Marxism is a failure, freedom is important, and the U.S. government’s trade-embargo hurts the Cuban people, Pope Benedict XVI boldly proclaimed during a two-day visit to communist-controlled Cuba late last month. Indeed. Despite some speculation that he may sidestep the issue of liberty before his arrival in the island nation, the Holy Father offered blunt criticism of the decades-old Castro regime.
Possibly as a token of good will to Cuba, the Pope also attacked American sanctions. Right before getting on the plane to leave, he pointed out that the outside economic restrictions on the nation unfairly burden its people. The Vatican called U.S. sanctions on Cuba useless and counterproductive before the Pope’s arrival, too.
The harshest words, though, were reserved for communism. “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality,” the Pope told reporters on the plane before his visit. “In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way.”
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The Holy Father also said he was close to those “deprived of freedom,” widely interpreted as a reference to the communist regime’s scores of political prisoners and dissidents. While he was not able to meet any of them during the short visit – a fact that attracted some criticism by the anti-communist Cuban opposition and even U.S. lawmakers, some of whom suggested the visit gave legitimacy to the regime – the Pope offered Cuba the Church’s assistance in transitioning to greater liberty.
“We want to help in a spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move forward a society which is fraternal and just, which is what we desire for the whole world,” he said, calling for “authentic freedom” in Cuba. “It is obvious that the Church is always on the side of freedom, on the side of freedom of conscience, of freedom of religion, and we contribute in this sense.”
During a Mass he gave in Cuba, Pope Benedict explained that people intuitively yearn for truth and liberty. “The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom,” he noted during his homily in Havana. “Many, however, prefer shortcuts, trying to avoid this task.”
The visit gave hope to innumerable people trapped on the island by the regime. But some of nation’s dissidents – particularly Christian human-rights advocates – were no doubt disappointed at their failure to get an audience with the Pope. The communist regime made sure meetings would be impossible, anyway, preventing activists from even attending Mass. Some regime critics were even detained.
According to a statement by Amnesty International, dissenters faced a “surge in harassment” in an effort by the regime to keep them quiet while the Pope was visiting. “The clampdown has seen an increase in arrests, activists’ phones have been disconnected, and some have had their houses surrounded to prevent them [from] denouncing abuses during Pope Benedict’s tour,” the organization explained.
Despite the repression, however, there has been at least some progress since Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba 14 years ago, Pope Benedict observed. When the communists seized power on the island, a reign of terror and persecution was unleashed as religion was trampled to make way for an officially God-less “utopia.” Christian leaders were imprisoned, beaten, and exiled. Christian schools and churches, meanwhile, were nationalized or shut down. But in recent years, the trend has been seen as more encouraging – even if only slightly.
“It must be said with joy that in Cuba, steps have been taken to enable the Church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly,” the Holy Father told tens of thousands who gathered in Havana’s “Revolution Square” for Mass. “Nonetheless, this must continue forward, and I wish to encourage the country’s government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole.”
And with the advancement of freedom of religion will come other liberties, he explained. “This is why the church seeks to give witness by her preaching and teaching, both in catechesis and in schools and universities,” the Pope offered during Mass. Cubans, he added later, should rely on God’s strength in building a better society – and the people should not be forced to endure limits on “basic freedoms” or a “lack of material resources” made worse by foreign sanctions.
According to news reports, the Pope specifically requested that Catholic schools and broadcast media outlets be allowed to operate in Cuba, and that Good Friday be considered an official Holiday. After Pope John Paul II’s visit, the regime declared Christmas a Holiday; a happy moment for the nation’s oppressed population, estimated to be more than 60 percent Catholic.
Functionaries for the regime told the press that the Holiday request may be possible. Allowing Church-run schools, however, is unlikely for the time being – that would necessitate a change in the “Constitution,” communist officials said. The request for greater media freedom for Catholic broadcasters will have to be reviewed.
Beyond that, the regime responded to the visit by emphasizing that there would not be changes in the way Cuba is governed. “In Cuba, there will not be political reform,” noted “Council of Ministers” Vice President Marino Murillo in response to the Pope’s comments on the failure of Marxism. Still, for regular Cubans, the Pope’s visit offered more hope – hope that someday, they, too, may live in freedom.