Must-Read: The Pope's Cuban Blunder

Friday, December 26, 2014
By Nicholas G. Hahn in The New York Daily News:

Cuban dissident voices & Pope Francis’ deaf ears

The wives of imprisoned critics of the Castro regime deserved better

When Berta Soler met Pope Francis, it had been a long time coming.

Soler’s Ladies in White, a Catholic opposition movement comprised of relatives of jailed human rights activists in Cuba, had pleaded numerous times for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. He declined and visited the communist island in 2012 only to continue a policy of dĂ©tente established by his predecessor, John Paul II.

But a short blessing by Pope Francis in March 2013 signaled a slight shift in direction — or that’s at least what Soler believed.

“We think a Latin American Pope is very good for us. Pope Francis knows a little better the problems that our peoples have, he comes from far down and he can help the people who are suffering,” Soler told the Italian newspaper La Stampa after receiving some papal encouragement.

If only Soler and her Ladies had known better. Last week, the Vatican confirmed that for more than 18 months, the Holy See had been working to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The pontiff seems to have blessed the Cuban opposition with one hand, and the Castro brothers with the other.

Soler’s Ladies, Cuban exiles, and other dissident groups have long lobbied against new relations without any concessions from the communist regime. They aren’t as hopeful as others who say more U.S. trade with the Caribbean island may lead to more freedom.

The international aid worker Alan Gross’ release is perhaps the only Cuban concession — and thank goodness for that — but even so, it came as a small part of a lopsided prisoner swap.

“Democracy and freedom for the Cuban people aren’t going to be achieved by what Obama has given to the Cuban government,” Soler said in a post on her group’s website. In his announcement of re-establishing diplomatic relations, President Obama thanked Pope Francis for helping broker a Cold War-era thawing, saying his “moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”

The President and the Pope may be settling for far less than they might think. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Catholic and son of parents who fled the communist paradise, denounced, warning that the move as “more than just putting U.S. national security at risk, President Obama is letting down the Cuban people, who still yearn to be free.” Rubio didn’t spare any words for his spiritual shepherd, who he politely encouraged to “take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people — for a people to truly be free.”

The Argentine pontiff should know a thing or two about the church’s cause for freedom. When a military junta in his own country took power in a 1976 coup during what is called the “Dirty War,” Father Bergoglio was head of the Jesuits.

The future-Pope saw many of his priests and seminarians jailed and killed. Bergoglio is reported to have helped many flee the country and even met with the military dictatorship to save the lives of two imprisoned priests.

But those experiences may not have been on the pontiff's mind when he wrote personal letters to Obama and Castro or when he hosted delegates from Cuba at the Vatican.

While it might be fodder for sensational journalism, Rubio and other Catholics who make public policy shouldn’t have to correct their pontiff on foreign affairs. Clerics are spiritual leaders, not political ones. When prelates pretend to be diplomats, it dilutes their authority on issues of faith and morals.

Francis might have done one better by prodding the Castro brothers about their regime’s woeful human rights record. That would have been in a Pope’s wheelhouse.

And it would have been what Berta Soler deserved.

Hahn is the editor of