For Pope Francis, an unfinished mission in Cuba
For Pope Francis, an unfinished mission in Cuba
By Nick Miroff September 12 at 9:25 AM
HAVANA — Pope John Paul II’s groundbreaking trip to Cuba in 1998 made
such an impression on the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio that he wrote a
book about it.
Bergoglio’s “Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro” was
published that same year, just a few months after he was named
archbishop of Buenos Aires. The book fell quickly into obscurity, but
since then, it has led many to assume that Bergoglio — now Pope Francis
— was present in Cuba for John Paul’s visit. He was not.
Before he lands in the United States on Sept. 22, Francis will arrive in
Havana on Sept. 19 for a four-day, three-city tour of Cuba that will put
a spotlight on his political and diplomatic skills as never before. His
challenge: to accelerate the process of reconciliation between the
United States and Cuba charted by John Paul and push the Castro
government to hasten and deepen the process of change on the island.
On Friday the Castro government announced that it would pardon 3,522
prisoners ahead of Francis’s arrival as a “humanitarian” gesture. The
amnesty did not appear to extend to jailed political activists, but
rights groups said they were trying to determine whether any of their
comrades would be freed.
The government made a similar gesture before Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit,
freeing nearly 3,000 inmates, and several hundred were released when
John Paul made his trip.
Francis’s book about that 1998 visit remains an essential window into
the pope’s thinking about the long U.S.-Cuba standoff and the broader
ideological divide it came to symbolize in his native Latin America and
around the world.
The book was critical of Cuba’s version of authoritarian socialism, but
it echoed John Paul’s call for an end to the punitive U.S. trade
embargo. It urged dialogue instead, and the soft-landing approach
famously expressed in John Paul’s appeal for Cuba to “open itself to the
world, and for the world to open itself to Cuba.”
Seventeen years later, that approach has become official White House
policy — with guidance from Pope Francis.
The pope’s role as an intermediary and peace broker between the Obama
administration and the communist government of President Raúl Castro
will be a major theme of his Cuba trip, which the Vatican says will
focus on families and Cuban youth.
“I think the pope wants to be in places where there is conflict, and he
knows that the time has come for the United States and Cuba to overcome
their differences,” said the Rev. Roberto Betancourt, the priest at
Havana’s Our Lady of Regla church.
By devoting so much time to Cuba before his arrival in the United
States, Francis will almost certainly add momentum to the push for
Congress to lift Kennedy-era trade sanctions against the island, as
President Obama has called for.
Less clear is how far the pope will be willing to press the Cuban
government to embrace democratic reform of the tightly controlled,
one-party system Fidel and Raúl Castro have ruled for the past 56 years.
Many will be watching for Francis to deliver the kind of tough messages
he has directed at the global capitalists he blames for the world’s
inequalities. A gentler hand for Cuba’s communists would almost
certainly reinforce the perception among conservatives that Francis is a
liberal with Marxist sympathies.
Conservative dissent is brewing inside the Vatican
His career in Argentina — and his 1998 book — belie that view,
describing socialism as an “anthropological misreading” of human nature
that fails to address man’s spiritual needs, mistakenly believing that
the state is the solution to all of society’s problems.
“Cuba and other nations need to transform some of their institutions and
especially their policies, substituting corrupt, dictatorial and
authoritarian governments for democratic and participatory ones,” he
wrote in the book’s conclusion. “The free participation of citizens in
public life, the guarantee of civil and human rights, are an imperative
condition for the full human development of all people.”
During the 18 months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban negotiators
leading up to December’s announcement that the two countries would
restore relations, Francis sent personal letters to Obama and Raúl
Castro and hosted high-level meetings at the Vatican.
Just as important, Francis provided Obama the political cover to make
sweeping changes to U.S. policy over fierce objections from Cuban
Originally billed as a “stopover,” Francis’s trip on the island will be
far more, amounting to nearly half of his time away from Rome.
He will be on unfamiliar ground, at least geographically. Federico Wals,
a close confidant of Francis and his former press aide in Argentina,
confirmed that it will be the 78-year-old pope’s first time in Cuba.
U.S. bishops say it will be his first trip to the United States as well.
Francis will address Congress and the United Nations during his Sept.
22-27 trip, and will celebrate Mass in to Washington, New York and
But first Francis will land in Havana and celebrate Mass on Sept. 20 in
the city’s Plaza of the Revolution, flanked by a giant portrait of
militant atheist (and fellow Argentine) Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Government buses will bring tens of thousands of Cubans to the square.
It is the same place where Benedict spoke during his 2012 visit, and
John Paul in 1998.
An itinerary and an agenda
The church in Cuba has come a long way since then. Christmas and Good
Friday are once more national holidays. Religious believers are no
longer stigmatized or barred from the Communist Party. The church has
received government permission to build cathedrals for the first time in
nearly 60 years. The steady rehabilitation of the church in Cuba’s civic
life has made it the only major institution on the island not under
Yet Cuba’s priests say freedom of worship and freedom of religion are
not the same. The island remains the most restrictive environment in the
Americas for the church. There are no K-12 Catholic schools, and the
church does not have its own television or radio broadcasts.
Many here will be watching to see what sort of new concessions Francis
may secure from the Castros. The church would like to open a Catholic
university and recover properties confiscated by the government in the
early 1960s, including the Jesuit prep school, Colegio Belen, attended
by Fidel and Raúl Castro. It is now a military academy.
Francis’s Cuba itinerary will include a mix of public events and
closed-door meetings, including a likely encounter with the 89-year-old
Fidel Castro, according to Vatican officials cited in several reports.
Francis will also celebrate Mass in Holguin and Santiago de Cuba, the
two largest cities in eastern Cuba, and visit the Our Lady of Charity of
El Cobre basilica, the island’s most sacred Catholic shrine.
Is Cuba on the verge of major political reform?
Raúl Castro, 84, has said he plans to be at the pope’s side throughout
the trip. After an hour-long private meeting with Francis at the Vatican
in May, Castro told reporters that he was so impressed with the pope
that he was considering a return to the church.
Such effusive praise for Francis, and his sky-high popularity here, have
left the Cuban government perhaps more exposed than ever to potential
public criticism from the pope. As with other papal visits, Francis’s
travels around the island are expected to receive streaming coverage
from Cuba’s state media, giving him a powerful platform to address the
Cuban people directly.
“It would be a disappointment if the pope doesn’t say in Cuba what he
has said in Rome and elsewhere around the world: that all the ideologies
of the 20th century have ended up in dictatorships,” said dissident and
Catholic intellectual Dagoberto Valdes, editor of the magazine Convivencia.
Francis arrives in Cuba at a critical moment, Valdes said. “We have
normalized diplomatic relations with the United States, but what we need
is the normalization of democratic relations between the Cuban
government and the Cuban people.”
Cuban dissidents have requested a meeting with Francis during his visit,
asking him to help free jailed compatriots. Rights activists on the
island say there are 71 political prisoners in Cuban jails, though their
list includes militant Castro opponents serving time for violent attacks.
Many Castro opponents say Cuba’s church and its leader, Cardinal Jaime
Ortega, have been too accommodating to the government. Ortega has met
regularly with Raúl Castro in recent years after negotiating the release
of more than 100 jailed activists, most of whom left for Spain.
But Ortega has avoided a confrontational approach, preferring to work
quietly to carve out a greater role for the church in Cuba’s spiritual
and public life.
Like Francis, Ortega is 78. The two men are kindred spirits in a sense,
as survivors of violent Cold War-era ideological conflicts that split
their nations in two.
Francis preached reconciliation after the Argentine Dirty War that left
at least 10,000 dead between 1976 and 1983. Ortega preaches it today
across the still-bitter divide of the Florida Straits.
It was Ortega who approached the Argentine just before the papal
conclave in 2013, when Francis delivered a brief but pointed speech to
the College of Cardinals about the evangelical mission of the church,
criticizing a Catholic hierarchy he said was “sick” with insularity.
Ortega was so impressed that he approached his colleague to ask for a
copy. Francis handed over notes and gave Ortega permission to publish
the remarks. For many Vatican observers, it was that speech that got
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly stated the locations
of where the Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Washington and New
York. The public Mass in Washington will be at the Basilica of the
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near Catholic University.
The Mass in New York will be at Madison Square Garden. The pontiff will
also celebrate the closing Mass for the World Meeting of Families in
Source: For Pope Francis, an unfinished mission in Cuba – The Washington