties.

Clare: you've bought the lie of the Cuban government. They say Cuba was impoverished before the revolution because of exploitation by the U.S. Now they're saying they're impoverished because they're disconnected from the U.S. During th Cold War, they got $5 billion a year from the USSR and still couldn't feed their people on an island with rich soil. The US has many faults and is guilty of some outrages in the world, but theis is not one of them.

Henry, that's a baseless slander about Ratzinger and Nazism, and I think even you know it.
written by david, March 29, 2012
Deja vu. Once again (as with the Nazis and the Soviet Union, et al), when face-to-face with moral depravity, the moral teachings of a Church dedicated to love and charity, could be heard in no other terms but vague generalities. The Pope, guided by Reasons of State, which was wrong, compromised the Church's pastoral role by not bearing witness to her moral essence. In the scheme of things, Catro's regime may not amount to much-- except to the 11 million souls who live there. But if mankind is ever faced with the moral challenges of the enormity presented by Hitler and Stalin-- and we most surely will-- let us hope and pray it will have firmer moral guidance.
written by billy, March 31, 2012
Henry, which "protestant" sect got you?

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