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Fidel's unfinished business with the Church


Pope John Paul II & Fidel CastroPrior to the historic papal visit to Cuba in 1998, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright travelled to the Vatican for a meeting with John Paul II at which Cuba was one of the major topics of discussion. After the meeting, Albright reported to President Bill Clinton that the Pope's visit could be a 'point of departure' for unleashing regime-challenging forces on the island just as his visit to Poland had done in 1979.

Like the greater part of official US thinking about Cuba for the past 50 years, Albright's comments betrayed more wishful thinking than informed calculation.

In contrast to Poland, the Catholic Church in Cuba has always been a marginal institution with little historical identification with the forces of Cuban nationalism and a core constituency of middle and upper class white Cubans, many of whom fled the island for the United States in the early 1960s.

Also, the local Catholic hierarchy had its own agenda of outcomes it desired from the Pope's visit, and regime change was certainly not high on it.

Lastly, Fidel Castro was no Wojciech Jaruzelski. Instead he was a genuinely popular leader and a wiley politician — a point he proved by ruling Cuba for the best part of another ten years after Pope John Paul's visit, stepping down this week into a graceful retirement without any hint of civil unrest or political upheaval on the island.

The same day Castro announced his retirement, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, prepared to leave Rome for Havana on a trip suggested by the Cubans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of John Paul's visit. Bertone did so by holding a press conference at which he described relations between Cuba and the Holy See as 'relatively good' and said Pope Benedict XVI himself might visit the island in the future.

No one talks any more about the Catholic Church as a kind of Trojan horse for bringing about the collapse of the Cuban Revolution.

Bertone, like the rest of us, will find Cuba little changed by Fidel Castro's retirement. This is an event the Cuban leadership has been preparing for even before Fidel became gravely ill. Most obviously, Fidel made a seamless — and it seems widely popular — temporary transfer of power to his brother, Raul, in 2006. More generally Fidel, one of the last remaining communist disciples of any significance, had actually been moving Cuba away from orthodox Marxism at home and revolutionary adventurism abroad for much of the last 20 years.

Indeed, unless wishful thinking overtakes President Bush and he tries to take the opportunity of Fidel's retirement to meddle more directly in the island's affairs, post-Castro Cuba will probably evolve into a social democracy — one of the few genuine social democracies in Latin America — intent on preserving its national independence and little more. It will, in other words, become for the first time in 50 years a non-issue in regional if not global affairs.

What would this mean for the Church in Cuba?

On the one hand, it will probably mean slow progress will continue on resolving outstanding issues such as Church access to State-controlled media outlets, more freedom to run Church schools, and fewer restrictions on foreign clergy and religious work on the island.

Key to progress on these issues will be the Church continuing to assiduously avoid too close an identification with the US and its scarcely disguised agenda of rolling back the revolution and bringing Cuba firmly back into the American sphere of influence.

Beyond that, Cuba's leadership will have to come to terms with the fact that the revolution cannot answer all of life's questions and that religion in general — and the Catholic Church in particular — has a legitimate role in supplying its answers without interference from the State.

For its part, what the Church will have to come to terms with is the fact that in many respects — including on issues of global development, debt relief, population control, environmental protection, access to affordable medicines and technology — revolutionary Cuba remains a more vocal advocate of the interests of the world's poor than is the Vatican.

Chris McGillonChris McGillion is the co-author (with Morris Morley) of Unfinished Business: America and Cuba after the Cold War, 1989-2001.



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Existing comments

'Revolutionary Cuba remains a more vocal advocate of the interest of the world's poor than does the Vatican' - Too bad revolutionary Cuba hasn't been more vocal, let alone active, in improving the lives of its own impoverished citizens.

Claude Rigney | 21 February 2008  

My understanding is that Castro's govt. planned and implemented major improvements in the areas of health and literacy for all the impoverished Cuban population. Bravo Fidel!

Maureen T. Couch | 21 February 2008  

I'm sure if Che Guevera a native of Argentina who supported Fidel wasn't a communist and whose timeline was before military rule in his homeland, his name would be of signifance too. Bravo to him too.

Lynne Newington | 25 February 2014  

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