Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Seeds of Change

Michelle Voll


February 2, 1998

A fragile, old man with a strong prophetic voice calling for political and religious liberty, as well as social justice and peace. What did Fidel Castro expect? If he had hoped to use John Paul II's 5-day visit to shore up popular support by blasting the 36-year-old U.S. trade embargo, he chose a risky way to do it.

New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor rightly called the Pope's visit to Cuba "one of the most important historical events in the last part of the 20th century." A shame that the Clinton sex scandal set off such a media frenzy that even some American anchor persons sent to Cuba reported instead on the president's troubles.

The Pope's main mission, as always, was to reinvigorate the church and to bring a message of love and reconciliation. In the long haul, though, his visit will have political consequences.

In denouncing the U.S. embargo and "capitalist neo-liberalism," the Pope did not come as a representative of the West. But he clearly challenged the Cuban government to ease its control over people's lives and allow freedoms of expression and association to flourish in pursuit of the common good.

As the pontiff said, "For many of the political and economic systems operative today, the greatest challenge is still that of combining freedom and social justice, freedom and solidarity, so that no one is relegated to a position of inferiority."

For Castro to have opened the door now, after years of silencing the church, is very significant. In seeking ways to be less economically isolated after the demise of the Soviet bloc, he may not be aware of the power of religion. Yet how could he not be fully conscious of the fact that the Catholic Church in the Pope's native country, Poland, spearheaded the revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Last fall, Polish voters ousted a coalition of ex-communists and brought in Christian Democrats who assert their religious faith in politics. Today Christian Democracy is more alive in Eastern Europe than in Western states where most political parties are largely secularized.

The seeds of the power of the Gospel in politics have been planted in Cuba, despite the worries of some Cuban exiles that the papal visit lent too much legitimacy to Castro. Now the Clinton administration and Congress need to help bring these seeds to fruition by following the Pope's policy of engagement. Every new step forward that Castro takes should be matched by a U.S. relaxation of economic sanctions.

The first opportunity for this may come if Castro responds to Cuban Catholic Church leaders' request to release 200 political prisoners. The pontiff asked for all 500 prisoners of conscience to be released.

Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), head of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) should be applauded for already working on a proposal to ease the embargo by allowing donations of food and medicine to be distributed to the most needy Cubans.

Clearly, the Pope's visit will not bring change overnight. The Pope's appeal to open Catholic schools seems unacceptable to Castro. And it's questionable that he will improve the Church's access to state media. Hopefully, officials will not crack down again on public religious processions of the kind the Church enjoyed during the pontiff's visit.

Let's not forget what happened in Eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was the result of a series of domino effects that began with Monday night prayer meetings in the Confessing Lutheran Church. The Catholic Church in Cuba is not as strong as the church was then in Eastern Europe. But the workings of the Spirit of God may surprise Castro and even the Pope.

—Michelle N. Voll, Development Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”