Pope Benedict XVI, Our Man in Havana

Pope Benedict XVI’s brief visit to Latin America included a stop-off in Mexico and ended a few days later in Cuba after a private meeting on March 26 with the aging former President Fidel Castro. The pope expressed his concerns about the ongoing violence of the drug war in Mexico and commented on the “schizophrenia” of Latin American Catholics who claim, for instance, to keep the faith but do not seem greatly concerned with the rising inequity in the region between its richest and poorest. “These individuals,” he said, “are Catholic believers, but in their public lives they follow other paths that do not correspond to the great values of the Gospel.”

As he returned to Rome on March 27, the pope also had some parting shots on the Havana tarmac for both Cuban socialism and the U.S. economic embargo of its one-time surrogate. “May no one feel excluded from taking up this exciting task” of spiritually and physically rebuilding Cuba, he said, “because of limitations of his or her basic freedoms, or excused by indolence or lack of material resources, a situation which is worsened when restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people.”

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The Cuba that Pope Benedict XVI visited is a country where the Catholic Church enjoys significantly more freedom and official recognition than it did when Blessed John Paul II made the first papal visit to the island in 1998. Cuba’s Communist regime has made Christmas a national holiday, and it now allows party members to identify themselves as practicing Catholics. Soon after the pope’s departure, Good Friday was declared a national holiday.

But plenty of reminders of old-school Cuba remained. Prior to his arrival, security teams swept up many dissidents who threatened to provoke a scene during the pope’s visit. Most were released soon after the pope left.

Pope Benedict, in public statements just before he arrived in Cuba and during his visit, affirmed the value of individual freedom. “The church is always on the side of freedom: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion,” he told reporters on March 23. “God not only respects human freedom: He almost seems to require it,” the pope said in his homily during a Mass in Santiago de Cuba on March 26. But addressing those frustrated by the pace of change in Cuba after half a century of Communism, the pope said that the “path of collaboration and constructive dialogue” between church and regime there is long and “demands patience.”

Before he departed, Pope Benedict, in a veiled reference to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, urged an end to geopolitical obstinacy and encouraged dialogue. “The present hour urgently demands that in personal, national and international co-existence we reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints that tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective,” the pope said.

Regarding his 30-minute private session with Fidel Castro, there were no bedside conversions to report; but according to the Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi, S.J., Castro’s many questions for the pope were an indication that “now his life is one dedicated to reflection and writing.” Lombardi added, “In the end, Commandante Fidel asked the pope to send him a few books” dealing with his questions.

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