Pope Francis careful in navigating Cuban politics

Revolution Square is the political stage of revolutionary Cuba. Fidel Castro held huge rallies here to castigate the imperialists up north.

Sep 21, 2015

HAVANA, CUBA: Revolution Square is the political stage of revolutionary Cuba. Fidel Castro held huge rallies here to castigate the imperialists up north. Looming over the square are immense portraits of the revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

Into this charged atmosphere on Sunday came Pope Francis, celebrating an outdoor Mass attended by President Raúl Castro, the leadership of his Communist government and tens of thousands of Cubans. For those hoping Francis would speak about political freedom during his visit here, the moment seemed ripe.

And Francis did speak about politics. Colombian politics. He encouraged that country’s peace talks.

As for Cuban politics, Francis has so far spoken in what might be called pope code. At the plaza and other events on Sunday, as he did at the airport welcoming ceremony the day before, Francis refrained from any direct criticisms of the Cuban government but made the sort of oblique asides that could be interpreted as disapproval — or explained away as anything but.

“Service is never ideological,” Francis said at the plaza soaked in ideology, after summoning Cubans to embrace the Christian ideal of service, “for we do not serve ideas. We serve people.”

In visiting Cuba, Francis is following his predecessors — both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI offered Mass in Revolution Square — and charting a new path. As the first Latin American pope, Francis is enormously influential in his native region, which has raised expectations and pressures that he will wade into regional politics. His role in brokering the diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States has only raised his credibility.

Yet he is careful to avoid seeming too political and is being especially careful in navigating the politics of Cuba. This cautiousness has frustrated some Cuban dissidents who want a public meeting with the pope. On Sunday, the police stopped three men trying to distribute leaflets near Revolution Square.

“I wouldn’t say we are disappointed — it simply doesn’t appear to us to be right or just that the pope doesn’t have a little time to meet with those Cubans who are defending human rights,” said José Daniel Ferrer, the head of the nation’s largest dissident organization, the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

Mr. Daniel said that more than 60 people had been arrested before and during the pope’s visit, including three prominent female activists who were in contact with the pope’s delegation. But he noted that the detentions had been conducted carefully, a sign of the changing times.

Francis has dipped into some issues in Latin America, and avoided getting directly involved in others. During his visit to South America in July, Francis endorsed dialogue between Bolivia and Chile over landlocked Bolivia’s demands for an access route to the sea. He gave prominence on Sunday to the Colombia peace talks — though the Vatican has rejected calls to directly intervene in the negotiations between the government and the FARC rebel group. Francis has also resisted requests that he support Argentina’s claims on the Falkland Islands.

“There has never been such resonance for the papacy in Latin America,” said Gianni La Bella, an expert in Rome on Latin American Catholicism. “You could almost say that Francis is considered as an alternate United Nations in the region.

For many Cubans, those living on the island as well as the diaspora, the role of the pope is more than merely spiritual. As an Argentine, Francis lived through a dictatorship and the political turmoil that ensued, giving him more than just a linguistic and historical affinity for the people of Cuba, said Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American businessman.

“He is one of us, in many ways,” Mr. Cancio said. “He understands the desires of Cubans.”

He added: “His message cannot be spiritual alone — there has to be some political component. But he is doing it in a soft and careful way.”

The welcoming ceremony on Saturday offered a small example of this balancing act. First, Francis thanked President Castro and conveyed his respects to Fidel Castro. Then, in a nod to dissidents and the diaspora, he added that he “would like my greeting to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet, and to Cubans throughout the world.”

After the Mass on Sunday, Francis met for more than a half-hour with Fidel Castro and members of his family for what the Vatican spokesman described as an informal and familial chat. The two men exchanged books, as Francis recalled that the former Cuban leader had asked for reading materials during Pope Benedict’s visit in 2012.

Francis also had a private meeting with President Castro at the Palace of Revolution, though neither man made any public remarks.

Once heavily Catholic, Cuba has long mattered to the Vatican, just as Cuba has long influenced South America. During the 1970s, Fidel Castro and other Cuban revolutionaries helped inspire and train the guerrilla movements in Argentina and elsewhere across the continent. More recently, populist leftist leaders in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have embraced Cuba and the Castro political legacy.

Mr. La Bella, the analyst, said that Francis did not endorse the politics of those leftist leaders but that he recognized they have tapped into a sentiment shared by many people across Latin America.

“Francis wants to connect with that hope for change that these movements express,” Mr. La Bella said. “For Francis, Cuba is a strategic front line for the new relationship with South American countries.”

In his speeches, Francis has at times sought to help steer Cuba in a new direction at a moment when many analysts expect the thaw with the United States to accelerate political and economic change on the island.

Since arriving in Cuba, he has emphasized the importance of service to others, holding out Christianity as something greater than ideology. At his last appearance on Sunday, he went off script, challenging the Cuban youth in attendance to dream boldly and chastising nations that rob their young of opportunities to work. A day earlier, he also sought to link Cuba’s independence with its legacy of Catholicism.

“He’s trying to link nationality with faith,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer,” a biography of Francis.

Whether Francis’ approach to Cuba can further revive the Cuban church remains unclear. Many people in the crowd for the outdoor Mass recognized that the pope’s mission went beyond preaching Catholicism to the masses, perhaps none more than the secular Cubans in attendance.

Ramon Trullo, 69, said he had come to see the Mass because the pope was someone he considered “a personality on the world stage.”

“His ideas are religious ones, but they are also ones that anyone in the world can identify with,” Mr. Trullo said. “Why shouldn’t we accept his words of justice and equality?”--The New York Times

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