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

The Pope and the Dictator



December 9, 1996

There they were at the Vatican next to each other, the pope, a little hunched over but visibly resolute and looking firmly ahead, and the dictator, standing next to him glancing sideways at the pontiff with a little air of the supplicant about him. Not quite the picture Fidel Castro wanted, but at this stage he'll take anything that even marginally helps to shore up the tattered credibility of his faltering regime. Outside Castro's quarters at the Rome Holiday Inn, a long line of visitors waited to make their call on the aging dictator, but it was Castro who had to wait several days before he could enter the Pope's private library for a 35-minute conversation. Can there be any doubt that it is the pope, not the dictator, who is dealing from a position of strength?

The big announcement after the meeting, as we have all heard by now, was the pope's decision to visit Cuba next year. The visit, which could come in the Fall in connection with a scheduled papal trip to Brazil, will focus on improving relations between the Catholic Church and the Communist government of Cuba. And there is much improving to be done. After coming to power in 1959, Castro jailed or expelled hundreds of priests, seized church properties, and shut down Catholic schools. Though the regime has eased controls of late, the Pope will be pressing Castro for greater religious freedom, including more church access to the means of mass communication and greater freedom of travel for visiting priests, nuns, and lay social service workers.

So the visit will be primarily pastoral, but papal trips, especially this pope's trips, have also had a way of taking on great political significance. The fact is that this Pope has emerged as the world's most powerful champion of human rights and democracy, so his visit to one of the world's last remaining communist strongholds will surely pack a mighty political wallop. The most hoped-for result, of course, would be that the visit serves as a rallying point for internal opposition to the regime.

The Catholic Church in Cuba has been growing stronger every year and is the only major social institution that is not controlled by the state. If it manages to carve out for itself a wider public role, this may well embolden other opposition groups who wish to work for a peaceful transition to democracy, perhaps even provide some space for their activities. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened. The pope's visit to Poland in 1979, you will recall, helped trigger a decade-long series of momentous changes that brought about the end of the Communist dictatorship in his homeland. And there are other examples.

The Clinton administration should look on these developments as a perfect opportunity to rethink and reorient our Cuban policy. Here he would be well served to borrow another page from Ronald Reagan's playbook and synchronize his actions toward the communist regime with the independent initiatives of the Vatican and of the local church on the ground. The main idea would be this: every serious step the Castro government takes in response to the church's mediating efforts, beginning with the matter of religious freedom, we should answer by a corresponding relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions, which Cuba chafes under and the Vatican in principle opposes. How far should we go with this quid pro quo approach? We should be willing to go as far in dismantling trade sanctions and normalizing relations with Cuba as Castro is in opening the way for a peaceful, democratic transition on the island.

Is this all too optimistic? Perhaps. But you can bet there will be many long-suffering Cubans who will be hoping and praying that God has at least one more such mission left for this remarkable pontiff.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate 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.”