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For the pope and Castro, a win-win visit
By GARY MacEOIN, Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The duel of the titans -- Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro -- promised by TV anchors and press pundits, never happened.

The dragon-slaying pontiff, who had humiliated Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua and led Poland out of Russian bondage, turned the other cheek in Cuba. There were two winners, and the United States emerged as the only loser.

The opening round -- Castro’s welcoming speech -- might well have precipitated the hoped-for clash. In a press conference on the plane from Rome, John Paul said he wanted Castro “to tell me the truth as he sees it -- about himself ... about the country.” As if he had known what the pope wanted, Castro did just that in his welcoming speech.

A hard-hitting summary recounted the country’s history: extermination of the natives by the Spaniards, replacement by Africans dragged into slavery, independence from Spain frustrated by a new form of control, this time from the United States, and for the last 36 years an embargo designed to reassert that control. Such were the “benefits” for Cuba of the European invasion of the Americas.

Castro then turned to the role of the church in his life. His grade and high school education in Catholic institutions gave him a vision of a church intolerant of all other religions, denying education to black children, providing it solely for “the rich and privileged of whom I was one.” Only with the Vatican Council did the church recognize the rights of all believers and nonbelievers, rights that were already guaranteed by the Cuban constitution and laws.

“Your Holiness,” Castro continued, “I sincerely admire your courageous statements about what happened with Galileo, about the well-known errors of the Inquisition, about cruel episodes of the Crusades, about crimes committed during the conquest of America and about certain scientific discoveries once the object of so many prejudices and anathemas but no longer called in question.”

It was a risky opener. It was a condemnation of the European civilization whose glories as the carrier of Christian culture the pope constantly vaunts. It seemed an uncalled-for parading of less than edifying episodes in the history of the church.

Some who watched the historic meeting saw other possibilities. The highly unusual appearance of Castro in a blue suit and wearing a tie, and the obvious respect -- almost awe -- with which he greeted his guest softened the harshness of the words. Was it perhaps an apologia, a confession, as though he were saying: “Look, this is Europe from Cuba’s experience of it. This is the church in which I was socialized. Isn’t my rejection reasonable?”

Then there was the closing appeal and challenge. See for yourself what we have done: a people with fewer inequalities, fewer abandoned citizens, fewer children without schools, fewer citizens without a hospital, more teachers and doctors per inhabitant than any country in the world. No one is better prepared than we are to join in your felicitous proposal that is also ours: “that equal distribution of riches and solidarity between individuals and peoples should be globalized.”

Understandably, the pope’s prepared response did not address the substance of Castro’s challenge. But the relationship between the two men, quite different from John Paul’s with any of the other communist heads of state with which he has dealt, showed that Castro’s respect for his guest was reciprocated.

In this context, both must be seen as winners. John Paul had the state’s cooperation in bringing his evangelization formula to yet another country. His Masses and homilies in the principal cities, all presented live on Cuban TV, enabled him to deplore the things he found undesirable about life under Castro: a culture of abortions and divorces, an education monopoly that promoted atheism, severe restrictions on religious publishing, limitation of religious practice to church buildings, few resident and work permits for foreign clergy and the denial of human rights that are “fundamental and the basis of every civilization.”

The pope’s incredible stamina and will power, in spite of his obvious physical weakness, won him much sympathy. Yet his ability to project himself was limited by his labored speech, his tired face, slow walk and one eye almost closed at times.

For Castro, the benefits of the papal visit were enormous. Starting on the plane from Rome, John Paul included in almost every speech a condemnation of the U.S. embargo. “Unjust and ethically unacceptable,” he said. “Oppressive,” he insisted in his farewell message. While repeating his vigorous anticommunist statements, he echoed Castro’s own condemnations of neoliberalism, criticizing “unsustainable economic programs” that ensured that “the wealthy grew ever wealthier while the poor grew ever poorer.”

Also important for Castro was the pope’s appeal to Cuban exiles “to cooperate peacefully and in a constructive and respectful way in the nation’s progress, avoiding useless confrontation and encouraging an atmosphere of positive dialogue and mutual understanding,” and “practicing a generous solidarity with their Cuban brothers.” If Miami’s Cubans respond to this call, the embargo will have lost its primary political support.

None of this was good news for the U.S. media, which had led the biggest invasion of Cuba since the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. Monica Lewinsky’s tapes came to the rescue. The network’s big guns abandoned the pope-in-Cuba story, which dwindled to the last item on the nightly news.

The reaction around the world, as sampled by means of the Internet, was different. While the U.S. presidential scandal got major play, Cuba continued as the lead story. And the emphasis was universally what Castro had hoped, the embargo.

Where The New York Times had highlighted the criticism of the Cuban regime in the pope’s opening address (“John Paul Asks Cuba to Open to the World”), the consensus of the world press was expressed by The Irish Times: “Pope calls for ‘change’ in U.S.’s Cuban embargo.” Mexico’s La Jornada agreed: “A harsh blow to the blockade against Cuba.”

“This visit is yet another illustration of the international isolation of the United States in its policy toward Cuba,” commented Le Monde of Paris, quoting approvingly a Cuban official. It went on to record Congressman Charles Rangel, D-NY, as saying, after a five-hour conversation with Castro, that the embargo is a source of international embarrassment for the United States, one that affects poor Cubans more than it does Castro.

“Castro’s demeanor during the visit of the pope to Cuba will do a great deal to enhance his standing internationally,” The Irish Times commented in an editorial. “A very clear message was sent from Havana’s Revolution Square to Washington. ... Sanctions coupled with political engagement have played a strong role in the past in forcing countries to democratize. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in South Africa. The policy toward Cuba of sanctions without engagement, without political dialogue, has made little progress.”

“The principal loser,” concluded La Jornada, “was undoubtedly intolerance, especially the intolerance of the U.S. political sector that insists on maintaining the blockade and engaging in aggression designed to undermine Cuban self-determination. The principal winner, on the other hand, was the spirit of negotiation on differences and of the steps being taken in Cuba’s transition.”

Many observers noted the significance of the papal visit for the normalization of church-state relations in Cuba. This is a process that has already advanced significantly. Believers are no longer excluded from membership in the Communist Party. Actually two Protestant pastors are members of Congress. More visas are being granted to missionaries from overseas.

The Catholic dioceses publish monthly magazines and newsletters. The Center of Civic and Religious Formation of the diocese of Binary del Rise, established four years ago, publishes a magazine in which Christians, Marxists and agnostics freely debate their views. It is financed by the diocese and by the German Advent and other international Catholic organizations.

The atmosphere has radically changed, and there are many indications that change will continue. As the Rome daily Il Manifesto noted in an editorial:

“For the average Cuban it has been a shock to hear in person or on TV, for the first time in 40 years, criticisms of the regime (such as that of Bishop Matrices Sets of Santiago at the Saturday Mass) that up to now would have sent anyone so daring to the galleys.”

What may slow the change, Il Manifesto fears, is what it calls “sexy-gate.” Turmoil in Washington, compounded by upcoming elections, may prevent any serious discussion of U.S.-Cuban relations for a long time. Perhaps it can be delayed, but the process set in motion by John Paul and Fidel Castro cannot be reversed.