Pope Francis: Our Man in Havana?

On the weekend after President Obama’s historic announcement on Dec. 17 that he wanted to re-establish diplomatic ties with communist Cuba, I visited a park in Miami’s Little Havana section.

Cuban exiles were holding a protest against normalizing relations with Havana, which were severed 54 years ago, and the mood was angry. Almost everyone I talked to used the same word—“betrayal”—but they weren’t directing it just at Obama. The largely Roman Catholic crowd also felt deceived by Pope Francis, the man who brokered the normalization deal between Obama and the Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

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“He’s very misinformed about Cuba,” said Ana Garcia, a woman in her 60s who lives in the Cuban-exile enclave of Hialeah, just outside Miami. “It’s painful to know the Holy Father is appeasing the Castros.”

This isn’t the first time the Vatican and Cuban exiles have been at odds. Most exiles were stung when St. John Paul II traveled to Cuba in 1998 and huddled with Raúl’s older brother and predecessor, Fidel Castro. Nor were they pleased when John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, paid the island a visit three years ago.

Most of all they were irritated by Rome’s unwavering support for Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the soon-to-retire Archbishop of Havana. His admittedly successful efforts to revive Cuba’s moribund Catholic Church involved moments of cooperation with the regime that made him a Castro puppet in the eyes of many exiles—including Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who has called Ortega a Castro “collaborator.”

But from Francis, they believe, has come a whole new level of desilusión, or disappointment. They say that by so enthusiastically blessing the Washington-Havana rapprochement, the pontiff has legitimized a dictatorship that regularly jails dissidents and keeps Cuba’s 10 million people trapped in deprivation.

“We’ve gone from a Catholic Church that helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe to one that’s now propping it up in Cuba,” said Garcia at the Little Havana protest.* 

But Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami disagrees. He argues that after a fruitless half century of isolating Cuba, normalization more effectively positions both the United States and the church to help accelerate democratic transition when the octogenarian Castros are gone.

By allowing Americans to funnel more investment and capital goods to Cuba’s fledgling private entrepreneurs, Wenski told me, the new policy of engagement “opens new space for individual initiative and independent thought.”

“The [exiles’] pain is real,” Wenski told The Associated Press last month. “But you can’t build a future on resentments.”

Francis, an Argentine, had other reasons for nudging the United States and Cuba together. They stem from both his papacy’s emphasis on aiding the poor and his portfolio as the first Latin American pontiff.

In the first sense, he believes the 53-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the Castros has put more hardship on Cubans than on Communism. And he is right: The embargo has always served Fidel and Raúl as a convenient scapegoat for their economic blunders and an equally convenient rationale for their political repression.

In the second regard, Francis sees the U.S.-Cuba conflict from a broader angle—namely, the tensions it produces not just across the Florida Straits but throughout the Western Hemisphere. So when the Obama administration was looking for help in winning the release of the U.S.A.I.D. contractor Alan Gross—who was jailed in Cuba in 2009 on questionable espionage charges—they found it when Francis became pope in the spring of 2013. As I wrote in these pages last year, Francis has to make being the first Latin American pope mean something, much the way St. John Paul II made being the first Slavic pontiff matter when the Iron Curtain fell. So, in personal messages to both men, he urged Obama and Raúl Castro to parlay the secret Gross negotiations into something bigger. The normalization deal was sealed, in fact, at the Vatican last fall.

That just makes the ire of the Cuban exiles worse. But the good news for Francis is that polls show younger Cuban-Americans approve of normalization—and his role in it.

* CORRECTION, Jan. 30, 2015: The quote above from Ana Garcia was initially attributed in error to John Suarez of the Directorio Democrático Cubano. 

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Leonard Villa
2 years 8 months ago
Normalized for whom? Is there a "new normal" for repressed Cubans? If there is I have not seen evidence of it. The question is: cui bono? Investors. The Castro Regime and its communism. Does the US really benefit from this strategically? Has the Castro Regime stopped being an enemy to the US and freedom? I fear this kind of action both on the part of the Vatican and the current regime in the US is the continuing illusion of Ostpolitik: remaking implacable enemies in our own image and likeness to give the illusion that things have changed. In this illusion the martyrs become sacrificial lambs and the Church is tempted to compromise with evil.
John Suarez
2 years 8 months ago
The above statement does not represent my views, but this 2010 essay does: In defense of the Church and the Democratic Opposition in Cuba : Sanctions, Catholic Social Doctrine, and Cuba’s Democratic Opposition "Finally, the greatest argument in favor of maintaining economic sanctions on the Cuban dictatorship is what has happened in China. Unlike other regimes, communist dictatorships that maintain monopoly control over the economy and civil society has led to democracies that trade with them collaborating with them as part of the price of doing business. Economic engagement with communist regimes has meant in practice assisting in the repression of entire populations. Principled and targeted sanctions offer greater hopes of opening up these regimes to negotiation and dialogue despite the dictatorship’s howls to the contrary."

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