The residents of Havana and the Cuban people who live elsewhere in the prison island are anxiously awaiting the visit next week of Pope Benedict XVI. It is the first papal visit to Cuba in a decade, and those who most look forward to it are Cuba’s beleaguered dissidents, who have bravely sought to peacefully organize against the dictatorship. For their efforts, they have regularly been sent to serve lengthy prison terms in conditions of utter brutality.
It is their hope, above all, as the leading dissident doctor Oscar Biscet wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, that it is “a unique opportunity for the leader of the Catholic Church to leverage his considerable prestige and influence to support the oppressed and help the Cuban people claim our liberty and establish democracy.” Indeed, it is such an opportunity. But the question is simply this: Will the pope avail himself of this opportunity, or will he pass it by, content instead with the decision of Cuba’s rulers to suddenly allow the official Catholic Church to exist and Cuban Catholics to openly proclaim their faith?
Dr. Biscet knows what the stakes are from personal experience. He had been in prison himself since 1999, and was released last March as a result of the intercession on his behalf of the Church leadership in Rome. Cuban prisons, Biscet wrote, include the following practices:
The prison system in Cuba flagrantly violates the minimum requirements for prisoner care established by the United Nations. During my years in prison, I personally witnessed prisoners left for 12-24 hours with their hands and feet handcuffed behind their backs, stripped naked in groups without any regard for human modesty, tortured physically and psychologically with tasers, beaten to death for requesting basic medical attention, and kept for months in cells without ventilation, natural light, drinkable water or restroom facilities.
As a result of writing that article, Havana’s secret police turned up at Biscet’s home, summoning him to report to their headquarters. By the time this is posted, Biscet may well again be back in prison, out of the way in order to prevent the pope from being bombarded by such reports that besmirch the regime. As Biscet noted, personal ruin is most often what “the regime inflicts on anyone who offers an alternative voice.” In still Communist Cuba, freedom of speech is a luxury to be practiced only by the bravest and most outspoken.
When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba quickly made it known that religion and its open practice was to be banned. As in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, churches and synagogues were closed, and the faithful had to practice in secret. Fidel Castro, brought up in Jesuit schools, proclaimed Marxism as the only public faith, as religion was scorned as not scientific and antithetical to Marxism-Leninism. Now, with Communism almost collapsed everywhere, recognizing the Church as a legitimate body allows the regime breathing space in tough times, giving the oppressed populace removal of a grievance. The Castro brothers hope will allow them to stay in power.
Hence, the regime no longer preaches the once popular doctrine of “liberation theology,” meant to offer support to a regime-friendly religious façade that helped the rulers proclaim to the gullible abroad that some religion was allowed to exist.
So now, Fidel and Raul Castro say they are Catholic. Officially, the pope is coming to Cuba to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the patroness saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, a Caridad. The regime has announced that a new seminary is opening, as well as a Catholic cultural center. But all these actions taken by the regime, as Conrad Black wrote, mean that any “celebration of the triumph of any…redemptionist and expiatory impulse would be, to say the least, premature.”
The pope did say the other day to reporters that “Marxist ideology is in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality,” and that Cuba needs “new models.” But as we know, Castro himself told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last year that the Cuban model has failed. So in making that statement, the Pope was not saying anything that even Fidel Castro himself hasn’t acknowledged. That statement alone by the pope does not let us know just what he will do once in Cuba on behalf of the most oppressed in Cuba.
The truth is that it does not bode well for Cuba’s dissidents. They have requested openly that Pope Benedict meet with them. The only response they have received is that his schedule does not allow for it. At the same time, the pope has evidently told the regime that at a moment’s notice, should Fidel Castro feel up to it, he will meet with the semi-retired dictator as he wishes. So the pope will meet with the Castro brothers, but evidently has no time to meet the bravest and most principled of his own flock. As Conrad Black reported, the Ladies in White — who for years have worn white and for ten years have dared to come out in the open and stand in non-violent protest on behalf of their imprisoned husbands and sons — have asked the papal nuncio for even one minute’s time with the pope. The Cuban cardinal’s answer to them was that his schedule will not permit him the time.
The Soviet leader and tyrant Joseph Stalin supposedly asked in the 1940s when he was informed of criticism of his regime by the pope, “How many divisions does the pope have?” The answer came decades later, when the late Polish Pope Pope John Paul II used his position to give the Polish people the courage and strength to organize the Solidarity movement, which began the process that led to the collapse of Communism in that country. The pope did not need actual military divisions to have influence that led the oppressed to revolt and to organize — just his moral authority.
At this point, however, we do not have any evidence that the current pope will follow in the tradition of John Paul II as he travels to Cuba. Will he be content with witnessing the flourishing of an open Catholic Church in a country in which it was once forbidden for the faithful to practice, and leave the people seeking freedom in the lurch? Or will he use his position and his moral leadership to not only condemn Marxism in the abstract, but give the Cuban people the courage and inspiration to join the few dissidents and start in the process of opposition to the Castro brothers’ tyranny?
We know that the pope is an antagonist of the regime. But the Castro brothers hope that the pope will use his visit only to celebrate the 400th anniversary of La Caridad, and praise the regime for now allowing the Church to exist. But as the WSJ’s Mary O’Grady wrote, “Some dissidents wonder whose side the cardinal is on. In recent years he was instrumental in helping the regime deport scores of political prisoners who had become a liability for the regime’s image. Though he recently offered a Mass for ailing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, Ms. Soler’s request for a Mass for deceased dissidents has gone unanswered.”
This response, as well as the eviction from a Cuban church of the Ladies in White, has led many dissident groups to fear that the pope will indeed bypass them, content with the attention and approval of the Church that the Castro brothers have given Rome.
Perhaps Pope Benedict will surprise the Cuban people, and will, when in Cuba, reverse his previous standoff position and offer his public support for the cause of freedom. One would think that betrayal of his most devout followers is not the way to gain support for Catholicism in Cuba. We will all see where he stands this coming week.