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Pope Benedict XVI future visit and its impact on Cuba

 

Andy S Gomez, in The Miami Herald

   

As Cubans on the island impatiently await Raul Castro’s reforms to improve their daily lives, the Vatican has announced that Pope Benedict XVI might travel to Cuba next year to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Our Lady of the Charity, the Catholic Patron Saint of Cuba.

 

Most Cubans on the island will get the news much later, if at all, since most modes of communication on the island are controlled by the government. Even though “social media” continues to increase, it is still a small percentage of the populations that have access to the internet or have cell phones.

 

The last time a Pope visited Cuba was back in 1998, when John Paul II stepped off the plane in Havana, and was greeted by a smiling Fidel Castro wearing a suit instead of his usual military fatigues. Large numbers of Cubans greeted the Pope waving Cuban and Vatican Flags. The Pope brought words of hope and courage. This was the Polish Pope who many credit for helping bring down the “iron curtain.”

 

After the euphoria of John Paul’s II visit was over, everything went back to normal by Fidel Castro’s standards. This included the continued violation of human rights, and the denial of more personal freedoms by the government. The hardships of living in this totalitarian state did not change.

 

What has happened since? First, Fidel Castro is no longer running Cuba on a day to day basis. Since Gen. Raul Castro took power, the social and economic situation has become worse. However, the Catholic Church has become much more vocal and appears to be filling some of the social and economic needs the government cannot provide such as food, medicine and shelter. Over the last two years, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whom many have criticized for not taking a stronger stand against the Cuban government, has played a key role in negotiating the release of political prisoners and creating a direct line of communication to Raul Castro.

 

Pope Benedict XVI visit could actually be more significant than that of John Paul II visit. Why? Because Fidel is no longer running Cuba, and the Catholic Church has begun to have a pivotal role across the island. Cubans want change, and not just the economic type, they also want liberty and hope for a better future. The Pope’s words and actions will be extremely important. He must call for an end to the violation of human rights and the opening of the political system. He should also try to meet with dissidents and opposition leaders. He must make it a point to reach out to the Afro-Cuban community, which today make-up the majority of the population on the island. Overall, he must take a more forceful position than Pope John Paul II did.

 

President Obama’s administration has promoted the improvement of dialogue between the two nations with minor success. The Catholic Church will argue that by lifting the economic embargo it will help improve communications between Washington DC and Havana. Yet the lifting of the embargo without major political changes in the island would be a poor diplomatic move. Instead, we should continue to encourage building stronger ties with the Cuban people.

 

The Roman Catholic Church could be the catalyst for “change” that everyone has expected for so many years. This time, once the Pope leaves, we hope that he will have left a strong enough message that will encourage people, both inside and outside of the government, to begin a true process of reconciliation and reform. Only time will tell.

 

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Dr. Andy S. Gomez, Assistant Provost and Senior Fellow, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. University of Miami.