For three days in late March, Pope Benedict XVI traveled across Cuba on a tightly choreographed spiritual pilgrimage. During his trip, Benedict met with government and Church officials, celebrated large public masses in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, and made statements meant to lift the spirits of the communist country’s citizens, including its six million Catholics.
I was in Cuba during the Pope’s visit, my third trip there in four years. I traveled to Cuba, in part, to learn how the Cuban people would respond to the papal visit. I also wanted to know whether Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage would contribute to lasting spiritual renewal and political change in Cuba.
I spent a lot of my time with Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet at his home in Havana. Biscet is one of Cuba’s most prominent dissident leaders and a devout Christian. Last year he was released from prison after nearly 12 years of incarceration for his human rights work. I asked Biscet about the meaning of the Pope’s visit.
“We want Pope Benedict XVI to offer his support to the poor people in Cuba, to the weak, to the rejected,” he said. “And if he does, the freedom of the Cuban people may be accomplished very soon, because this would result in many voices being raised in favor of the Cuban people and for the respect of their basic human rights.”
The Pope’s trip was dubbed by the Vatican as “pastoral in nature,” as he was celebrating the 400th anniversary of the miraculous finding of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. But any trip to Cuba by a head of state or religious leader involves politics.
Hundreds of Cuban opposition leaders were detained during the Pope’s visit. Others were placed under house arrest, instructed not to attend any of the Pope’s public events, or had their cell phone connections disrupted.
The Pope’s most candid remarks about Cuba came before he arrived. “It is evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality,” Benedict said to reporters while flying from Rome to Mexico, where he spent three days before going to Cuba. But those hoping that the world’s most visible Christian leader would use strong rhetoric against a government that has opposed individual freedom and the rights of the Church for more than 50 years were bitterly disappointed.
“Cubans are smart enough to realize that Communism doesn’t work,” Dr. Biscet said when I asked him about the Pope’s comments. “We have known this for many years.” He added that what people need to hear from the Pope is that the current political regime in Cuba forces the people to “lose their moral values, to lose their families, to perform immoral acts that go against human dignity.” Cuba has the highest abortion rate in the western hemisphere.
It was difficult to discern in the Pope’s words messages of support for Cuba’s opposition movement. In Santiago, Pope Benedict recognized the “effort, daring, and self-sacrifice” required of Cuban Catholics “in the concrete circumstances of your country and at this moment in history.”
In Havana, Pope Benedict extended his customary mention of those absent for reasons of age or health to include people who “for other motives are not able to join us.”
But many commentators wondered: is this the same confident Church that asks its believers to witness with “strength and courage”? Is this the same Church that has met with political dissidents all over the world? Is this the same Church that is currently asking American citizens to respond to its “call to action and civil disobedience” over the Obama administration’s HHS mandate?
Clearly the Vatican’s strategy is to accommodate the Cuban government, not to directly oppose it.
“This Pope has focused his diplomacy on ensuring the Catholic Church’s growth, even when it requires keeping silent about flagrant abuses of human rights,” Yale professor Carlos Eire wrote in The New Republic.
“The Pope’s time in Santiago and Havana was by no means wasted,” wrote George Weigel at National Review Online. “But it could have been used better by demonstrating in action the truths Benedict XVI taught with conviction; such a demonstration would have strengthened the hand of the civil-society associations on which the transition to a free Cuba ultimately depends.”
Sitting in Dr. Biscet’s home on March 26, I watched the Pope’s arrival to Santiago de Cuba, a city on the eastern end of the island, with Dr. Biscet and his friend Pastor Mario Lleonar.
“The Pope’s visit was necessary from the spiritual point of view, because the people of Cuba need to know the truth, they need to know the Bible to be able to restructure their entire lives after so many years of atheism enforced by a totalitarian dictatorship,” Dr. Biscet said. “But from the political point of view, the effort will not be useful, because we know that this is a totalitarian dictatorship that is not willing to leave power by its own will, and unless the Pope manages to influence these people deeply so that they would carry out a democratic change in the country, the results of the visit will not be met in this respect.”
The Vatican celebrated the papal journey as a triumph. Analysis of the visit from Vatican Radio stated that “one of the first signs that Pope Benedict’s visit was a success came with the announcement by Cuban authorities that they would grant the Pope’s request that Good Friday be made a national holiday.” But most commentators know that these concessions were negotiated before the Pope’s trip began.
The general sense I got from talking with Cubans, especially with the opposition community, was that they looked at the Pope’s visit as a state-sponsored event, similar to a short concert tour or nationalistic political rally. It was telling that the government allowed, and in some cases forced, most of its workers to attend the public masses.
Many see the government strategically using the Church as its negotiator or mediator, both with the international community and the general Cuban population. “The Cuban State, as an atheistic state, is very devoted to Marxism-Leninism and has always maintained that religion was the opium of the people,” Dr. Biscet’s friend, Pastor Mario Lleonar, explained to me. “The only difference is that before the year 1992 (when economic aid ceased coming from the Soviet Union), they wanted to destroy that opium. Now they need it and want to use it to numb the people.”
Caridad Diego, head of the Religious Affairs Bureau of the Communist Central Committee, has a phrase that she frequently uses when speaking with pastors of various denominations: “If you behave, you can obtain whatever you want. Behave yourself.” The pastors know perfectly well what she means by “behaving.”
“They need religious leaders to tell their congregations to be calm and to passively accept those who are in power…we should put up with all their excesses without uttering a single word,” Pastor Lleonar passionately explained to me. “That is the type of opium they want the pastors and religious leaders to provide to their members.”
In essence, many dissidents believe, this relationship pits those working boldly for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy against two enemies: one who chastises them with words and another who punishes them with incarceration, torture, and death.
The Pope’s visit revealed how the Church has arguably become complicit in the government’s oppression. Before Benedict arrived, a group of 13 dissidents occupied a church in Havana and demanded a meeting with Benedict. Interestingly, it was not the government who ordered the police to remove the 13 individuals. Instead, it was Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the island’s leading Catholic representative, who asked the government to order its police to remove the group.
“This showed us that Church officials were on the side of the government and not the people,” one of the 13 dissidents told me. “It was something we suspected, but now it has been proven to us.”
Later, just minutes before the start of Pope Benedict’s first public Mass in Santiago, a young Cuban yelled, “Down with Communism!” He was promptly beaten and dragged away by security forces. No one has heard from the audacious man since. The Vatican and the Catholic Church in Cuba have also been silent.
After Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba, a small group of political prisoners were released and Christmas was made a public holiday. So far, the only concession granted to the Church after Benedict’s trip was an agreement to make Good Friday a public holiday; otherwise, Cuba seems unchanged. Forty-three citizens were arrested and detained shortly after Benedict left the island.
How Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba is remembered will be determined by what the Church is able and willing to do with the small amount of freedom it has negotiated with the government. The Pope’s words and actions carry a lot of weight, but it will be up to Cuba’s lesser-known Christian leaders, including Dr. Biscet, Pastor Lleonar, and priests and laymen all over Cuba, to work for the lasting freedom and justice Cubans deserve.