A Tale of Two Countries: Pope Francis' visit to Cuba and the U.S.
I remember the beginnings of my hyphenated identity, the Cuban-American way of being human. As a little Cuban child, I spent the last few hours before leaving Havana in la pecera, the room in the airport referred to as the “fish tank,” where Cuban exiles waited before boarding a plane to leave the tropical island. I stood next to mami and papi as I prayed that Cuban authorities would not prevent us from departing at the last minute. I carried my Mickey Mouse toy into the Iberian Airlines plane on the long trip across the ocean with my parents. After the plane landed in Madrid, Cuban exiles kissed the ground, unaware of the personal revolution that was about to begin in the lives of all of us.
When my family arrived in Madrid, we carried all our possessions in our suitcases. On that first cold night after our arrival, we went to a tiny room in a rooming house where all three of us huddled together and slept till we were awakened by sounds of El Rastro de Madrid, the Spanish flea market. I looked out at all the food and wanted to eat the chocolates I saw, the uncured Spanish hams (jamón Serranos), the candies—these and more I wanted to eat. I still hold close to my heart my father’s words: “My son, as soon as I begin to work and have some money to spare, we will be able to buy some of those goodies.” I remember this traumatic relocation, my trip back across the ocean two years later, and my arrival in Miami. This exile experience opened up a space for mercy in my life. Life-on-the-hyphen, the Cuban-American way, has remained the space from which I have encountered the rich diversity that has shaped who I have become, and the rich diversity that has shaped the persons I have encountered.
From this space, I offer these reflections as someone who deeply loves and cares for both the country of his birth and the country I now claim as my home. Pope Francis’ invitation to embody God’s mercy in an increasingly globalized world of human indifference and his relentless affirmation of the preferential option for poor, marginalized and oppressed people presents a valuable challenge to Cuban and American societies. As pontifex maximus, the greatest of bridge-builders, Pope Francis comes to the United States and Cuba ready to usher in a new spring in human relations within and between these two nations, which have been sociopolitically separated by more than a mere 90 miles.
On March 17, 2013, Pope Francis wrote: “I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think—and I say it with humility—that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.”
Pope Francis is the prophet of mercy. Mercy, Cardinal Walter Kasper rightly argues, mirrors the very nature of what Christians understand as the mystery of God. Because God is love, God acts mercifully in history. Because we have been created in God’s image, we become Godlike when we act mercifully toward our neighbor. Mercy rather than judgment, sympathy rather than apathy—these values become guiding principles in personal, communal and national relations. To see as God sees requires a shift in perception, a faith-filled sight that enables us to “always consider the person.” As the pope underscored in reference to gay persons: “Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
Mercy redirects our vision to see as God sees and to see God in all persons, even in those who have wronged us. Mercy, as the “mirror” of God’s Trinitarian life, enables human beings, communities and nations to exist for and from each other. All too often we objectify persons and treat them as disposable. We condemn others, we misunderstand them, we falsely accuse them of wrongdoing, we judge them and we demonize them. Mercy provides an antidote to all of these actions, enabling us to gaze into the concrete situation of another person with compassion. Mercy enables us to see others as reflections and refractions of the one human family God has called into existence. Mercy creates and multiplies hyphens between persons and all creatures of God. Mercy realizes what in Spanish we would call an authentic community of nosotros (the Spanish word for we that literally means “we-other”).
Remembering injustice can lead to violence and retribution. Cubans, Americans and Cuban-Americans know all too well that this injustice has been part of their communal past. Tragically, violence continues to prevail in many of our cities here in the United States. We have all witnessed on our media screens the injustices related to racism and the human indifference that has characterized the treatment of certain persons based on the color of their skin or other human characteristics. But as Pope Francis suggests, mercy makes possible the awareness and acceptance of human differences. Mercy overcomes what the pope has termed “the globalization of indifference.” Indifference oftentimes comes about from the misuse or abuse of power and privilege. Indifference engenders prejudice and exclusion based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-political affiliation, physical ability and immigration status, to name but a few of its consequences. An indifferent society is a society that has failed to embrace human differences and refuses to respect and care for the most vulnerable of its citizens.
In his book Diálogos Entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro, Pope Francis argues that “pluralism is one of the fundamental characteristics of the Church, since the respect and acceptance of others, of otherness, is a long standing principle in Christian doctrine.” What the pope argues with respect to Cuba in terms of its rich religious, cultural and racial differences can be equally argued with respect to the United States. Human differences must be affirmed, respected and empowered. The people of Cuba and the United States have much work to do opening up and reconciling, first and foremost, internally as nations and subsequently to each other and the nations that surround them. Each of them must embrace Pope Francis’ culture of encounter. Perhaps what is most needed at this time to transform these societies is the kind of “popular diplomacy” that relies on people-to-people human encounters. Such encounters may enable accompaniment of diverse persons in their concrete human situation and provide the recipe needed to overcome the human indifference in each of these nations.
Liberty and Justice for All
The globalization of human indifference, as the pope’s recent encyclical “Laudato Si’” makes clear, extends to the indifference we humans practice toward our earth. “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 158).
The pope challenges throwaway and consumer driven cultures that devalue and kill life, embracing instead an integral ecology that respects and promotes all life and the interdependence of all creatures. The health of this integral ecology pivots upon the preferential care of our increasingly impoverished earth and the poor, the marginalized and all who suffered within our lands. The earth’s life matters. Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. Undocumented lives matter. Imprisoned lives matter. Dissident lives matter. All lives inside our biological wombs and social wombs matter.
In the United States, 48 million Americans live below the poverty line, more than 600,000 homeless people roam our streets (Black, Latino/a and L.G.B.T. youth represent a large percentage of the homeless in our cities), numerous persons lack adequate housing, and over 11 million live among us as undocumented persons. Every year the United States generates approximately 230 million tons of trash, with little recycling, and most of it ends up in landfills. On average the United States consumes about 19 million barrels of petroleum a day, and although we make up 4.5 percent of the world’s population, we consume approximately 20 percent of its energy. How might we respond here in the United States to Pope Francis’ challenge to promote an integral ecology in the face of such facts?
In Cuba, while most of its citizens may not pay for rent, education and health care, economic and sociocultural inequality prevails and creates two contrasting societies where a great number of Cubans suffer marginalization, especially on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. The 2015 Human Rights Watch annual report concluded: “The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism,” turning to “short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists” and uses other repressive tactics that “include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.” How might Cuban society respond to Pope Francis’ message about listening to the voices of the marginalized and oppressed in light of this ongoing silencing of human rights voices? Whether in the U.S. or in Cuba, freedom and justice truly matter!
A Space for Mercy
I remember growing up on the hyphen in Miami—I am Cuban-American. Indeed, I have lived all my life on this hyphen, resisting the temptation to choose either of these aspects of my humanity, but welcoming both black beans and rice and burgers and fries, bridging manifold human differences and “languages” and living this creative tension day in and day out of my life. This way of being human has opened up for me a space of mercy in my life. But perhaps it has been God’s mercy all along that has willed and graced this space. Cuban-Americans might be able to offer this human experience as a way to herald mercy, reject human indifference and foster liberty and justice for all. Surely, life on the hyphen, the Cuban-American way, resists the practice of indifference, for this kind of daily living makes us keenly aware of our God-given connection to others and their distinct otherness. This mode of being human invites U.S. and Cuban leaders to revise laws, policies and institutions so as to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and enable these two nations to bridge their differences.
To practice mercy as the pope has invited us to do, we must overcome human indifference and train our eyes to see God in all persons, especially and preferentially in the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. God’s option becomes our only human option to advance liberty and justice for all. I remember mercifully the beginning of my hyphen, and I pray for mercy and Pope Francis’ success in nuestra America.