Waiting for the pope

Without a doubt Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba will focus the world’s eyes on the island. Expectations are greater than when John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, because now — like then — Cubans, exiles, dissidents, human-rights advocates and governments around the world want to believe that the pontiff’s trip might help end the Cuban government’s repression and intolerance. At the very least, the pontiff’s visit may help the church consolidate the gains it made in establishing a semblance of dialogue with the regime.

But what could Benedict XVI ask General-President Raúl Castro that might differ from John Paul II’s pleas? In 1998, Karol Jozef Wojtyla asked Fidel Castro to open Cuba to the world, so that the world would open to Cuba. Fearful of importing subversive ideas, Fidel responded by turning the island into a tropical bunker. Benedict XVI is not John Paul II, and Raúl is not Fidel.

Raúl’s alleged pragmatism and efforts to legitimize the regime under his leadership are surely known by the Vatican. Raúl lacks Fidel’s intellectual qualities and charisma. He is evasive, keeps closely to a script and hides his weaknesses with jokes that he will not be able to make when meeting with the pontiff. Unlike Fidel, Raúl is reported to be a team player who asks questions.

Despite the rising hopes, the situation favors the Cuban regime winning more than it loses.

• First, the relations between the church and the government are at their highest point since 1969.

• Second, after more than 50 years of communist paralysis, the lukewarm economic openings initiated by Raúl have provided some breathing room for Cuban authorities to organize a more dynamic society.

• Finally, the very fact that the pope is permitted to go to Havana demonstrates Raúl’s disposition to maintain a few open channels to the outside world (if not with the Cuban people). Havana’s hope is that the visit will lend credibility to the limited structural changes that the regime has made and to its new political leadership sans Fidel.

For the church there are also potential benefits, albeit there will be challenges that the church’s hierarchy may not be ready to confront. The church benefits because it can strengthen its role as an interlocutor, it energizes its societal presence, and it gains room for continuing its pastoral work. That said, a lot depends on the church’s ability to put itself clearly on the side of suffering Cubans who are still denied basic, essential freedoms. Just as after Pope John Paul II’s visit, the church will still have the serious disadvantage of dealing with a brutal regime when it confronts difficult situations.

It is tragic that neither the government nor the church has the capacity to achieve any sort of national consensus. Dissident voices are not allowed within the Communist Party or the government bureaucracy. As it has since Fidel Castro took control, the dictator and his cronies exercise unlimited power without acknowledging individual rights and while asserting there are no other options.

The church asserts it is the lone voice able to engage the regime but it must also maintain its distance from the government. That duality prevents the church from dialoguing and interacting with civic social groups that are proposing alternatives to the government’s blueprint of social order and leads to miscues. That was evidenced when the church tried to portray the forced exile of political prisoners and their families as an example of its “success.”

On the other hand, Cuba’s civic and political opposition is burdened by internal divisions, 50 years of repression, imprisonment, the beatings of its would-be leaders by government orchestrated mobs, forced exile, and intimidation. To a great extent, it remains a bystander, awaiting something or someone that will acknowledge its existence. Even so, civic opposition continues to grow and potentially will play a role in any third-party negotiated settlement. In a real sense, as Cuba’s democratic opposition continues to speak out for the people, it is becoming the symbol of greatest hope in a grim situation.

Being the messenger of God on Earth, if Pope Benedict XVI hears the pleas of the Ladies in White and the cries for help of the regime’s secular victims, he may well exceed the expectations of Cubans with a comforting message that Cubans are not alone, that they are God’s children and entitled to human dignity and freedom.

By Ramón Colás, a Cuban dissident and psychologist who founded the independent libraries movement in Cuba. Now in exile in Mississippi.

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