Papal visits are invariably triumphal affairs, carefully orchestrated and overtly strategic, buoyed by a fawning Western media circus that usually sees no wrong. But there was little of that in Cuba this week. This was best embodied on the visit’s last day in Havana, when Pope Benedict XVI and Fidel Castro, two frail and failing men in their mid-80s, finally met.
Both men seem certain to leave fragile legacies as they live out their final days. Like two boxers completely spent, perhaps they saw this in each other. With the Pope in Latin America, the role of the Roman Catholic Church in that region has never been more marginalized. With Castro and his unravelling revolution, Cuba is slowly moving toward momentous change but largely without him. And with the Catholic Church and the Cuban Revolution increasingly shunted to the sidelines, Latin America appears to be entering a period of unprecedented democracy and economic stability.
Cuba is the least Catholic country in Latin America and fewer than 10 per cent of its population identify themselves as Catholic. Even though restrictions on worship were lifted in Cuba in the early 1990s, the church has struggled to attract followers. In contrast, Pentecostal and evangelical churches have seen their memberships explode. And many more Cubans practice Santería, which blends Catholicism and the Yoruba religion with roots in Africa.
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The Catholic Church in Cuba has advocated for political and economic freedoms as well as the release of political prisoners. But it still has faced criticism that it has grown too close to Cuba’s leadership. This is a suspicion that has roots well before Castro’s ascendancy in 1959, when his guerrilla forces overthrew longtime Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Catholic Church was widely perceived then by the Cuban people as supportive of Batista in spite of his regime’s corrupt and repressive record. It has never shaken that reputation.
In fact, the church’s reputation throughout Latin America has largely been the same. At least at its highest levels, it has been compromised from decades of association with some of the hemisphere’s most brutal military dictatorships. It was in this context that “liberation theology” began in the 1960s as a movement in the Catholic Church in Latin America that interpreted the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of liberation from unjust economic, social and political conditions.
My own experience with “liberation theology” came in the mid-1970s when I spent more than a year travelling throughout South America by bus. At that time, nearly every country was being ruled by military dictatorships, many of them with the active support of the Catholic Church, including the ferocious regimes in Chile under Augusto Pinochet and in Brazil. In both Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro, I came across local priests and nuns who were defying their church’s leadership and working with activists and community leaders to challenge the regimes. In both places, I was amazed to discover that many priests and nuns from Quebec were also providing leadership as their fellow clerics were being jailed.
But the “liberation theology” movement in Latin America became to be seen as a direct and threatening challenge to the Roman Catholic establishment in Rome. Given this week’s congenial visit to Cuba, it is ironic that it was Pope Benedict in the 1980s — when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who was assigned the task of destroying “liberation theology.” He described it at the time as “Marxist-Leninist” and led the church’s campaign to suspend, censure and even excommunicate priests and bishops in Latin America who supported this movement. It is with this personal background, well known in Latin America, that Pope Benedict visited Cuba this week.
As the Pope was attending one of his events, a top Cuban government official told visiting reporters that there was a limit to how much “reform” Cuba will experience. According to Marino Murillo, the vice president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers: “We are updating our economic model, but we are not talking about political reform.” Perhaps they are not, but that will soon change. The economic reforms being enacted by the current Cuban government are genuine and far-reaching. The current direction of Latin America is toward greater democracy and prosperity. Once the Castros leave the scene in Cuba — including President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s 80-year-old “kid brother” — political reform in that country will inevitably follow.
I suspect those two aging lions who met in Havana Wednesday know this more than anyone.