At the end of the week, Pope Francis will arrive in Havana–the first stop on his visit to multiple sites in Cuba and in the U.S. Pope Francis contributed significantly to the beginning of the Normalization process between the governments of both countries. He was directly involved in Normalization negotiations, which included the U.S., Cuba, and Canada.
The National Catholic Register writes: “Visiting both Cuba and the United States on the same trip not only acknowledges his role in encouraging detente between them, but will give Pope Francis an opportunity to demonstrate that while different political and cultural challenges face Catholics in both countries, the Gospel and its values are the same.”
Cuba has had a long confrontational history with the Catholic Church. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he reportedly understood the importance of not interfering with the church. He apparently did not want to restrict it, but military officials kept tracing anti-revolutionary activities back to the churches. Weapons, anti-revolutionary material and supplies were frequently located there, so in exasperation, Fidel began harassing bishops and church-goers. Eventually the Revolution was declared to be atheistic in nature, and organized religion was banned for decades.
In January 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba and met with Fidel in Cathedral Square in Old Havana, the first papal visit to Cuba since Catholicism had been imposed on the country by the Spanish five centuries earlier. Friendly relations advanced rapidly beginning in the early 1990s, when President Fidel Castro relaxed rules on religion by changing the country from being officially atheist to secular, and loosened restrictions on churches after a 1996 visit with John Paul II in the Vatican. In 1998, the Pope made a five-day pilgrimage to Cuba, blessing a stone that would stand at the entrance to the first new seminary to be built since the Cuban revolution. After the Pope departed, Christmas suddenly became legal in Cuba, and brightly-decorated Christmas trees can now be seen all over the island during the last 2 months of each year.
However, there should have been SO much more accomplished in 1998. This was during the last years of President Bill Clinton’s 2nd Administration. Clinton projected mixed messages about changes in Cuba-U.S. relations. He apparently wanted to normalize things, but also had to show the Miami hardliners how tough he was. In January 1998, there were many Pope-related activities scheduled in Cuba. All major American networks sent news teams to Havana to cover events for the entire week. Many of these teams were also scheduled to visit the countryside and other Cuban cities to record human interest stories. One goal was to show that Cubans were genuinely friendly and really liked interacting with Americans—they weren’t the scowling “dirty commies” that had been commonly portrayed on U.S. media for the four decades since the revolution.
It seriously looked at long last that relations would improve. The news teams had barely unpacked their supplies, and were reviewing their itineraries. Then Hurricane Monica struck. The damage was incalculable.
Hurricane Monica was not a large tropical storm that spread westward across the Caribbean. The monster—which dashed the hopes of millions of Cubans and informed Americans—was Monica Lewinsky and the scandal that followed.
The media excitement was crushed, as the arrival of the Pope in Havana coincided with the first reports of the Lewinsky/Clinton sex scandal back in Washington. The journalists, cameramen, and news anchors had flown to Cuba in the hope of reporting a major political upheaval and possible normalization of relations. As soon as they heard the first reports about the Lewinsky scandal, and comments that it could “bring down Clinton’s presidency,” they immediately packed up and departed for home. Left behind were stunned Cubans, Pope John Paul II, and foreign correspondents from over a hundred countries. Also left behind was any hope for change.
Postscript: Before the scandal, President Clinton and any president who preceded him could have ended the Embargo by simply signing an Executive Order. Afterwards, in a flurry of wheeling and dealing brought on by a weakened presidency, President Clinton gave away the ability for him or any later president to simply end the Embargo with his signature. This power was transferred to Congress, where it remains today as a low-priority item for dysfunctional and uninformed congressmen. They have been easily manipulated by a very small number of Cuban-American senators and congressmen from both parties who share one thing in common: THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN TO CUBA! All they know about the country is what their parents and grandparents told them about the Cuba of the 1950’s. Yet they are frequently sought out for media interviews, because they are somehow considered to be “experts!” One of them is under investigation for corruption. Two of them are serious contenders for president.
This the reason that the embargo will probably be in force for many years. It is different from the process of normalization, where individual laws and policies can be gradually modified, defunded, ignored, or not enforced. President Obama is given much credit by Cubans for getting this process under way, but they also point out that he could have started it 6 years earlier. Recent polls clearly indicate that a large majority of Americans approve of these measures. They also show that even a majority of registered Republicans (not the leaders) approve, and normalization is now supported by a significant majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami. Most interesting—80% of Cuban-Americans under 30 years of age approve. They are forming partnerships with their cousins in Havana to help rebuild and modernize their ancestral homeland. Cuba can have a bright future, if only the governments of both countries will just get out of the way.
I’m sure the Pope will approve.