Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 23-28.
Cuba is notably short on snow, and Fidel Castro is hardly a ruler in the mold of the emperor Henry IV, although there are striking similarities between the reforming Popes Gregory VII and John Paul II. Nine hundred and twenty-one years later, there was more than a touch of Canossa about the encounter of those five days beginning with the Pope’s arrival at Havana airport on January 21, 1998. Unlike Gregory, John Paul was not making the point that he had the authority and power to depose tyrants. In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, the present Pope wrote, "The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes." And unlike Henry, Castro was surely not contending for his rights as a Christian prince. Between John Paul and Castro there was, or so it seems, a contention over diametrically opposed belief systems. (Assuming that we know what Fidel really believes, which is by no means certain.) What happened that week demonstrates that the Church’s proposal of the gospel of Christ has a power to depose greater than the anathemas of centuries past.
From the Wednesday opening act at José Martí airport, Castro combined exceeding deference, almost docility, toward the Pope with defiantly strident attacks on the U.S.—El coloso del Norte—the colossus of the North that is presumably responsible for all of Cuba’s woes. His welcoming speech immediately launched into a telling of the history of Cuba as one long sad tale of abuse by others. First there were the Spaniards and what they did to the indigenous people: "Most of the men were annihilated by the exploitation and the enslaved work they could not resist and the women turned into pleasure objects or domestic slaves." Although this comes from a very Spanish Castro, here and elsewhere he casts himself unqualifiedly as the victim. As he will again at the farewell ceremonies the next Sunday, he compares the sufferings of Cuba to the Holocaust against the Jews. Moreover, "genocide" is now being attempted by the U.S., a nation "much more powerful than the old Rome that for centuries had the beasts devour those who refused to abdicate their faith." Like those early Christians, he declares, "we choose a thousand times death rather than abdicate our convictions. The revolution, like the Church, has many martyrs."
Among the graffiti painted and sprayed all over Havana is "Socialism or death." Castro has given Cuba both. The revolution indeed has many martyrs, but not exactly in the sense that he suggested. The conservative estimate of the number summarily executed by the regime is five thousand. Uncounted thousands more have died in prison or drowned at sea trying to escape Castro’s liberation, not to mention more than a million, about one tenth of the population, living in exile. In his opening speech, Castro mentions the alleged sins of the Church, noting that the Jesuit school he attended as a boy discriminated against blacks. This despite the fact that faces of a darker hue are almost entirely absent from the upper echelons of his regime. He congratulates the Pope for addressing some of the Church’s failures, but self-examination is clearly not contagious. With respect to, for instance, religious freedom since 1959, Castro flatly declares, "If there have ever been difficulties, the revolution is not to blame."
In sharpest contrast to Castro’s harsh and self-serving speech, the Pope says in response that he has come "as a pilgrim of love, of truth, and of hope." He pointedly notes that he came in response to a long-standing invitation from the Cuban bishops, an implied reminder that he would have come earlier had it not been for Castro’s opposition. "In fulfilling my ministry, I have not ceased to proclaim the truth concerning Jesus Christ, the one who has revealed the truth about man, his mission in the world, the greatness of his destiny, and his inviolable dignity." Every aspect of this truth about man—spiritual, social, political—the Pope would develop in the days ahead. In this opening moment he strikes a keynote theme of his pontificate, "Be not afraid!" That was the exhortation of his first sermon as Pope in October 1978, and he would sound it again throughout this visit. At the airport he declares, "Be not afraid to open your hearts to Christ. Allow him to come into your lives, into your families, into your society."
John Paul concluded his opening remarks with the prayer "that this land may offer to everyone a climate of freedom, mutual trust, social justice, and lasting peace." "May Cuba with all its magnificent potential open itself to the world and may the world open itself to Cuba, so that this people, which is working to make progress and which longs for concord and peace, may look to the future with hope." As he will make increasingly explicit in the coming days, the Cuba envisioned by the Pope is contingent upon conversion to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and conversion from the falsehoods of Marxist ideology.
The question inevitably and persistently asked is what real difference the Pope’s visit will make. The chief and, I believe, irreversible difference was made already at the opening ceremonies at José Martí airport. For the first time in nearly forty years this was a public event in which Fidel Castro and the party were not center stage. With other visiting dignitaries, Fidel would ride from the airport in triumph through the streets of Havana. There was just a moment when it seemed that Castro was going to get into the popemobile with John Paul, and then he caught himself and stepped back, realizing that his small part in this drama was over. During the week he would appear briefly again, welcoming the Pope for a private conversation, sitting in the front row at the university as the Pope lectured Cuban intellectuals on the meaning of democracy, then in the congregation at the last Mass, and finally back at the airport for the farewell.
From the opening ceremony on, it was unmistakable that this was the Pope’s show. He rode from the airport through the wildly cheering Havana throngs as the guest not of the state but of the Church in Cuba. Fidel was nowhere in sight. In the following days, the people of Cuba would rally to a banner other than the revolution—the cross of Christ and the symbolic head of his Church on earth. Again and again, the Christian revolution was proposed, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, in contrast to, and therefore against, the revolution of Fidel. That the Cuban people were so powerfully drawn to this new revolution, and that it has a continuing institutional base in the Catholic Church, means that never again can Fidel believably assert that he and the party have an exclusive claim on representing the people. Most of the people have known for years that that claim is empty, but this week they dared to say it out loud, to say it to one another, to shout it in public, and now the whole world knows.
Mussolini first articulated the dogma of totalitarian government: "Everything within the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state." L’état c’est moi, declared Louis XIV, but he did not presume to think that the state was everything. It is different with totalitarians. A graffito on a tumbled-down mansion in the suburbs of Havana announces, "Fidel is the revolution. The revolution is Cuba." Now Fidel is one revolution in Cuba. With the papal visit of January, Cuba took the decisive step toward pluralism, a step that portends, sooner or later, the end of Fidel’s revolution. Repeatedly the Pope proposed Christianity as the basis of Cuban unity, thereby implicitly casting the party and its state in the role of a faction. Some say Castro cannot put the genie back into the bottle; others say he could try, once he realizes what has happened, to put it back by imposing a reign of terror. Yet others say that he has known for some time that his revolution has dismally failed and that he welcomes the relief from the burden of trying to sustain an unsustainable lie. So long, that is, as he is still in charge of whatever succeeds the lie.
At the airport farewell on Sunday, Castro almost chortled that what he called the "apocalyptic" predictions of those who thought the papal visit would topple his government had been disproved. It is true that there were such predictions. One person in our company who had spent years in Eastern Europe speculated earlier in the week that the climactic Sunday Mass might be a replay of the 1989 crowd in Romania that within hours, even minutes, turned against the Ceausescu regime that was previously thought to be in unchallengeable control. The apocalyptic mood of the week was intensified by the breaking news from Washington suggesting that President Clinton was on the edge of resigning over the latest scandal of sex and lies. It would go down in history, some said, as the week of the two resignations, Fidel’s and Clinton’s. Throughout those days our attention alternated between the mighty rushing wind of the Spirit in Cuba and the all-sleaze-all-the-time presidential affairs being reported on CNN back at the hotel.
The Pope stayed each night in Havana, flying forth and back for the three Masses that preceded the Sunday Mass—one in Santa Clara, one in Camaguey, and one in Santiago de Cuba. The size of the crowds and the intensity of the response built with each succeeding event. Castro had encouraged the people to attend the Masses, and there were obviously many there who had no idea what was going on. I am told it was the first time on such a papal visit that there was a priest-commentator at the Masses explaining the basics of the liturgical action. Each homily was carefully crafted to build on what went before. In the homily at Santa Clara, John Paul declared, "Be not afraid! Open your families and schools to the values of the gospel of Jesus Christ." Directly challenging the regime’s monopoly on education and the practice of separating adolescent children from their families, he said that while the state has a legitimate interest in the education of future citizens, it does not have "the right to take the place of parents." Parents, he said, "should be able to choose for their children the pedagogical method, the ethical and civic content, and the religious inspiration that will enable them to receive an integral education." Family was the theme at this first Mass and, in addition to education, John Paul addressed contraception, abortion, and divorce, telling the crowd of eighty to a hundred thousand that each of these evils militated against the dignity that is theirs as children of God.
Although it resisted until the last minute, the government finally allowed all the Masses to be televised throughout the island. While there is much that can be better seen and heard on television, there is no substitute for being there, and so very early Friday morning we are off in a Soviet-built executive jet for a two-hour flight to Camagüey in the middle of the island. Arriving with a passel of cardinals and bishops, we find a youthful crowd of perhaps two hundred thousand who have already been waiting for two or three hours in a very hot sun. Santiago on Saturday would be even hotter, and the crowds even larger. The Pope forces himself through a grueling sixteen-hour schedule each day and arrives looking as though he might not make it to the end of the Mass. As has happened so often in recent years, however, the nearly seventy-eight-year-old pontiff draws energy from the message he is declaring and from the crowd, which today is very lively indeed.
Young people jump up and down without interruption, waving their little sticks with the Cuban and Vatican flags, as the Pope tells them: "Do not look outside for what is to be found inside. Do not leave for tomorrow the building of a new society in which the noblest dreams are not frustrated and in which you can be the principal agents of your own history." Repeatedly, he posits against collectivist solutions the crucial importance of the individual and of personal responsibility. The future of Cuba is not "to be sought only in structures, resources, and institutions, in the political system, or the effects of economic embargoes, which are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy." On Sunday the Pope will return to the question of the U.S. embargo, which Castro blames for the miseries of Cuba. Here in Camagüey John Paul says, "These are all part of the answer, but they do not touch the heart of the problem." The heart of the problem is respect for human rights and the exercise of rights in accordance with moral truth.
Camagüey is said to be the most Catholic area of Cuba, which does not mean it is very Catholic. Before the revolution, more than 70 percent of the population of Cuba was baptized. Today that is a little over 40 percent, which is remarkable enough when one considers that until 1992 Cuba was an officially atheistic state in which young people were subjected to antireligious indoctrination and believers were severely penalized by being systematically denied opportunities of work and education. In Camagüey I talk with the pastor of a parish who has been a priest in the district for thirty-six years. The population of his parish is over sixty thousand, he says, with thirty-seven thousand Catholics. He is the only priest in the parish and over the years he has had but one Mass on Sunday—with an average attendance of a little under three hundred. That is one-half of 1 percent of the Catholic population. But recently that has been changing.
From where we stand with hundreds of clergy on the huge Caribbean pink platform, one cannot see the end of the vast cheering crowd. The pastor is exultant and keeps repeating the word "miracle." "Yes, it is a miracle," other priests join in. None of the young people believe in the revolution, they say. "It is all just talk, talk, talk, anger and excuses, while all around them is misery and no future." "We have been waiting for this for years. Now there is no going back. This time the Church must do it right." The last comment reflects a widespread awareness that Cuba before 1959 was not as Catholic as it appeared, that the common people had not been thoroughly evangelized. Before the revolution there were almost eight hundred priests, now there are fewer than three hundred. Many fled, many were expelled, but it was agreed that even were there five thousand priests tomorrow it would make little difference unless the Church became, as it never really was, "a people’s Church."
"A people’s Church." I note this odd mixture of revolutionary and churchly jargon. "We needed the revolution in order to become the Church," volunteers an enthusiastic young priest. This meets with a scowl from our pastor. "What are you saying? Nobody needed this revolution. It will take generations to remedy the damage it has done." Everywhere there is this sense of a new beginning, usually marked by a grim recognition of how hard it will be. Nowhere was this beginning more boldly asserted than the next day in Santiago, the cradle of Fidel’s revolution in the Oriente region. Surrounded by the Sierra Maestra mountains where the revolution began, before an even larger and more exuberant crowd, Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu did the introductions. This is usually no more than a formality, but he used the occasion to deliver the most frontal challenge of the visit thus far.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and second in command, was seated in the front row as Archbishop Meurice spoke of "Cubans who have confused the fatherland with a single party, the nation with the historical process we have lived through during the last few decades, and culture with an ideology." Cuba has been corrupted by a "false messianism," he asserted. Directly contradicting Fidel’s disclaimer at the airport, he attributed Cuba’s and the Church’s ills to "an ideological confrontation with Marxism-Leninism induced by the state." Such words had not been said in public for almost forty years. The Pope’s response began by thanking the Archbishop for his welcome, and that met with thunderous applause. He then thanked the state authorities for their presence, and that met with an even more thunderous silence. The message of that moment, I expect, was indelibly imprinted on the minds of all who were there and of the millions watching on television. One revolution is the past. Another is now underway.
Santiago was skillfully choreographed to reappropriate the history and identity of Cuba for Christianity. The statue of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, was carried to the Mass and there the Pope crowned her anew as the Queen of Cuba, to the huge crowd’s incessant shouting of "Viva! Viva!" Signifying Cuba’s dedication to Our Lady, all stood to sing the national anthem, and what could poor Raul do but stand with them and sing along, his stony visage making no secret of his displeasure. It is generally assumed that Raul is the real Marxist in the family, and he must have been wondering not for the first time what madness possessed his older brother to permit this visit. The Pope did not make it easier by appealing for the release of political prisoners. "There is also suffering of the soul," he said, "such as we see in those who are isolated, persecuted, imprisoned for various offenses or for reasons of conscience, for ideas which though dissenting are nonetheless peaceful. These prisoners of conscience suffer a penalty for something for which their own conscience does not condemn them. What they want is to participate actively in life with the opportunity to speak their mind with respect and tolerance." Human rights groups say there are nine hundred to two thousand political prisoners in Cuba. Angelo Cardinal Sodano gave Cuban authorities a list of several hundred political prisoners, of whom, as of this writing, about 250 have been released, some with the condition that they accept exile to Canada. The regime refused to release seventy who were on the list, declaring that "There cannot be nor will there be impunity for the enemies of the homeland nor for those intent on destroying Cuba."
Back at the Cohiba Hotel in Havana, between Masses, meetings, and excursions around the city, there is nonstop talk trying to figure out what all this means. The hotel to which our group from the Archdiocese of New York was assigned boasts five stars and is part of a chain based in Spain. In brutal contrast with the conditions endured by the Cuban people, it is obscenely sumptuous, being one of several oases of luxury built for tourists and others with dollars to spend. By far the biggest source of income for Cuba is remittances from Cubans in the U.S. who send dollars to their families back home. But for this week the government has also embraced the ways of that much-excoriated "unbridled capitalism," more than tripling prices for the thousands of pilgrims and four thousand journalists who arrived for the Pope’s visit. Over dinner at the Cohiba we meet with two leaders of an independent, which is to say illegal, labor movement. It is not really a movement, just a handful of people furtively communicating with one another and trying to make contact with the outside world in the hope that there will one day be a movement.
Vicente, or so I shall call him, is a middle-aged man who has lived for years on the far side of the law and speaks with calm confidence of Catholic social teaching, and especially the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, as the "blueprint" for a Cuba of economic and political justice after Fidelismo. He looks over the ostentatiously lavish buffet of the hotel restaurant—fifteen different meats, platters of various fish, heaps of shrimp, pastries, and desserts—and pronounces it "criminal." I am ordinarily averse to moralistic condemnations of affluence, but in this case criminal is the right word. I have been to many grindingly poor places in the world. In the 1970s I traveled most of Africa and wrote a book on life under apartheid in South Africa. Cuba is very different. Nowhere have I seen such stark class divisions, an apartheid based on nothing but party connections and what here truly does seem to be "the almighty dollar."
Mass poverty in our world is an all too familiar
phenomenon. Usually it is a matter of people who have always been poor and, however gradually, are improving their lot. Here the immiserization of the masses (Marx) is an artificial achievement of the revolution. The average wage for a laborer is eight dollars per month; a doctor can make as much as twenty dollars. A quart of milk, if it can be found, costs more than a dollar, and the government-imposed ration limits milk to children under age seven. Each person is allowed one quarter litre of cooking oil per month. Butter is a thing of dreams, an electric light bulb is a luxury item, and on and on. The reality is that the revolution has forced almost everybody outside the party leadership to live outside the law simply in order to survive.
Tourists find quaint the thousands of old cars from the 1950s and even the 1930s—DeSotos and Packards, and a host of 1950s Chevrolets—kept running by desperately inventive scavenging and transplantation of parts. Whatever the depredations of the Batista years, there were lots of new cars then. The artificial imposition of poverty is most evident in the housing. Throughout the city and its outskirts, the beauty that was Havana is evident in mansions and long stretches of solid middle-class housing now in ruins. People are living in the ruins, often with several generations of a family assigned to what were formerly apartments now divided into tiny cubicles. All living places are, of course, assigned by the state. Along the splendid waterfront between the tourist hotels and Old Havana are miles of once magnificent architecture now collapsed or collapsing, bricked over, and in total darkness, but one notices that people are living there, too. A window that is not broken or boarded over or taped up is conspicuous. It is Beirut in its darkest days. There are twenty-story housing projects now abandoned, some apparently abandoned before they were even completed. Everywhere is the irrational wrack and ruin of the rationally controlled economy. Except for the privileged enclaves of the party controllers.
La historia me absolverá—history will absolve me—is the title of an early pamphlet by Fidel Castro. It is now obvious that he will have to look elsewhere for absolution, which may help explain why he wanted the Pope’s visit. In his indictment of all that was intolerable about the times of Batista, Castro has over the years focused relentlessly on the pervasiveness of prostitution in the bad old days. On one drive by the waterfront this week I count forty-seven prostitutes brazenly hailing the passing cars. They are very young and very thin, and one suspects it is not because thinness is in fashion. There is a more or less open market of young women eager to be rescued by marriage to a tourist, or at least to be maintained as a mistress. Canadians and Europeans, who have no visa problems and find Cuba to be, as it is said, a tourist’s paradise, figure prominently in this business. I am told it takes no more than a hundred dollars to secure a beautiful mistress for a week. And yes, priests, too, are routinely propositioned. The women had never seen a Roman collar before, and at least one young lady, when a priest friend explained what it means, didn’t see why that should make any difference.
The mass executions and jailings of the early years are past, but it is still a police state operating by the whims of one man. There are rumors about tensions within the Communist Party, but these are discounted. "Fidel is completely in charge," says Vicente. "No Fidel, no problem." The last two years have witnessed a clamping down, as dozens of members of human rights, labor, and student groups have been arrested on charges such as "illegal association," "revealing state secrets," and "showing disrespect for the revolution." In New York, José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch/Americas says, "There is zero tolerance in Cuba for any space for independent political activity." I’m impressed by the readiness of some dissidents to make quite open contact with us here. "I don’t think they’ll arrest me for this," says one. "They don’t worry about us talking to you. They assume you’re hopeless. They only arrest us for persuading our own people." Just the same, I think I will not mention names.
Everything about Fidel’s revolution seems dated, stale, stifling and as macabre as the mummified body of Lenin in Red Square. In the Museum of the Revolution, formerly the presidential palace, is the burlap bag that contained the body of Che Guevara, who was killed on a pitiably romantic revolutionary mission in Bolivia in 1967. It is displayed as a revolutionary counterpart to the Shroud of Turin. There is also the Granma in an outdoors glass enclosure, the boat on which Fidel arrived from Mexico to launch the revolution, along with other detritus of the sacred lore of heroic struggle. The museum has a "Cretins’ Corner" with posters of Batista, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush who are defiantly thanked for, respectively, "giving us the revolution," "strengthening the revolution," and "consolidating the revolution." (One wonders why JFK of Bay of Pigs infamy is not included.) Among the ubiquitous slogans is a billboard facing the U.S. interests section of the Swiss embassy: "Mr. Imperialist, We are not afraid of you."
How to describe the catastrophe of Fidel’s revolution? Forty years of a sustained spasm of juvenile rebellion. Instead of taking over "People’s Park," imagine the radicals of Berkeley taking over a country for forty years, ripping off its wealth and putting nothing back, while maintaining an ideological high on the egotism of a maximum leader surrounded by sycophancy and terror. List all the goods that government is to secure—measured by each and every one, the revolution is a dismal failure. Apologists claim that, despite all, the regime has achieved remarkable successes in health and education. This is exceedingly doubtful. Hospitals in Havana are in ruins, and medical clinics are headed by semi-trained nurses who have not the most basic medicines. Education is ideological indoctrination, and what is the point of literacy if the only thing you can read is party propaganda? Unlike most juvenile rebellions, this one exacted a high price, even risking nuclear war at one point. The endgame reveals that the revolution has succeeded only in reducing a people to the misery of pauperism and the humiliation of dependency—first on the Soviet dole and now on the U.S. dollar. Castro’s regime has given a new meaning to the term welfare state. The entire state, and the country with it, is on welfare. In numerous conversations not one Cuban had a good word to say about the revolution. Admittedly, I did not talk to party apparatchiks. The word repeatedly heard is catastrofe.
One must ask why, in such a desperate circumstance, Castro invited the Pope. What did he think he would gain from the visit? An older dissident, who has spent much of his life in Castro’s jails, says Fidel is getting old. At age seventy-one, "He thinks more about dying than about living." He does look gaunt and is reported to have been seriously ill in the past year. An American student of Cuba says Fidel, unlike Raul, was only a Marxist of convenience. "He is a romantic revolutionary who wanted a cause, and it could just as well have been fascism," he says. Or perhaps Fidel anticipates leading a Cuba reborn in the Christian identity so dramatically displayed at the Mass in Santiago. In Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution (which John Paul pointedly referred to by its old name, the Plaza of José Martí), Fidel permitted the erection of a massive mural of the Sacred Heart emblazoned with Jesucristo En Ti Confio—Jesus Christ, In You I Trust.
A standard line of the U.S. media is that Castro was seeking from the Pope’s visit "legitimacy" for his regime, and there is no doubt something to that. The Pope did reiterate his long-standing criticism of the U.S. embargo, referred to by the regime as the blockade (el bloqueo). The Pope also reiterated his familiar criticism of capitalism that is unchecked by morality, or "neoliberalism" as Latin Americans now call it. At the final Mass in Havana, one CNN commentator announced that the visit had proved that "Catholicism and communism can coexist." This despite the fact that every homily and address directly challenged the communism of the Castro government, most relentlessly at the point of religious, civic, and political freedom.
It is worth asking what the Pope thought the trip was about. Two days after his return to Rome, he spoke about the visit. "My trip to Cuba reminded me a great deal of my first visit to Poland in 1979," he said to a general audience at the Vatican. "I express my hope to our brothers and sisters of that beautiful island that the fruits of this pilgrimage may be similar to the fruits of that first pilgrimage to Poland." Reporters might ask General Jaruzelski what that trip meant for the coexistence of Catholicism and communism in Poland. John Paul believes the visit was the beginning of another revolution in Cuba: "I gave thanks to God because precisely in that place dedicated to ‘the revolution’ a place was found for the one who brought the authentic revolution to the world, that of God’s love, which liberates man from evil and injustice and gives him peace and fullness of life."
On the outskirts of Havana I sought out the Rev. Pedro Gómez, as I shall call him. He teaches at the Baptist seminary, and he is exultant. "The Pope has done everything just right. He has challenged Castro to the very limit of his dignity as Pope. This is a kairos and things can never be the same again." Asked about Fidel’s motives, he says, "I don’t know. Fidel no doubt has his plans. But this I know: God has his plans, and the Pope is His instrument for opening Cuba to the gospel of Jesus Christ." The Rev. Gómez knows Jaime Cardinal Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, very well. In the 1960s they were sentenced to three years in Castro’s labor camps where they worked together every day. "I trust Ortega entirely. He is very politic, but he is a real Christian who has given himself entirely to Christ and the Church."
Some speak of a "bad cop/good cop" connection between Ortega and Archbishop Meurice of Santiago. The latter confronts the regime, the former negotiates with it. Repeatedly during the visit, the Pope emphasized that change must be peaceful and gradual, not apocalyptic. Everyone agrees that the Church is in a stronger position because the bishops of the eleven dioceses are completely united. In addition to the release of political prisoners and greater freedom, their demands on the government, framed as requests, are modest: a printing press and access to radio and television; chaplains in hospitals and prisons; admission to Cuba of priests and religious from other countries; the operation of Catholic social services independent of state control; and, somewhere down the line, the reopening of Catholic schools. But of course such "modest" steps mean the end of the revolution of the past forty years.
And what about the U.S. embargo? Lifting it would deprive Castro of his last desperate excuse for the catastrophe that his revolution has turned out to be. Against lifting it is the argument that he would trumpet such a step as a great victory over the hated Yanquis. Let him. Nobody believes that Cuba is wretchedly poor because it cannot trade with the U.S. It has all the rest of the world to trade with. The problem is that Cuba has almost nothing to trade. Maybe the embargo made sense when Cuba was an instrument of Soviet designs in the Cold War, and since it is in place it probably should not be lifted without some quid pro quo. Regrettably, given the disarray of the U.S. presidency and the role of Cuban exiles in our congressional elections, no action of any sort is likely soon. But surely John Paul is right in saying that Cuba must open itself to the world and the world to Cuba. Toward that end, I believe a convincing case can be made that the embargo should be lifted.
It was a heady week for the Cuban people. But will it make any real difference? In preparation for the visit, the government filled some of the worst potholes and scarce gasoline and cooking oil showed up in some stores. More jaded Cubans said that, with the Pope’s departure, everything would go back to non-business as usual. There was a joke circulating in some quarters: Cuando se vaya el Papa, se va la papa—"When the Pope goes, so do the potatoes." A strong measure of skepticism is undoubtedly in order. And yet, barring a reign of terror that would outrage the world and for which the regime may no longer have the will or the resources, what happened this week cannot be undone. Or so I think, and so I pray. It is not Canossa. It is more decisive than Canossa. That was a power contest, and Henry IV eventually regained the upper hand in a continuing rivalry. With totalitarians it is different. It is all or nothing. The party is everything or, in time, it is nothing. The Church’s way is the way of pluralism and freedom. "The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes." With that proposal and the response of the people to that proposal, the Cuban revolution has at last begun.
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things.