Benedict XVI in Cuba
A retrospective, with lessons for the next conclave.

Pope Benedict XVI at mass in Santiago de Cuba


George Weigel

Moreover, Cuba is not North Korea. It may still be a gigantic prison, but it is not the country it was 30 years ago. If representatives of the National Endowment for Democracy could recently arrange to bring into Cuba an award for the founders of the Ladies in White and could bestow that award at a meeting with civil-society and pro-democracy activists, there is no reason why a competent Vatican nunciature in Havana, working with competent papal trip planners, couldn’t have figured out a way for the pope to meet representatives of Cuban civil society. At the very least, the Vatican could have extracted a high price from the regime (including international media exposure) for blocking such a meeting.

A week after the pope left Cuba, veteran Cuba analyst Carlos Alberto Montaner wrote in the Miami Herald that “ecclesiastical sources,” some of them “very close to the Holy Father,” had told him of the Vatican’s surprise at the sharp contrast between the spontaneous and joyful mass welcome the pope had received in Mexico (just before he came to Cuba), and the controlled atmosphere of an impoverished country the papal party had experienced in Cuba. Moreover, Montaner reported, Vatican officials “found it lamentable” that Raúl Castro had given a speech in Santiago “intended to justify the dictatorship,” a point reinforced during the papal visit by two other senior Cuban officials who insisted that political change was not on the horizon in Cuba. Those same Vatican officials, according to Montaner, found it “painful” that Cuban officials “reprised the most inflexible and Stalinist” orthodoxies whenever journalists were present. Further, Montaner wrote, the visit confirmed the Vatican’s sense of a division in the Cuban Church between bishops who want to support religious freedom by defending the free associations of civil society, and bishops like Cardinal Ortega who take a more benign view of the regime’s program of “reform” and wish to work with it — or, at the very least, not directly against it.

All of this, if true, raises even more questions, for everything Montaner reports the Vatican “learned” from the papal visit to Cuba was well known before the visit was even planned. There was no reason for surprise. The Castro regime behaved precisely the way any knowledgeable person would have expected it to behave. Thus the Vatican’s papal trip planners were either unaware of fundamental Cuban realities, or resigned to dealing with the regime over the long haul, or incapable of imagining effective counter-measures to the regime’s attempts to manipulate the visit for its own purposes. None of those three alternatives is very edifying.

The Future, in Cuba and in Rome
And that brings this discussion to questions of the future. One of those sets of questions involves the Church’s role in Cuba in the next several years. The second set of questions involves the future of the papacy.

As to Cuba: Everyone knows that a transition is underway on that long-suffering island. The question is whether that transition will resemble Spain, and result in a relatively swift and easy transition to democracy and the free economy, or whether it will resemble China, with the regime retaining (and enforcing) its political power while the country opens up economically. The social doctrine of the Catholic Church ought to impel the Vatican to bend every effort to support a Spanish-type transition. Yet that will require the Holy See to remember, and learn from, the example of John Paul II in Poland in the 1980s.

Ever since it was reported that John Paul II would go to Cuba in January 1998, inappropriate analogies have been drawn between the Church in Poland and the Church in Cuba. The blunt fact is that the Cuban Church has nothing resembling the grip on Cuban culture that the Polish Church had on Polish culture. Moreover, Cuban Catholicism has nothing like the overwhelming number of adherents the Polish Church had at the rise of Solidarity, a figure north of 90 percent of the national population. So expectations that Catholicism could play the pivotal role in Cuba that the Catholic Church played in Poland have usually been misplaced.