Pope Benedict XVI will have a hard act to follow in Cuba. The anticipation of his upcoming visit to the island positively pales in comparison to the palpable excitement and hope witnessed worldwide by the arrival of wildly popular Pope John Paul II in 1998. Nevertheless, the Communist Cuban regime is taking a plethora of measures in preparation for the current pontiff’s visit. Roads and homes in the Pope’s field of vision are being repaired while the rest of the country crumbles. In the last several weeks dissidents and their families have been subjected to increased beatings, detentions and random searches of their homes. Many have been blocked from attending Mass. A group of thirteen pro-democracy activists who are desperate for an opportunity to air their grievances to His Holiness were removed by police from Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, a Catholic church in Havana, upon the request of Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Some in the current leadership of the Catholic Church of Cuba seem to seek accommodation with the Communist regime. It takes the Castro dictatorship’s propaganda about reforms and political concessions, real and imagined, at face value. The Church currently pursues an active policy of rapprochement with the dictatorship. And the episcopate seems to enjoy the backing of Rome. The Vatican is eager, as always, for a peaceful solution, engagement and dialogue. This has jarred many faithful Cubans.
The original free Cuban episcopate would have strongly disagreed. On 13 November 1960 the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, the Most Reverend Enrique Pérez Serantes, warned about the ideological war between Christianity and Communism and the threat of Rome losing to Moscow unless Christianity was spread. He also accused liberal and non-practicing Catholics as “the two classes that are the best helpers of Communism.” Earlier that year, a Cuban pastoral letter from 7 August 1960 had clearly stated that, “…Catholicism and Communism respond to two concepts of man and of the world that are totally opposed to each other and can never be reconciled…The Church is today and always will be in favor of the humble. But it is not now and never will be with Communism.” Soon after the revolutionary takeover members of the Cuban militia went from church to church to round-up priests. Most priests and nuns were expelled from the country and accused of being Fascists. Others were arrested and some subjected to work camps. The Cuban regime confiscated and shut down all private Catholic schools ending any possibility of Catholic education – a threat to Communist indoctrination. In the spirit of token reforms, the regime has recently “returned” some small properties to local churches. The extent of the legal rights enjoyed by local churches over these properties is unclear. There is still no sign of the return of schools.
But there was the so-called amnesty. At the end of 2011, the Cuban regime headed by Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana and the Spanish government orchestrated the release of about 2,900 prisoners including several convicted of political crimes. This was touted as evidence of regime goodwill and earnest reforms. Most of the freed political prisoners were deported. Those who refused to leave the island had their releases delayed. Since the commencement of the regime’s public relations campaign politically motivated arrests have continued. The release of political prisoners is the most easily reversible concession. But so are all other political and economic novelties and gimmicks of the Communists.
The alleged reforms of the regime include the right to buy and sell homes, logically without regard for legitimate owners. Please keep in mind that there were massive confiscations and that the Communists have occupied the choicest real estate. Further, the only ones who will be able to afford to buy are Cubans with relatives abroad who send the hard currency, a bonanza for the regime.
Cubans have also been granted the right to operate small professions and businesses, many menial and clearly none of which the regime considers threatening to its stranglehold on power. Concomitantly, the regime declared it would eliminate hundreds of thousands of State jobs. This appears like a set up: when the unemployed fail to find work soon, small businesses will be blamed and repressed. The state will move in again, if needs be.
In other Communist countries the legalization of home purchases and sales resulted in the transfer of valuable and desirable properties to government and military officials. After all, General Wojciech Jaruzelski continues to reside in the Przedpelski family home in Warsaw that he “legally purchased” for a pittance. When Poles gained access to their state security files they discovered that 1970s and 1980s Communist reforms, hailed in democratic countries as real change, were nothing more than a tool to ensure regime survival.
Similarly, in the 1990s small measures were taken to economically liberate portions of the Cuban economy only to be ended when Cubans began to prosper. Unsurprisingly, those who choose to ignore state sanctioned violence, repression and history often insist that this time change in Cuba is real.
When Raúl Castro took over his brother’s leadership he had long before made his cronies in the military very wealthy – mostly through foreign investment in Cuba. Uncharismatic and the more bloodthirsty of the Castro brothers, Raúl commands the loyalty of the military elite. There is nothing to indicate that any of them would sacrifice their privileges in the name of a freer Cuba. Yet, fully aware of it, Raúl Castro has received help in the promotion of his alleged reforms from individuals in the Catholic Church hierarchy, certain members of the Cuban association of a centuries-old Roman Catholic lay religious order and some morally malleable Cuban exiles.
Poland too had the misfortune of some questionable exiles. On 5 September 1955 Hugo Hanke, Prime Minister of Poland’s Government in Exile sought a papal audience in Rome only to surface five days later in Warsaw where his return from exile was announced. Hanke claimed he returned because democracy was around the corner in Communist Poland. The Soviet-controlled Polish regime at the time encouraged the return of exiles in order to undermine the Government in Exile and political opponents abroad. Promises were made of employment, a decent life and forgiveness for past “crimes” in order to lure exiles home. Redefection to the homeland was conditioned upon an end to all active and open political opposition to the regime. The Polish regime had ceased mass killings and arrests but made no fundamental improvements. Of course, it turned out Hugo Hanke had been a paid agent of the Ministry of Public Security (UB) since the early 1950s.
Over half a century later in Miami, Florida some Cuban exiles utilize any forum necessary, including local parishes, to promote the regime’s alleged reforms as a sign of positive change and insist on forgetting the past. They encourage travel to and investment in the totalitarian system – all under the guise of their devout Catholicism. All exile communities suffer from self-titled leaders elected by no one. These “leaders” always claim to speak for the majority when they mostly speak for themselves. The actions of this variety of exile are most egregious when seemingly supported by individuals within the local Catholic Church hierarchy. For example, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski openly advocates the end of the United States embargo and travel ban and supports engaging the Communist regime. He has traveled to Cuba to meet with Cardinal Ortega – the man in Havana who is increasingly chummy with Raúl Castro. Alas, Cubans on the island suffer from a lack of Wyszynskis and Popieluszkos, honorable men of the cloth. Genuine pro-democracy exiles who reject the orders to “move with the times,” hence this seeming demand to forgive, forget and engage with the Communists are mocked as immature and intransigent. To be clear, one should recall that Professor Andrzej Paczowski, Chairman of the Institute of National Remembrance, noted in his book The Spring Will Be Ours that Polish exiles were more infiltrated by Communist intelligence services when international relations seemed to be headed for a softening.
It is simply baffling that one can truly believe a man like Raúl Castro has suddenly experienced a moral awakening and will be personally influenced by the Catholic Pope’s visit. And because of the ambivalent attitude of some of the Cuban episcopate toward the Castro regime, over the years portions of the Cuban population have been drawn to Protestant churches and evangelical movements. Not to speak of the practice of and respect for faiths based on African and Christian syncretism. Part of this shift can be attributed by what is perceived as the collaboration of some of the more visible clergy with the Communists. The collaboration of priests was hardly unheard of in Communist Europe as opened state security files revealed.
The Vatican remains firm in its position that the United States embargo is a cause of suffering for the Cuban people although the United States is one of Cuba’s largest trading partners in the world mostly through agricultural sales. The United States has also maintained humanitarian food and medicine exemptions to the embargo since 1962. What is more, the rest of the world is free to engage in full economic and diplomatic relations with Cuba. It is mystifying that the Vatican would echo Communist Cuba’s propaganda. Pope Benedict XVI instead ought to address the internal embargo imposed by the Castro regime on its people. Foreigners in Cuba enjoy more rights than locals in their own country.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed his availability to meet with Fidel Castro, but will he extend his graciousness to dissidents of all political stripes and rally the Church behind their cause as Pope John Paul II did for Polish dissidents? Will he even be able to bring as much hope and strength as his predecessor did to Cuba? The Catholic clergy of Cuba must bear witness to the crimes of the regime instead of collaborating with the Communists by quashing the voice of the genuine opposition and promoting dubious reforms. Even Benedict’s papal predecessor disappointed many when he praised the attainment of the Cuban revolution’s goals and gave a pass to cold-blooded murderer Che Guevara. This time around, the leader of the Catholic Church ought not legitimize the Communist regime and ignore the pleas of domestic and exiled Cubans who pray for freedom. While Pope Benedict XVI is unlikely to change Raúl Castro he can seize the opportunity to reach out to Cubans who are hungry for profound religious and spiritual leadership. His presence in the country will hopefully offer a much-needed glimmer of what is good and holy.
Tania C. Mastrapa, Ph.D
Research Professor in Cuban and Latin American Studies
The Institute of World Politics