Papal Diplomacy Hasn't Worked Out Too Well for Cubans

Monday, September 14, 2015
By Nicholas G. Hahn III in USA Today:

Havana's U.S. flag no victory for pope

Francis should deny Castro communion at Mass in the same way Castro denies freedom to the Cuban people.

Secretary of State John Kerry's historic flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday (August 14th) culminates a diplomatic accomplishment for the Obama administration and Pope Francis. But the ceremony has some irony, not all that unlike President George W. Bush's 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech.

The island's dissidents weren't invited, and the pontiff who helped usher in the new relations might have been expected to side with Cuba's persecuted faithful. But when asked about Cuba's spotty record, Francis demurred. "I would say that in many countries of the world, human rights are not respected," he said during a July in-flight news conference. "Religious liberty is not a reality in the entire world; there are many countries that do not allow it."

The pope's answer is in keeping with his May meeting in Rome with Cuban President Raul Castro. The Vatican reported that the meeting was "very friendly." But not even a prophet could have foreseen what came next.

"If the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church," the 84-year-old communist leader told an amazed gaggle of reporters after meeting in private with the pontiff for nearly an hour. "I'm not joking," Castro assured them.

But some in Castro's Cuba aren't buying it. "It is a mockery for Raul Castro tell the pope that he may return to the bosom of the church and pray again," Berta Soler told Spanish radio. Soler is the leader of the Ladies in White, a Catholic opposition movement made up of relatives of jailed human rights activists who attend Mass and silently take to the streets while wearing white.

Soler's skepticism might have something to do with Castro's security goons, who continue to harass and detain the Ladies and other dissidents. Just days before Kerry's visit, the government rounded up about 50 of Soler's Ladies. The detentions are only "further proof of the Cuban government's intolerance towards people who think differently," Soler told the PanAm Post.

If a recent Univision Noticias survey of Cubans is any indication, Soler is not alone in that assessment: 75% of respondents said that when it comes to politics, they "have to be careful about what to say" in public. The Obama administration and Pope Francis hoped a thawing would open the political system, but more than half of Cubans polled believe politics will remain the same. Still more don't think the Cuban government will allow other political parties to exist after a normalization of relations.

But Castro's crackdown seems to be more about religious freedom than the ballot box. "Many times, we haven't been able to get to church," Soler told the National Review at this year's Oslo Freedom Forum. "The few who actually do make it to church have been detained for over five hours. They have been beaten." This might be why Soler is more than a little frustrated with her spiritual shepherd. "The European Union, the USA, Pope Francis — they have turned their backs on us," she said.

The Argentine pontiff should know a thing or two about the church's struggle 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 country's 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.

While the Vatican is busy planning his September visit to the Caribbean island, Pope Francis would do well not to forget his own history and consider canceling the trip. The pope should re-examine the optics of putting a dictator over his flock.

And it's not as if a pope hasn't been to Cuba. Benedict XVI was there in 2012 only to continue a policy of détente established by his predecessor, John Paul II. "The first outing by a pope to a previously isolated society is historic, the second is memorable," respected Vaticanista John Allen wrote at The Boston Globe's Crux. "But the third can't help but feel a bit routine."

Pope Francis should at least say something about the lack of freedom in Cuba, and in so doing, minister to Cuba's dwindling faithful. That Univision survey found that only 27% of Cubans are Catholic, and only a fraction attends Mass regularly.

As for Raul Castro, he vows to attend "all" the pope's planned Masses in Cuba. But because papal diplomacy hasn't worked out too well for Cubans, Francis could exercise some spiritual leadership and deny Castro communion at Mass in the same way Castro denies freedom for the people of Cuba.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of