Raul Castro's diplomatic love match with Pope Francis


Pope Francis and Raul Castro They spoke in Spanish and there was genuine Latin American warmness between the two men.

Last Sunday’s historic 55 minute meeting at the Vatican between the Argentinian Pope Francis and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro marks another step in – as Pope John Paul put it in Havana in 1998 – the island’s ‘openness to the world; and the world openness to Cuba’.

Raúl Castro had already been to the Vatican in 1997 as Minister of Defence in the Cuban delegation lead by his brother and former President Fidel Castro.

This time he found in Pope Francis a caring and trusted diplomatic partner. The Vatican’s aspirations for a peaceful and gradual political transition in Cuba seem to be aligned with Raúl Castro’s domestic and geo-political international strategy.

Both men will meet again – most likely in September – when Pope Francis visits Cuba for the first time. Castro promised – perhaps tongue in cheek - that he would be attending all the masses celebrated by Francis while in Cuba. He spiced up his ‘promise’ with a reminder that he was baptised Catholic and had studied in schools of the Society of Jesus. ‘I’m as Jesuit as the Pope,’ he declared.

Banter aside, the role of Pope Francis in the ending of the last vestige of the Cold War – the Cuban-US hostility – has become fundamental and indispensable. Francis’ active diplomacy has legitimised both ethically and diplomatically. September's pilgrimage of the Pope to Cuba will not only seal the normalisation of the relationship between Washington and Havana that was initiated on 17 December. It will also represent a major boost to national reconciliation among Cubans.

Cuba has hosted two other Popes in the past, John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict in 2012. However it is Francis’ visit that has attracted the greatest enthusiasm among the country's leaders. After all, it is the Argentinean Pope who has given the most direct and clear messages supporting the normalisation of relations with the island.  

Pope Francis’ diplomacy concerning Cuba has two well-defined principles. Washington has to lift its more than 50 year economic embargo against Cuba, and Havana must be open to the fundamentals of democracy: dissent, dialogue and western-style governance.

In the way that Castro has found in the Pope a skilful interlocutor, the Pope has discovered in Castro a political leader able and willing to launch substantial changes in Cuba. Castro – who replaced his brother Fidel in the leadership of the one party government in 2008 – has spoken opening indicating the current model has to change.  

He has spoken of the need to modify the dynamic of the parliament and to decentralise the powers of the executive. Since 2008 Raúl Castro has governed on the basis of one key assessment. That is his conviction that the inability to reform the one-party system and the state economy after the fall of the Soviet Union has alienated the government from the aspirations of many Cubans, especially the youth. Castro regards this as a major threat to the future of country.

Changes to the Cuban model are inevitable, and it is this inevitability that has persuaded the Vatican, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis, to strengthen its role as a mediator and pacifier. And for the Cuban leader. the radical Christian humanism of Francis – a true heir of the Second Vatican Council – has persuaded him that Cuba has today a key historic opportunity.

The Catholic Church has maintained relations with Cuba since the 1959 revolution. It has been an uneasy relationship since the 1960s when hundreds of priests were expelled from the island due their alleged counter-revolutionary activities. With the bond being forged between Pope Francis and Raúl Castro, there is a new springtime in relations between the Catholic Church and the self-declared atheist government. And indeed Cuban Catholics feel at ease. After all, it was only a few years ago that the government banned Christmas. Despite the institutional atheism, Cubans are in fact deeply religious culturally.

And it is clear that the Pope aims to tap into this deep religiosity during his September visit. It is hard to know with any accuracy the size of Cuba's Catholic population. The Government says one out of ten Cubans is Catholic, while the Catholic Church in Cuba claims six out of 10. The US Pew Research Centre says just over half the Cuban population of 11 million is Catholic.

While Francis’ diplomatic investment in Cuba has a geo-political dimension, it also has a religious one; to strengthen the Cuban Catholic Church, to bring back to the pews those who have left and encourage Catholics to become fully engaged in the political, social and cultural life of the island.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US – and the domestic transformation inside the island – have been at the heart of the diplomatic aspirations of the Vatican for a very long time; but it was only last year this effort took on greater significance with the appointment of the first Latin American Pope. This is certainly a fundamental factor Cuba’s new dawn.

Antonio CastilloAntonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and academic who is Director of Journalism at RMIT University and co-editor of Global Media Journal Australia

Topic tags: Antonio Castillo, Pope Francis, Raul Castro, Cuba, Latin America



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Existing comments

Thank you Antonio, and thank you Pope Francis. And thank you Barack Obama too. I strongly recommend Dervla Murphy's 2010 book The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba. Reviewing it at the time, I wrote, 'Many of the better educated Cubans believe that their revolution was set back by its association with Russian communism and that it is still being held back by the slavish repetition of poorly understood Marxist ideology. The author questioned trusted locals on sensitive subjects. Were the thousands of Cuban humanitarian workers really volunteers? Is the whole humanitarian thing just propaganda? Is Fidel really St Francis with a beard? She concludes that though there is inefficiency and slavish adherence to outmoded dogmas, ''the psychological transformation is unquestionably the revolution's greatest triumph; it is easier to raise a people's material standard of living than to raise their morale.'' This is an uplifting book, a tribute to the courage and resilience of a people whose country is, according to the UN, illegally blockaded. It is also a tribute to a woman who refuses to admit that age is any reason to stop doing what she has been doing for almost fifty years since her mother died.'

Frank | 13 May 2015  

It's pleasing that Pope Francis is mediating but I disagree that the Cubans are "deeply religious culturally". My five visits there have found little evidence to support Mr Castillo's theory. The long disused church in Baracoa is being restored for use (like many churches in Cuba) as a concert hall. I asked a local how long since it had been used as a church and he said; "We had a marvellous priest but he died of yellow fever and people lost interest". How long ago was that?I asked. "Oh", he replied, "about 200 years".

Peter Goers | 14 May 2015  

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