EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the February 23, 1998, issue of National Review.
Havana– Just after 1 P.M. word from the cockpit came in, “Personnel return to their seats; prepare for landing in Havana.” I thought back to when I heard equivalent words on first encounters with other totalitarian capitals: in 1970, coming down to land in Moscow, and in 1972, approaching Peking. You stare at the landscape closing in on you. You find yourself looking for signs of Gulag. Not likely, ninety miles south of Key West, but Fidel Castro did his best to give the Cubans a tropical Gulag, and the big question was going to be: Will the visit by the Pope make a difference?
I traveled as a guest (pay your own way, but we’ll make the arrangements) of the Catholic episcopacy, flying down with the Boston group, headed by the Cuba-savvy Bernard Cardinal Law, up three days later with the New York group, led by the formidable John Cardinal O’Connor. There were 16 bishops and 29 priests on board the southbound flight, a good substitute for a St. Christopher medal. The high point of our trip would come on Sunday, the open Mass in Havana at the Plaza de la Revolucion. The itinerary permitted the grittier pilgrims to travel on Saturday (departure time, 4:30 A.M.; return, 6:30 P.M.) to Santiago, at the eastern end of the island, to witness the third of the Pope’s four
Santiago nestles in Oriente Province, where Fidel got his start as a random terrorist in the sheltering mountain range. Fourteen months later, on New Year’s Day 1959, he swept into Havana as plenipotentiary leader of Cuba. Thirty-nine years after that he is still maximum leader and, one assumes in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, still Numero Uno; whether supreme, or merely dominant, isn’t known. As far as the Cuban people are concerned, Castro is quite simply–in charge. If there are arguments among his advisors sometimes resulting in policy compromises, the Cuban people don’t know it, and in any case their voice in matters discussed is not recorded. They know only that somebody, with Castro’s approval, is there to tell them what they can do and what they can’t, which includes a ban on consuming more than one pound of rice and one cup of sugar every ten days. “It’s too bad Castro can’t tell our bodies how many calories they need to eat in order to stay alive,” one Cuban discreetly commented, complaining about the awful scarcity of food and medicine. Everything in Cuba is scarce except in the dollar stores. It is one of the few countries in which poverty has actually increased in the past six years. Up until 1992, Cuba had socialism and massive paramilitary Soviet aid. Since then, Cuba has had just socialism.
Socialism and the American “blockade,’ as they refer to it here: more properly, Senator Helms’s press chief, Marc Thiessen, corrects you, the American “embargo.” A blockade prevents all shipping from coming into port. An embargo restricts only shipping from the aggrieved power. We have embargoed commerce with Cuba for almost forty years, but not on the current scale. On February 24, 1996, two of Castro’s MiGs shot down two unarmed Cuban-American planes. That was high adventure for young pilots gleeful at an opportunity to exercise their training on live targets. “We hit him!” the tape records. “Cojones!” “This one won’t mess around any more!” “Fatherland or death!” But Congress and President Clinton resolved to mess around on a grand scale. A bill was drafted and signed which intensified the U.S. embargo and added huge firing range to it, complete with ad hominem details to the effect that this or that section of the Act could not be circumvented until Fidel Castro and (his brother) Raul Castro were … powerless. One of the Act’s provisions –hold your breath–a) denies any country the right to engage in Cuban commerce in which a product developed at a property once upon a time confiscated by Castro is traded, b) holding liable to civil penalties the entrepreneur carrying on such trade and c) enjoining the State Department to withhold U.S. visas from officers of any corporation engaged in such trade. This part of the embargo outraged what we like to think of as our allies, and this time they had a point. We are all opposed to traffic in stolen property, but enforcement by foreign governments of antique titles after a time becomes pretty difficult to handle, especially in the case of claims that have attenuated bloodlines. (We trade with Russians who handle all kinds of goods that once belonged to the Czar and the ruling class.)
The European Human Rights Commission has denounced the Act as imperial effrontery. The “Bloqueo”–Spanish for blockade–is scorned by all Latin American countries. Criticism of it accommodates primal Hispanic appetites. One is to find cause to criticize the United States (“El coloso del Norte”–the Colossus of the North); a second, to sympathize with any sister government that engages in property confiscation, this being a Latin American addiction. Castro has greatly opportunized on the embargo, soliciting sympathy from Latin Americans for the economic damage done to Cuba by it, and exulting in the opportunity to advise the Cuban people that their economic hardships are traceable to it. Talk of economic hardship is a way to catch the attention of Pope John Paul II. As expected, the Pope criticized the embargo in one of his declarations.
The players’ strategies were always plain. Fidel Castro moved quickly and comprehensively to try to appropriate the papal visit. He could of course go only so far, given that Pope John Paul II writes his own lines. To begin with, the invitation to visit Cuba came not from Castro but from the Cuban bishops. The Church has been a target of Castro’s from the outset. In 1961 he confiscated the Catholic schools, including the Jesuit school he had himself attended. In 1965 he exiled two hundred priests. As of 1959, 72 per cent of the Cuban population had been baptized. The figure today is 41 per cent. There were then 723 priests, now 269. The Church was never outlawed by Castro, but churchgoing was for the spiritually defiant.
With the dissipation of ideological energy, the religious scene began to change, well before the visit of the Pope. Auxiliary Bishop William Murphy of Boston told the passengers on the flight south that he had attended a Palm Sunday Mass in Havana in 1988 and found the church only half full. In 1994, same church, same event, it was crowded. The papal visit was slowed by the two downed Cuban-American airplanes, but at a critical moment in the negotiations later that year, Castro decided to encourage the visit. He called on the Pope in Rome and made what seemed like weekly concessions. It was disclosed that he would greet the Pope on landing … That he would attend the initial appearance of the Pope at the University of Havana … That he would appear at the great Mass on the Sunday … By the time the Pope reached Havana, white/yellow banners of the Vatican flew everywhere. What truly astonished the visitors was the painting that faced the outdoor altar at the end of the Plaza, a tennis-court-sized depiction of Jesus of the Sacred Heart with huge lettering on the top: “JESUCRISTO EN TI CONFIO.” “You know,” Cardinal Law commented the next day, “Castro didn’t really have to permit that.”
All the above can be made to sound like formalistic courtesies, but in Cuba they were much more than that. The taxi driver spoke of the stupefaction of it all. “He [they tend not to use Castro's name] is always there. Up there. He is talking to us. Down here. Last night he was down here. The Pope was up there. The Pope was speaking. He was not speaking. He was not saying one word. He was just sitting there.” Max Weber, in describing charisma, specified what the Leader must not do. He must never appear to be sick. He must always be the center of attention … He must never just sit there.
Castro counted on getting from the Pope some rhetoric that would make Castro sound like a mere co-conspirator against greedy capitalism. The Pope has had the problem, in the estimation of some who are keen to observe the distinctions, of catalyzing among some of his listeners schematic social formulations that appear to follow logically from humanitarian pursuits. The Marxism of Fidel Castro counts heavily for popular appeal on the demonization of wealth, which metastasizes, under Marxist theory, into the demonization of property. The Pope has affirmed his belief in the right of property, but he also decries materialism and economic polarization. The danger comes from theoretical projections, ingenuous or opportunistic, concerning what then to do about materialism. If wages are too low, the populist instinct is to write laws raising the minimum wage. If a country is mostly poor, why not tax that much of it that isn’t poor?
Fidel Castro’s highest ambition could not of course be realized. Pope John Paul II was not going to leave Cuba endorsing socialism as an answer to the problem of poverty in Cuba, which in any event does not have a significantly wealthy class. It once did. Castro confiscated the holdings of the wealthy class. These were rapidly dissipated; and, after forty years, Cuba is broke. That doesn’t matter to Fidel. In his farewell statement at the: airport he thanked the Pope for visiting the “last bastion of Communism.”(*)
No deductions were publicly drawn about the causes of the poverty of Cuba, nor prescriptions offered for its alleviation–except that the United States should rescind its embargo.
The problem of Fidel Castro, the human being, was visually taxing, on every one of the five days. We saw him greeting the Pope; in conference with him at the university session; seated in the center front row during the great outdoor Mass in Havana; and, most copiously, bidding the Pope farewell at the airport, late Sunday afternoon.
Some people develop personal allergies to certain historical figures. I confess to an allergy to Fidel Castro. It was not lightly developed. In 1959 Castro seemed a rather bracing, voluptuous Robin Hood, making his case against a corrupt dictator. But very soon he began to earn the odium in which he is held by a pretty large company of people, including members of his immediate family, a score of early comrades he tortured and exiled, and the million he forced into exile.
On Saturday, the papal Mass at Santiago was introduced by the local archbishop, Pedro Meurice. Describing later that day what had happened, Auxiliary Bishop Murphy was so excited that he forgot to leave the elevator, which proceeded to the next stop. Archbishop Meurice, a quiet, reclusive prelate, took the microphone that morning and said about the Castro regime, in almost as many words, what victims of it have known for many years but would not have thought it safe to describe when inside the barbed-wire reservation of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The archbishop told the 200,000 Cubans that they had been living under a regime that had corrupted the moral traditions of Cuba, that a new life, a new culture, a new Cuba was what the future held out for them. A standing ovation. Sitting opposite was Raul Castro. The Pope rose to speak. He thanked the archbishop. Tumultuous applause. He then thanked the “civil hosts, including the Vice President of the Council of State, Raul Castro.” DEAD SILENCE. In better days, Castroism would have arranged for the materialization of a noose, coming down from above the altar to bind the subversive bishop’s neck and hoist him onto the impromptu gallows. No more. Do we have here in Cuba now the perestroika that Gorbachev let into the room in the Eighties, which, after only a few years, ushered Gorbachev out of the room?
The embargo of 1996 bears the strong imprint of Sen. Jesse Helms. At National Review we have applauded most of Sen. Helms’s positions over the years, many of which were brewed from our own analyses and inspirited by a common devotion to the anti-Communist cause. But the special emphasis we have historically accorded Castro’s Cuba derived from his transformation of his country into a menacing bayonet of the Soviet enterprise. Three years after Castro came to power he sheltered Soviet nuclear weapons powerful and numerous enough to attack every major American city this side of Seattle.
The Sovietization of Cuba brought on a flight to America of one Cuban in ten. One million productive, educated Cuban-Americans have welcomed politically any act anti-Castro in shape or design. Many senior members of the anti-Communist community have been similarly affected by the inertial pull of yesteryear’s anti-Communism. We were right, back then, to oppose Castro as a regional agent of the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he is merely: one more evil dictator. As despicable as Papa Doc, as obnoxious as Trujillo. But we aren’t any longer in the business of sending in Marines to go after local tyrants. John Quincy Adams reminded us that though we are friends of liberty everywhere, we are custodians only of our own.
Sen. Helms believes that ending the embargo would not help ten million impoverished Cubans. Whatever change in Cuban fortunes might result from ending the embargo (he believes), Castro would turn to his own benefit, to continue to finance the slavekeeping overhead of his regime. Jesse may be correct. But is it insensitive to ask:
Ought it to be the responsibility of the United States to decide whether freedom to trade with Cuba is abused by a Cuban government?
Is the Pope a material witness? Not really, not on this issue. And in the case of John Patti II there is the dire matter of his health. One observer found himself close to the Pope when he came away after his Mass at Santiago. “Let me put it this way. If the man I laid eyes on had been my father, I’d have called an ambulance and told it to take them to the nearest hospital.”
There was some trepidation about the Pope’s health. Happily, at the Plaza de la Revolucion on Sunday cloud cover shielded us from the sun and a brisk wind protected us even from the ambient heat generated by one million fellow creatures, every one of them, it seemed, at elbow-length. The loudspeakers were adroitly placed and the celebratory music, sacred and secular, exactly reflected the mood of the multitude. The Pope was cautiously introduced by Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The cardinal was rumored to have been upset by the exuberance of the bishop in Santiago, left nervous over excesses that might upset the dictator with whom Cuban Catholics would have to deal after the Pope was gone. We heard then the voice of the Pope. Not very expressive, but the Spanish he spoke was well turned and clearly enunciated. In a matter of seconds he communicated his special, penetrating, transcendent warmth. When the Mass got under way I made my way through the crowd, discouraged by the great distance between where I stood and where the Pope officiated. I walked back to the hotel and turned on the television, and saw that magical figure complete the Mass. His face mostly–hangdog in expression. We saw the result of his affliction (Parkinson’s) and his age (77) and his gunshot wound (1981). The Pope has traveled to more than eighty countries. Observers are dumbfounded by the 16-hour-a-day schedules he imposes on himself. The result of it all is a stoop, and the listless expression on his face–the hangdog look. But then intermittently the great light within flashes and one sees the most radiant face on the public scene, a presence so commanding as to have arrested a generation of humankind, who wonder gratefully whether the Lord Himself had a hand in shaping the special charisma of this servant of the servants of God, as the Pope styles himself.
(*) “[T]he fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic organism.” Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991.