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The Pope in Cuba. A new wind is blowing in Havana

The Argentine Pontiff will be the third Pope to travel to Cuba in 18 years. Now, the scenery has changed in the island: the rapprochement with the US and the unprecedented trust in the Church open new challenges.

Three papal visits to Cuba in 18 years show the Church’s interest in the evolution of the country. Pope Francis’ journey to the Caribbean nation, scheduled September 19- 23, will take place in a substantially different context compared to that of the two previous journeys to Cuba of John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in March 2012.

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In fact, a new political scenario is emerging in Cuba, after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, which was announced six months ago, on 17 December. Long-shuttered embassies in each other’s capitals were reopened and the Obama administration removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. These were the premises to lift a broad set of sanctions against the country. Obama lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families; he reversed restrictions that barred US citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and the number of flights to the island has also been increased.

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Furthermore, ferry service between Florida and Cuba was approved for the first time in 50 years. Obama, however, left in place the broad trade embargo despite the US government’s admission that the embargo did not work. The core argument for the US sanctions regime in Cuba is simple: putting economic pressure on the government should help the opposition and promote democratic reform. This has failed to happen. Besides, only Congress can agree to end the now more than 50 year-old economic trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba. But, could a Republican-led Congress vote to end the U.S. embargo? Republicans criticize the openness toward the Cuban regime. Basically, the embargo survives largely because of Florida’s political importance. Every presidential candidate wants to win Florida’s electoral votes, and the Cuban American community is a significant voting bloc. In fact, the greatest bastion of support for the policy of isolation has historically been the Cuban-American community in Florida – people who have fled the Castro regime and their families. As refugees from a communist regime, they’ve also tended to be far more conservative than other Latinos in the U.S. But the political environment is changing, now there are many more young Cuban Americans who support a more sensible approach to Cuba.

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More recently, many of them have even concluded that the embargo isn’t working. But the big stumbling block in US-Cuba relations is control of Guantánamo Bay. Even as the United States and Cuba shook hands over re-established diplomatic relations six months ago, the improving relationship is still fraught with challenges. The United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, was transformed into a prison for about one hundred detainees from various Middle Eastern countries, who are kept there for their suspected roles in the 9/11 and other terror attacks. The U.S. Navy’s historic base – and new terror prison has been a red-hot issue among human-rights advocates. Obama signed an order shortly after he was sworn in as President requiring the prison be shut down within a year. That obviously didn’t happen, for legal, political and diplomatic reasons. In the meantime many things have changed. Cuba has been re-admitted into the Organization of American States (OAS). The country was suspended from the 34-member OAS, barred as an ‘undemocratic state’ in 1962. While, the UN General Assembly has been calling on the United States to end its embargo on Cuba for years now.

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Cuba cooperates in several political and economic integration processes in the Latin American region, the country has also offered its cooperation and support to hold exploratory talks that may lead to a peace process in Colombia, which is affected by longstanding civil conflict, and has also participated as a guarantor during the deliberations. This Cuban policy must have played an important part in the process of the negotiations carried out by the Vatican diplomacy to put an end to more than five decades of hostilities between Washington and Havana.
After the audience with the Pope, Mr Castro said he had thanked the Pontiff for his contribution to the historic rapprochement. The Cuban leader also added that he was so impressed by Pope Francis that he might return to the faith he was born into. The fact that Castro would even joke about returning to the Catholic Church shows the he feels ‘in sync’ with the Pope’s goals regarding social issues, such as social injustice, and also shows how far the relationship between Havana and the Vatican has moved forward recently. Times have changed. Raul Castro has publicly recognized Obama’s intellectual honesty, and said that the American President is not responsible for the Cuba blockade, a remarkable vote of confidence from the Cuban leader.

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In this new context, one may think that profound changes are likely to happen in the Cuban island. Positive effects, especially in the Cuban economy, will be seen only in the long term. The Cuban regime is aware that for a better and wealthier Cuban society a new government scheme is needed. The question is how to make changes without causing negative impact on society, in a country where economy and not only, has been centrally planned by the Government for decades, inhibiting initiatives and also the entrepreneurial spirit of those that work in the economic, political and social fields.
The only two dissidents who, for the first time, stood as candidates in the last municipal elections received little support from voters. “The people do not want change”, one of the two candidates explained. But if the US ceases to represent the main cause of several problems in the island, the Church can become an ally in the construction of the common good, its action could be particularly effective in the field of civil society .
In recent years many words have been said about Cuba, but from outside Cuba, now the shifting politics of the country might allow the Church to lay the foundations for a debate on the future of Cuba but this time, on the ground, among Cubans. (A.B.)

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