The eyes of the world are focused on Pope Francis as he begins the heart of his visit to Cuba. In particular, the secular world is wondering whether he will speak openly about the Marxist dictatorship’s political, social, cultural, and religious repression – and whether he will meet with dissident groups. The answer seems to be yes to the first (though how openly and fully remains to be seen), and no to the second, since dissidents are already complaining. But why visit the 1960s-style Communist regime at all? It may have a lot to do with Jorge Bergoglio’s overall view of the religious (and secular role) of Latin America in the twenty-first century.
I was in Cuba in 1998  when St. John Paul II traveled there, and it’s a tough venue. (Because of articles I wrote later, the Cubans have never again given me a visa.) There’s no perfect formula for Francis to follow – Benedict XVI had troubles there over whom to meet as well. Owing to an unwelcome, surprise visit by Fidel, Benedict also seems to have felt the need to change the papal nuncio in Havana right after his trip. Then Bishop (later NY Cardinal) Edward Egan said to me in Havana that he’d been to every Communist country except Albania before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that he’d never seen such repression anywhere. We were staying at the Melia Cohiba, a nice hotel – as many of the newer ones are – built with Spanish money (mostly pocketed by the regime) for tourists from Europe and Latin America. But the Cuban intelligence services didn’t even bother to hide the surveillance cameras and agents on nearby rooftops. The mainstream media are talking now about a “changing Cuba,” but in terms that really matter nothing much has changed at all.
It’s worth recalling that the Cuban visit was a relatively late addition to the pope’s itinerary. Initially, he was coming solely to America, and only to participate in the World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia, an event conceived of by Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI. Presumably, Francis felt obliged to attend, especially since the archdiocese of Philadelphia, with many financial problems, went the extra mile in a less than opportune moment to accommodate the Vatican.
Given some of this pontiff’s concerns, the canonization of Junipero Serra and the address to the joint session of Congress in Washington were also scheduled, and a speech to the United Nations in New York. Those are good additions – and a good use of the pope’s time since he crossed the Atlantic to be here. But why add the events in Cuba, a country much diminished in the twenty-five years since the Berlin Wall came down? And why did the pope feel the need to help broker the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between America and the Castro brothers?
I’m only speculating, but something few people appreciate about Francis is how much he and many of his advisers both in Argentina and now in Rome believe that Latin America has a world-historical importance at this moment as what they call a “source Church.” According to the theory they developed, there are particular churches that lead at given times: Antioch and Alexandria in the early Christian centuries, and Italy and Spain during the Renaissance. Ever since the creation of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) in 1950, but especially since its 1968 meeting in Medellin, Colombia (where the “preferential option for the poor” first emerged), a swath of Latin American Church leaders have believed that their nations now stood to inherit that role, united together in a patria grande.
To anyone not part of the movement, it’s quite a stretch to see how the Church in Latin America presents a religious model – or a guide to public affairs – since the Church is hemorrhaging members and the Latin countries don’t seem to have been very much shaped by the Church – or to offer much by way of some new social model. But Jorge Bergoglio and other Latin leaders believe that having rejected Marxist liberation theology, the real liberation is a populist teologia del pueblo.
Maybe one of the things the Cuban trip is meant to achieve is to integrate one outlying member of that greater Latin homeland who has been a wayward sheep. Cuba is not free, and is still connected with international terrorism. For those and a thousand other reasons, it was kept out of the Organization of American States until granted a waiver in 2009. Francis is master of the grand gesture. Earlier we heard that he wanted to cross into the USA from Mexico – a political gesture that it’s probably better did not happen. But resolving the tension between two long opposed regimes might be part of the Latin leadership ‘s self image as being on the cutting edge of what needs to happen now.
No one should draw the conclusion from anything the pope will say in Cuba or the USA that he’s a “Marxist,” as some American hotheads have claimed. Crucial to the “source Church” vision is that the Latin nations, having decisively rejected Marxism in both Cuba and the older liberation theologies, as well as having seen the failure of “neoliberalism” and its unfettered markets, has the potential to offer some third way rooted in a different view of the person than Marxist collectivism or liberal individualism. In his brief speech on arrival this evening, Francis appealed to Cuba’s traditional sense of itself as a “key” crossroads for the Americas. Perhaps not exactly true in an age of airliners and digital commerce. But Francis wants Cubans and others to see the recent diplomatic opening with America as part of a larger “victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue,” as he put it.
One thing that often gives me pause when I read or hear the pope is that “people [sometimes realities] are more important than ideas.” Taken literally, it’s a self-refuting statement, since “people are more important than ideas” is itself an idea, an important idea, pointing to how we need to comport ourselves. But if we understand it to mean that we ought to turn our attention away from false, abstract ideologies to true, concrete engagement with people and reality, the people and reality created by God, as well as the truths he has revealed to us, then we have a program that is both doctrinally sound and pastorally effective, all in one.
As we see the pope move around Cuba – and engage its leaders and people – it will not be only his words but how those words are lived out by Francis himself that will tell us the most about his hopes for the Americas and the world.