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Pope Francis will have unusual clout in Cuba

Pope Francis will have unusual clout in Cuba
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER AOPPENHEIMER@MIAMIHERALD.COM

When Pope Francis goes to Cuba in September, he will have a
larger-than-usual influence over the Cuban government: he has been a
champion of dialogue with the island’s regime and strong critic of the
U.S. trade since he authored a little-known book on Cuba in 1998.

The big question is whether Francis will use his clout to press Cuba to
respect basic universal freedoms, or whether he will just make a
symbolic stop on the island to celebrate the recent Vatican-brokered
U.S.-Cuba normalization talks.

Among the reasons why the Argentine-born Pope could — if he decides to
do so — have more clout with the Cuban regime than previous popes and
most other world leaders who have visited the island:

First, Francis was a key behind-the-scenes broker of the U.S.-Cuban
normalization talks first announced by Barack Obama on Dec.
17, after more than five decades of hostile relations.

While Washington and Havana had been holding secret normalization talks
for many months, it was the Pope who helped break an impasse in the
negotiations and move the process forward.

Francis received delegations from both countries in the Vatican in
October. The negotiations led to a de facto swap between the
two countries, and paved the way to discussions about reopening
embassies in Washington and Havana.

Second, unlike his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who
visited the island respectively in 1998 and 2012, Francis has a long
history of personal interest in Cuba. His book “Dialogues between John
Paul II and ,” was published in Spanish in Argentina a few
months after John Paul’s visit to Cuba in 1998.

I read most of the book this week, and — while it’s dense, and often
difficult to read — it’s prophetic in that, much like Obama’s new policy
toward Cuba, it called for a dialogue between Washington and Havana, and
strongly criticized the U.S. trade embargo on the island, calling it —
using the Cuban government’s lingo — a “blockade.”

Also, Francis’ book stressed the Vatican’s criticism of what he called
“capitalist neo-liberalism,” a code word for U.S.-styled free-market
policies. It is “a model that subordinates human beings and conditions
the people’s development to pure market forces,” and that forces poor
countries to “apply unsustainable economic programs dictated by the
centers of power,” Francis wrote.

Third, the Argentine Pope will speak to the island’s rulers in their own
language, and — as a Jesuit —he may find some childhood memories in
common with Castro, who studied in a Jesuit .

In addition, Pope Francis will benefit from strong support from the
Cuban population: a poll conducted on the island by the U.S. firm
Bendixen & Amandi found that 80 percent of Cubans have a positive
opinion of Francis, the same as Obama’s. Comparatively, only 47 percent
of Cubans have a positive opinion of Raúl Castro.

Most likely, Pope Francis will use his considerable political capital in
Cuba primarily to seek greater freedoms for Roman Catholic priests
there. Right now, Cuban laws allow Roman Catholics to practice their
religion within their churches, but not to spread their message through
regular radio or television broadcasts.

“There is of cult, but not of religion, because priests
cannot evangelize outside the walls of their churches,” says Froilán
Dominguez, a former priest and seminary president in Cuba. “Pope Francis
will have considerable leverage to ask for religious freedoms, such that
to evangelize without government censorship.”

My opinion: If Francis doesn’t use his considerable leverage with the
Cuban regime to speed up basic freedoms on the island, his visit will be
a failure.

Just as John Paul obtained greater freedom for priests to work within
their churches in Cuba, Francis should obtain absolute freedoms for them
to work outside them. At the very least, if he doesn’t get the release
of political prisoners or other basic reforms, he should
obtain regular Church broadcasts on Cuba’s state censored radio and
television, or permission to create an independent radio or television
network.

That might seem a small feat by world democratic standards, but it would
allow most Cubans to hear a different message from the “Socialism or
Death” nonsense they have been bombarded with for the past five decades.
As an Argentine who himself lived through a dictatorship in the 1970’s,
Francis should be more sensitive than most to the need of opening up a
space for independent media in Latin America’s last military dictatorship.

Source: Pope Francis will have unusual clout in Cuba | Miami Herald
Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article19419753.html

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