Castro and the Pope: A Real Conversion?
by GEORGE WEIGEL May 12, 2015 12:00 AM
The evidence, please.
“. . . they only heard it said, ‘He who once persecuted us is now
preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’. . . .” – Galatians 1:23
Has Cuban president Raúl Castro, once described by a senior Vatican
official as a man with a soul “like a stone,” had a Damascus Road
experience like Saint Paul, such that he’s now preaching the kind of
politics he had long tried to destroy? Fidel Castro’s little brother and
political heir was certainly suggesting as much, in remarks to the press
after his May 10 visit at the Vatican with Pope Francis.
The pope “is a Jesuit, and I, in some way, am too,” Raúl said; “I always
studied in Jesuit schools.” And when Pope Francis comes to Cuba in
September, just before his visit to Washington, New York, and
Philadelphia, “I promise to go to all his Masses, and with
satisfaction.” And then the money line: “I read all the speeches of the
pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go
back to praying and go back to Church, and I’m not joking.”
Well, perhaps not. One can always hope. But Raúl Castro, no fool, is
certainly spinning. And rather more is going to be required of him if
his protestations of having taken an “important step” by allowing
religious believers some role in the governing Cuban Communist party —
which he’d like the Church and the world to believe is the first step in
a break with totalitarianism — are to be taken seriously.
What might the evidence of a genuine “conversion” on the part of Raúl
Castro and the totalitarian regime he leads look like?
• The Cuban government immediately releases all political prisoners,
including the hundreds arrested on political charges in the months since
the regime’s rapprochement with the Obama administration.
• The Cuban government disbands the neighborhood-based Committees for
the Defense of the Revolution — the tentacles of a nationwide network of
surveillance, betrayal, and repression reminiscent of life under Hitler
• President Castro publicly apologizes to the Ladies in White — the
brave women who protest every Sunday against the imprisonment of their
relatives and who are regularly beaten up by Castroite goons — and
invites Berta Soler, the Ladies’ leader, to sit in a place of honor at
the pope’s Mass in Havana.
• The regime closes the Museum of the Revolution in Havana and disposes
of the burlap bag that once carried the corpse of Che Guevara; the
museum displays the bloodstained bag in a glass case, an obscene,
sacrilegious imitation of the Shroud of Turin.
• The Cuban government withdraws the internal-security “consultants” it
has seeded throughout Latin America in support of repressive regimes in
places like Venezuela and Ecuador.
• The Cuban government ratifies the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and amends the Cuban constitution so that it no longer
subordinates basic civil rights to the leading role of the Communist party.
• The regime opens access to the Internet for everyone.
• The Cuban press, print and online, is liberated; writers and editors
are no longer subjected to harassment and imprisonment for criticizing
• The government permits newspapers and magazines from around the world
to be openly distributed throughout Cuba.
• Workers in enterprises owned by foreign businesses receive their wages
directly from their employers, rather than through the government, thus
eliminating the government’s (substantial) cut.
• Entrepreneurs running small businesses like restaurants, cabs, and
other tourist services are no longer required to fork over large sums of
money to the government on a regular basis.
• Religious communities and institutions are allowed to live their lives
by their own standards, openly propose the truths they profess, build
new facilities, and work without hassle with co-religionists from abroad.
• Cubans may travel freely inside and outside their country.
• Pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations from around the world are
welcome to work in Cuba.
• The government announces a national roundtable at which all interested
parties will meet for several months to discuss Cuba’s political and
economic future; the safety of all participants is guaranteed, and
foreigners from long-established democracies are invited to observe and
even offer counsel.
The list could go on and on, but perhaps these minimal benchmarks of a
genuine “conversion” illustrate the point: It will take a lot more than
references to the Jesuit Old Boys’ Club to persuade any reasonable
observer that, thanks to Pope Francis, Raúl Castro is a changed man who
wants to spend his remaining days repairing the colossal damage he, his
brother, and their accomplices have done to the physical, social, and
moral fabric of Cuba.
And until those steps are taken, it would be prudent for all concerned
to work on the assumption that the Castros and their allies have not
fundamentally changed, except to become a bit more clever. The
transition they now seem to imagine has elements of post-Communist
Russia and post-Mao China in it: The Russian angle involves the
continued role of the internal-security services in maintaining the
regime during a period of economic liberalization; the Chinese side
involves the party and military as principal economic actors, thus
ensuring that the fruits of any economic liberalization redound to the
benefit of those currently in power. None of this has anything to do
with the free and just society envisioned by Catholic social doctrine,
or by Pope Francis.
Raúl Castro’s promise to attend Francis’s Masses in Cuba in September
calls to mind January 1998, when John Paul II visited Cuba and
celebrated Mass in, among several other places, Santiago de Cuba, the
principal city in the old Oriente province and, as home to Fidel and
Raúl Castro, the romantic heart of the Castro revolution. It was a
blazing hot day, but a vast crowd had gathered for the open-air Mass,
both to pray with John Paul and to venerate Cuba’s national icon, Our
Lady of Charity of El Cobre, whose statue was going to be publicly
displayed for the first time in decades. Raúl Castro, evidently
concerned by the outpouring of affection that the pope had already
received in Havana, Santa Clara, and Camagüey, unexpectedly showed up
and sat in the front row, arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
At the beginning of Mass, Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiú welcomed the
pope on behalf of his people and lambasted the “false messianism” of
those who had “confused the fatherland with a single party, the nation
with the historical process we have lived through during the last few
decades, and culture with an ideology.” John Paul’s homily lifted up
those Cuban cultural and political heroes who had chosen “the way of
freedom and justice as the foundation of the people’s dignity” and made
a strong plea for a Church that, by defending religious freedom,
“defends the freedom of every individual, of families, of different
social units, which are living realities with a right to their own
sphere of autonomy and sovereignty.” The throng responded with cries of
Libertad! Libertad! Raúl, looking decidedly unhappy, returned to Havana,
as did John Paul, who spent the evening at a prayer service held in a
leprosarium. As for Archbishop Meurice, the electricity in his residence
mysteriously disappeared for some days after the pope’s visit to his
Will Pope Francis bring a similar message to Cuba in September: a call
to national renewal through a reclamation of Cuba’s authentic history
and culture, traduced for half a century by Communism? Like John Paul,
Francis will almost certainly call on Cuba to open itself to the world,
and the world to open itself to Cuba. It would be a splendid gesture of
solidarity if the Holy Father met with the Ladies in White. And in his
discussions with the bishops of Cuba — who are often thought of as
analogous to the Polish bishops under Communism, but who are in fact in
a far more difficult situation, given the weakness of Cuban Catholicism
— I’d expect Francis to challenge the Church to both build and resist:
to rebuild its institutional strength while pressing the regime for
genuine civil, political, and economic liberties.
Such a strategy would make for a steady, constant testing of the extent
of Raúl Castro’s “conversion” — and the testing would take place under
the patronage, and protection, of a pope whom Raúl clearly wants in his
corner, for whatever reasons.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics
and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in
Source: Castro and the Pope: A Real Conversion? | National Review Online