‘The Pope will visit Cuba – so what?’

The pope’s visit to Cuba comes as its government strengthens diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

Pope in mexico
Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to Cuba will be the Caribbean island's first papal visit since 1998 [AFP]

Leeds, United Kingdom – In a few days Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Cuba. Many have questioned the peculiar nature of this visit, and wondered why Cuba and why now. This is the second time in 15 years that a pope has set foot on the largest island in the Caribbean. As a matter of fact, since his predecessor John Paul II spent five days in Cuba back in 1998, only Mexico and Brazil – the two countries with the largest Catholic populations in Latin America and the world – have been visited by a Roman pontiff. Apparently, the fate of Cuba is of the utmost importance for the Vatican.

This year Catholics in Cuba are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the finding of the statue of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, and it seems the pope does not want to be left out. In the months leading up to his visit, the statue of the virgin has journeyed across the island and, if we are to believe Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, the celebrations have also led to a revival of faith among Cubans.

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Rational people might question why the Cuban government is welcoming the pope, as it did previously with John Paul II, rather than taking a more hostile stance towards the religious leader. In fact, the Vatican and Cuba have strengthened diplomatic relations, leading to new spaces opening for members of the Catholic hierarchy to be featured on Cuban national television and in the print media. There have even been incidents such as the bizarre visit of a Cuban crocodile to the Holy See a few months ago, and the unlikely comments made by Fidel Castro likening the face of the pope to that of an angel. These incidents offer proof of much-improved relations between the two states.

To some, however, the dance between the pope and the Cuban authorities is distressing, especially if one keeps in mind that this is a religious leader with a dreadful record when it comes to dealing with the Latin American left, to which Fidel Castro’s Cuba has always served as an example and a reference point.

From his previous position as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – a modern way of referring to (and covering up) the old tainted name of the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did everything in his power to annihilate liberation theology, a theological movement that gathered momentum in the 1980s and that sought to align the Church with the poor and the disadvantaged. In 1984, Cardinal Ratzinger condemned liberation theology in the strongest terms, dismissing its interpretations of the teachings of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as “Marxist-Leninist”. As a good follower of his Inquisitorial predecessors, Ratzinger fought the bishops of the Latin American Episcopal Conference when some of them showed signs of sympathy towards this movement, and suspended, censured and even excommunicated priests all over the world for following these teachings.

Such a staunchly conservative pedigree, however, has deterred neither the pope nor the Cuban authorities from setting aside old ideological rivalries and putting on a show for Cuba and the world, just as they did in 1998. Keeping this in mind, one can only wonder who will benefit from this visit.

A visit for whom?

For the government of Raul Castro, currently immersed in implementating a series of economic and social reforms, this visit is perhaps perceived as an additional reform. It is certainly a way of showing renewed tolerance towards religious institutions and religion in general. Although the presence of the pope is not likely to accelerate or slow down any of the ongoing reforms – Castro’s government has a three-year consultation plan in place that is being rigorously followed – it is hoped that the moment can generate debate and open some public spaces for discussion.

Not surprisingly, everybody seems to want something from the pope. Berta Soler, the new leader of the Ladies in White, one of the best-known opposition groups in Cuba, has asked Benedict XVI to arrange a meeting with her group. Guillermo Farinas, another dissident leader who carried out a hunger strike in 2010, has requested the pope’s intervention in favour of those who are repressed on the island. Even the Jewish community has asked for a Vatican intercession to secure the release of US contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 for alleged crimes against the Cuban state.

Granting some of these requests would certainly benefit both the Cuban government and the Catholic Church. It would be a surprise if Raul Castro’s government does not take advantage of the opportunity to make a gesture or two to complement its recently acquired image of change and reform. Even as various groups of dissidents occupied Catholic churches across the island last week, it was not the national police, but the Church that evicted the occupiers. These evictions were, in some cases, carried out using physical force, as in Holguin, where Bishop Emilio Aranguren was reportedly happy to push and shove while leading the expulsion of a small group of dissidents from the cathedral of San Isidoro. The bishop has since denied any violence was used against protesters.

While the government’s public image may be improved by the end of the visit, and some members of the opposition may be released, it is the Catholic Church that stands to win the most. As a matter of fact, it has already benefited more than anyone else, even before the pontiff’s arrival. Last week, Cardinal Ortega was given time on national TV to deliver a monologue running for almost 25 minutes, ridden with hollow personal anecdotes involving him and the pope.

Make no mistake: Benedict XVI and Cardinal Ortega are trying to gain new spaces for the Catholic Church, not for the Cuban people.”

The Catholic Church has also been quick to claim credit for the release of a large number of political prisoners over the past months. Public processions and religious posters have appeared across the island, signifying, if not a renewal of faith, at least the reappearance of the Catholic Church in the public sphere.

Of course, Cardinal Ortega and his entourage did not expect the occupation of churches by members of the opposition, but even this minor setback has been transformed into a sort of triumph by the cunning leaders of the Cuban Catholic Church, who took advantage of the event to place an article in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, condemning the occupation in the strongest possible terms.

The truth is that one can only be puzzled by this visit. Cuba is not a Catholic country, whatever Cardinal Ortega and the pope may think or say. While it may be true that many Cubans go to church, many are closer to Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria and Palo Monte than to the Catholic Church and its liturgy.

The circus that will arrive with the pope – cardinals, bishops, priests and nuns, TV and newspaper journalists, pilgrims, and all sort of pundits – will almost certainly be a breath of fresh air, but not much more than that. Make no mistake: Benedict XVI and Cardinal Ortega are trying to gain new spaces for the Catholic Church, not for the Cuban people.

Of course, that raises new questions, such as why the Cuban government would cooperate with their agenda. It also raises even more worrying questions about the extent to which this Catholic recovery may have a negative impact on some of the most important milestones achieved by Cuba in the past years, especially a well-defined secular system of education, and ever more progressive policies on abortion, gay and lesbian rights, et cetera.

Ultimately, we will have to wait and see what transpires during and after the visit. In the meantime, one can only agree with Cuban writer Abel German, who recently put it better than anyone else when he said: “The Pope will visit Cuba – so what?”

Manuel Barcia is Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, as well as Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.