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.