HISTORY AND IDEOLOGY COLLIDE IN CUBA

 

Georgie Anne Geyer, uExpress

 

WASHINGTON -- The welcome extended to Pope Francis in Cuba this week may have presented an acceptable entrance of the pontiff to the communist state, but in truth it was filled with historical discordance.

 

There was President Raul Castro, long the highly respected "jefe" of the Cuban armed forces, wearing a dark, American-style suit. There was a very small and apparently military band, which, in an island where the wind blows music through every soul and tree, blared out embarrassing shrills.

 

And, most stunning of all, when the pope unexpectedly met with Fidel the next day, the "caudillo glorioso de la Revolucion," the strongman who dreamed of changing the world, was wearing a blue Adidas jogging suit.

 

On such plebeian visions do dreams of glory end.

 

The start-off, for sure, was odd. The Havana airport was all but empty, with only government men and women there. In a world where even second- and third-tier Asian cities have stunning skyscrapers, Havana is unrelievedly low and empty. It isn't as though Cuba were stopped in history; it is more that it just slowly ran out of gas about 30 years ago, along with the old American cars everywhere on the streets.

 

So when Presidente Raul said, as he did when he met the pope in the Vatican some months ago, that he might become a Catholic again, and "I'm serious," one searched in vain for what he would be forced to give up in exchange.

 

As for Pope Francis, he said nothing in public about the number (probably 90 to 100) of dissidents and critics of the regime who were arrested, knocked down and beaten up by police during The Visit, and the only quotes in public that made the A.P. wires were those criticizing ideology.

 

During his first Mass in Cuba, in the very Revolutionary Square from which Fidel has shouted millions of mostly angry words at the world, the pope called for a spirit of reconciliation and human service that "is never ideological."

 

"What is the most important thing?" he asked. "The call to serve," he then answered, in his homily. But "service is never ideological," he went on, "for we do not serve ideas; we serve people."

 

Later, on the final day of his visit, he again posited the question: "Do you believe it is possible that a tax collector can be a servant? Do you believe it is possible that a traitor can become a friend?

 

"If you are different than me, why don't we talk? Why do we always throw rocks at that which separates us?"

 

With a little historical background, one could enter into fascinating play over the ideologies that were crossing and recrossing themselves during those three days in Cuba.

 

Both Castro boys -- Fidel and Raul, now in their 80s -- were raised Roman Catholic by a rough northern Spanish Gallego father who made a fortune in farming. Both boys went to the Jesuit Colegio de Belen in eastern Cuba, but Fidel, especially, was an indifferent student.

 

In the 1980s, long after "los Castro" took power in 1959, I talked to Fidel's priest, Father Armando Llorente, in Miami and asked him if, during Fidel's years at the school, he ever saw the boy praying. He smiled a canny Jesuit smile and said, "I would see him alone, praying in the chapel. I knew what he was praying for -- he was praying to win."

 

Although both Castros destroyed the institution of the Catholic Church in Cuba after taking power, the two boys were always different. Raul was small in stature, and organized and logical in nature. He excelled as head of the Cuban military, the only institution in communist Cuba that worked. In the early days, just before and after the revolution in 1959, Raul was a dourly devoted member of the Communist Party of Cuba, spending hours studying Lenin & Co. and was deeply convinced. He is a realist.

 

Fidel, on the other hand, lived and operated on the transcendental level. He hated organizations and rules -- he made his own rules. He got into his people's very souls and was to become the 20th century's most stunning example of the charismatic leader, who dealt not with tax collecting, but with demagogic control over his people.

 

As to Pope Francis, he emerged out of that same period. But as an Argentine boy from a happy Italian family who moved to Buenos Aires, he grew up and became a Jesuit priest during the time that virulently anti-communist military governments were ravaging the nation. In particular, the military was against the "liberation theology" of the Catholic Church, in which angry young priests developed a series of ideas that melded the church with Marxism.

 

This led to tens of thousands of "disappeared" brutally murdered by the military, something the pontiff never forgot.

 

These two countries of Latin America -- Cuba and Argentina -- have given us two very different visions of the development of the body and the soul. They crossed dramatically this week, but that is still only the beginning.

 

Doubtless, more drama is to come, and doubtless it will be just as compelling a story.

 

Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank

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