In My Opinion
Everybody won — and lost — in Pope's trip to Cuba
By Andres Oppenheimer
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba will not produce much change, but
everybody — the Pope, the Cuban military regime, dissidents and Cuban
exiles — can claim a semblance of victory from the high-profile event.
The key question is who won the most.
Gen. Raúl Castro, the Cuban leader, and his brother Fidel Castro were
able to portray the image, domestically and abroad, that they are not
international pariahs who are shunned by many world leaders for running
a police state that has not allowed a free election, political parties
or independent media for more than five decades.
By receiving Benedict and giving him a welcome speech that was broadcast
live at home and abroad, Raúl Castro got a unique opportunity to lash
out at the United States and stress the alleged achievements of his
regime in front of a global audience. The sole smiling picture of him
and the pope together, as well as the pope's meeting with Fidel Castro,
helped give legitimacy to the Cuban regime in the eyes of many.
At the same time, Raúl Castro's attendance at the pope's Mass at
Revolutionary Square on Wednesday helped the Cuban regime portray the
impression that it is opening up.
Cuba's octogenarian leaders are eager to convince the world that Cuba is
changing. They are worried that Venezuela may stop sending up to $10
billion a year in subsidies to the island if Venezuelan President Húgo
Chavez loses his battle against cancer, or if the Venezuelan opposition
wins October's presidential elections. They need an appearance of
greater openness in order to attract foreign investments.
Benedict, in turn, most likely accomplished his goal of expanding the
reach of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church. He not only raised the Church's
profile in Cuban government media — the only ones allowed on the island
— by having his ceremonies broadcast on state television, but got a
chance to publicly urge the government to allow the church greater
religious freedoms, including the right to open religious schools.
And while his message that "Cuba and the world need change" echoed John
Paul II's speech in Cuba 14 years ago, in which he prayed that "may Cuba
open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba,"
Pope Benedict also showed some spine.
He stated shortly before the visit that Marxist ideology "no longer
corresponds to reality" — something obvious to most of us, but a bold
statement in Cuba — and repeatedly called for truth, liberty and
reconciliation during his Mass on Wednesday in Havana.
Cuba's peaceful dissidents, such as the Ladies in White, who are
pleading for the release of all political prisoners and had asked for a
one-minute meeting with the pope — at the time of this writing Wednesday
evening appeared not to have been granted their request — but they won
by default anyway: the whole world could see the repressive nature of
the Cuban dictatorship during the pope's visit.
At least 210 peaceful dissidents were arrested shortly before the pope's
arrival to prevent them from showing up at his public meetings,
according to human rights groups. And one dissident who shouted "down
with communism" during the pope's Mass in Santiago de Cuba was beaten
and arrested in front of the cameras.
Cuban exiles, in turn, showed their countrymen on the island that a big
portion of the Cuban exile community seeks a peaceful national
reconciliation, and are not part of a sinister "terrorist mafia" bent on
revenge that the Cuban regime portrays them to be. About 800 Cuban
exiles went to the island with a pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese
My opinion: Unless we learn in coming days that the pope did meet with
the Ladies in White, the Vatican would have made a big mistake by not
giving them at least the one-minute they were seeking. The Vatican has
said that the pope is very much aware of their plight, but that there
was not time in his agenda. Yet, the Vatican found time for the pope to
hold an unscheduled 30 minute meeting Wednesday with Fidel Castro, who
officially is no longer Cuba's ruler, and was not scheduled to see him.
In the end, everybody won something with the pope's visit. We'll have to
call it a technical tie, although it would have been nice if the pope
had matched his words with actions, and had met with all sectors of
Cuba's society — not just with its rulers.