HAVANA — Pope Francis plans to meet with Cuba’s president and its priests, its young and its sick, its churchgoers and its seminarians as he travels around the island starting Saturday. But not with its dissidents.
The absence on Francis’ agenda of any meeting with the political opposition has sparked bitter critiques from dissidents who say they feel let down by an institution they believe should help push for greater freedom in Cuba. Papal observers say it’s likely Francis will speak strongly to Cubans about the need for greater freedom in their country and may speak to President Raul Castro in private about the same topic. But in shying from meetings with dissidents, the pope is hewing largely to the Cuban Catholic Church’s strategy of advocating for change within bounds laid out by the communist state rather than pushing the system to change as John Paul II did in Eastern Europe. There is no one Cuban officials consider more out of bounds than the country’s dissidents, whom they call mercenaries paid by the U.S. government and Cuban-American interest groups in Miami.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said this week that Francis had not accepted any invitations to meet with dissidents, and well-known opposition members told The Associated Press they have received no invitation to see him. Popes rarely meet with political opposition figures during their foreign trips and neither St. John Paul II nor Pope Benedict XVI met with dissidents during their respective 1998 and 2012 visits to Cuba, prompting similar criticism.
Deservedly so (although it should be remembered that John Paul II hardly behaved like a pillar of the establishment during his visits to communist Poland).
As for Benedict’s visit to Cuba, it’s worth taking another look at a piece in Foreign Affairs by Victor Gaetan that I linked to back in January.
Here’s an extract:
[Havana’s Cardinal Ortega] was never popular with regime opponents because of his determination to avoid confrontation. While Benedict was in Cuba, Ortega refused to arrange a meeting between the Pope and opposition leaders. Instead, devout Catholic opposition leaders such as Oswaldo Paya found Cuban security surrounding his house to prevent him from attending Benedict’s public Mass. Five months later, Paya was killed in a car accident suspected of being engineered by state agents.
No investigation has ever been completed. Although Ortega presided over Paya’s funeral, his family says the cardinal did nothing to protect or promote the democracy movement Paya fostered….
But Ortega likely isn’t losing sleep about this criticism. He has a different vision of Cuba’s future: A few days after Francis was elected, the Havana Archdiocese published a document containing 23 proposals produced by a group, Laboratorio Casa Cuba, comprised of “professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican–socialists, and anarchists).” It’s a Christian social–democratic program, with an anti-American cherry on top.
Pope Francis has a special responsibility when it comes to Cuba. By doing his bit to help engineer the restoration of diplomatic relations (and more) between the US and Cuba, he gave the dictatorship in Havana no small boost. If he were to meet some dissidents, it might go some way to dispelling unkind suggestions that Francis is inclined to look too kindly on the authoritarianism of the left. For good or ill, this pope has shown himself capable of delivering surprises. He should spring one on the Castro brothers by meeting some of the brave men and women who dare stand up against them.