Pope Francis visits Cuba

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On 19 September, Pope Francis arrived in Cuba for a four-day, three-city tour. The visit marks the third papal visit to Cuba in just 17 years, ‘a remarkable record for any country, much less one with such a small observantly Catholic community’ (Washington Post, 19 September). It is particularly significant given Pope Francis’ role since 2013 in facilitating secret negotiations between Cuba and the US which led to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. During 18-months of secret talks, the Pope sent personal letters to Obama and Castro and hosted high-level meetings at the Vatican.

However, Pope Francis’ interest in improving Cuban-US relations was evident years before. In 1998 he published an account of the meeting between Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro earlier that year during the first papal visit to socialist Cuba. Despite being an anti-communist reactionary, John Paul’s visit at that time was significant. Cuba had been left isolated by the collapse of the socialist bloc between 1989 and 1991; the Helms-Burton Act had been enacted in 1996, punitively tightening the US blockade by punishing third parties trading with Cuba; and Cuban-exile terrorist groups had stepped up attacks on Cuba, including a hotel bombing campaign in 1997. Despite criticising Cuban society, including the right to abortion and divorce, Pope John Paul also criticised the US blockade of Cuba and his visit made direct US aggression against Cuba less likely. This papal visit is equally significant. Pope Francis is the first ever Latin American Pope, and his public denunciations of global capitalism hark back to the social stance taken in the 1960s under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, who advocated the Church’s responsibility to the poor and social development.

Among the Pope’s first words in Cuba were a message of greeting for Fidel Castro. In a later meeting they discussed the need for environmental protection and other global problems. Fidel gave the Pope a copy of his book Fidel and Religion, written by theologian Frei Betto in 1985. Pope Francis gave three public masses in three cities: Havana, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba. Cuba’s opponents were disappointed with his message complaining that it was ‘more pastoral than political and he refrained from issuing even coded criticism of the Communist government’. (The Telegraph, 20 September).

Shortly before the Pope’s visit, the Cuban government announced that it would pardon 3,522 prisoners as a humanitarian gesture extended to prisoners under 20 and over 60, those with chronic illness, women and those close to their release dates: but not for those (often mendaciously) claimed as political prisoners by Cuba’s opponents. A similar amnesty was granted by Cuba prior to the papal visits in 2012 and 1998. If Obama had granted an amnesty to a similar proportion of US prisoners prior to the Pope’s visit to the US from 22 to 27 September, 141,000 people would have been released.

The Washington Post observed: ‘By devoting so much time in Cuba before his arrival in the United States, Francis will almost certainly add momentum to the push for Congress to lift Kennedy-era trade sanctions against the island’ (12 September). In the US, the Pope spoke in the US Congress and addressed the UN General Assembly in New York.

Helen Yaffe

FRFI 247 October/November 2015