Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, a time when Communist Europe had crumbled and expectations of change were high; Pope Benedict XVI landed during a time of unprecedented internal change.
On Monday, the pontiff arrived in a country that for the first time in 50 years has a different president, is undergoing crucial economic reform and—most importantly—has witnessed fundamental societal changes. While the island is still ruled by a single party that routinely tramples on human rights and individual freedoms, the Cuba of today has also openly recognized the failure of its current economic model, has encouraged its citizens to openly debate the need for change, and has even recognized the legitimate role of Cubans living abroad in Cuba’s future. None of this was true 14 years ago when John Paul II visited.
Expectations of change in Cuba are higher today than at any time in the past half-century. Most experts—on the island and abroad—agree that further change is inevitable and that the recent reforms are irreversible. Benedict XVI may lack the charisma and anti-communist credentials of his predecessor, but the Holy Father’s presence alone—and his message of reconciliation—will no doubt facilitate the additional reform we would all like to see in Cuba.
In clear support for the Pope’s message of reconciliation, hundreds of Cuban-Americans also traveled to Cuba this week to worship. For many, this was their first return to the island since leaving five decades ago. For some, including Cuba Study Group co-chairman Carlos Saladrigas, this trip also symbolized a departure from positions they held as recently as 14 years ago.
In 1998, Saladrigas joined others in the exile community to oppose John Paul II’s visit and even helped derail the planned voyage of a cruise ship that would have taken thousands of parishioners to Havana. But for him, the images of Cubans and Cuban-Americans brought together by John Paul II’s message of reconciliation—and the Pope’s calls for Cuba to open to the world and for the world to open to Cuba—provoked profound self-reflection, which eventually led to a change of heart and a new way of thinking. Saladrigas even later brought together other likeminded Cuban-Americans to establish an organization that works to promote change through reconciliation, rather than through decades-old policies designed to bring down the Cuban regime without regard to collateral damage to the Cuban people.
While a lot has changed inside Cuba and in the U.S.-based exile community since John Paul II’s visit, some things have not. In Cuba, human rights and democracy advocates are still harassed and detained in government-led efforts to maintain political control. Benedict XVI’s words following prayers to the Patron Lady of Charity near Santiago reflected the Church’s ongoing concerns: “I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty,” he said.
The pontiff noted before his trip to Mexico that, "Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality." After arriving in Cuba, he said he was also praying for “the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom, liberty and reconciliation.” At a mass in Santiago, the Pope called on Cubans to “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God.” But Cuban officials sharply demurred by stating, “In Cuba, there will be no political reform."
Meanwhile, in the U.S., an ever-shrinking group of vocal proponents of the longstanding U.S. embargo continue to oppose efforts to break the Cuban people’s isolation through family visits, cultural and academic exchanges—and this historic papal visit. In the lead-up to Monday, hardliners launched coordinated and sometimes vicious attacks on the Cuban Catholic Church. Some even went so far as to question the Pope’s intentions and the mission of the Church on the island.
At an recent event in Washington DC co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and Google Ideas, Cuban-American U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) stated, “I am deeply concerned that the Cuban Church has negotiated a political space for themselves in exchange for their moral imperative, and I hope that the Pope’s visit doesn’t reinforce that arrangement because I think it perverts and undermines the moral strength of the Church in Cuba now and moving forward.” But attacks on the Cuban Church and on the Pope himself have continued. Some have even dismissed the Pope’s call for “justice, peace, freedom, liberty and reconciliation” as “banalities.”
The attacks by hardliners are no surprise. They are part of a careful strategy to position the hardline exile community as the brokers of Cuba’s future. They are meant to defend policies that hardliners once helped design to precipitate the collapse of Cuban Communism—with the hope of one day stepping in to dictate Cuba’s future. The clout of the Cuban Church is growing and this is the real reason behind the all-out, coordinated attack on the Pope and his visit. This is why the same people who so vehemently oppose loosening travel restrictions to Cuba and attack fellow Cuban-Americans travel to the island to engage the Cuban people.
Fortunately, the millions of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who have been moved by the Pope’s message and the spiritual and humanitarian work of the Catholic Church of Cuba far outnumber the critics. As in the past, Cubans and Cuban-Americans have voted with their feet and proven that Cuban-American legislators and those who defend the status quo are out of touch with their community and with the Cuban people.
Echoing the words of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI wrapped up his trip to Cuba yesterday with a mass before thousands in Havana in which he said, “Cuba and the world need change…but this will only occur if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the path of love, sowing reconciliation and brotherhood.’’
Many Cubans on the island and in exile have already proven they can change for the benefit of Cuba’s future. What remains to be seen is whether defenders of the status quo might one day do the same.
Tomas Bilbao is executive director of the Cuba Study Group. This article reflects his personal views and not necessarily those of his employer.