What Happens the Day After Pope Francis Leaves Cuba?
The paradise many Cubans dream of is not in the infinity of the heavens,
but a mere 90 miles across the sea.
MIRIAM CELAYA SEP 19, 2019
The pope is arriving in Cuba, and with him runaway speculation in the
media about the impact his visit will have on Cuban society and
politics—and particularly the push for greater democracy in the country.
And in the media’s defense, Pope Francis’s presence here is noteworthy.
It is the third papal visit in just 17 years to a country whose
population is not known for its Catholic devotion—a country where
democracy was banished more than 63 years ago by two successive coups
d’état: Fulgencio Batista’s in 1952 and Fidel Castro’s in 1959. Fidel’s
regime was characterized in its first three decades by anti-religious
policies, including the harassment of Catholic clergy, the expropriation
of Church property, and the banning of religious education. Many priests
were expelled from Cuba, and the Catholic lay community and Church
officials who stayed behind were forced to practice their faith from
cloisters in homes, churches, and vestries, always under the hostile
supervision of ideologues and oppressors serving the communist power.
After Pope John Paul II traveled to Cuba in 1998, relations between the
Cuban Catholic Church and the state improved significantly. The
government reinstated celebrations that had been banned on the island,
including Christmas and the procession of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady
of Charity. It permitted the (limited) circulation of Church
publications such as Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical.
But for many Cubans—who tend to be more superstitious than religious—the
expectations that grew out of John Paul II’s visit stemmed not from the
pope’s ministry or the people’s religious vocation, but rather from the
important role that the pontiff had played in Poland’s transition to
democracy, a peaceful process to which millions of Cubans aspired.
Hopeful Cubans overwhelmed city squares to greet the clergyman. They
took as a good omen the famous phrase with which the bishop of Rome bid
us farewell from the steps of his plane: “May Cuba, with all its
magnificent possibilities, open itself up to the world, and may the
world open itself up to Cuba.”
To date, only part of that blessing has been fulfilled: The world has
opened itself up to a Cuba whose government refuses to open itself up to
those it governs.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in 2012 strengthened relations between
the Church and the Castro government, while expanding and consolidating
the Church’s presence in Cuban society. But it did not create openings
for democracy or civil liberties, despite the flood of blessings,
which—like his predecessor—Benedict poured equally over the wolves and
Prior to Benedict’s arrival, the Cuban government had freed political
prisoners locked away as part of the 2003 judicial farce known as the
Black Spring. But other Black Spring prisoners still languished behind
bars, and the Castro regime chose Jaime Ortega, Havana’s cardinal, as
the mediator in the release rather than involving leaders of Cuban civil
society. Notably excluded from the talks were the Ladies in White,
female relatives of jailed Black Spring dissidents who long campaigned
for the liberation of their loved ones by attending Mass and then
embarking on a ritual procession through the streets—protests that are
routinely repressed through beatings and arrests, but that have aroused
solidarity around the world for their defense of human rights.
Now another pope passes through Cuba, after serving as an intermediary
in negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the United States
that have produced a momentous development: the restoration of relations
between the two countries, interrupted more than 50 years ago in the
midst of the Cold War. Pope Francis speaks our language. He is from our
region of the world.
And yet, many Cubans recognize that Francis’s visit will not make a
difference in their daily lives and problems. The capital of hope
awakened by John Paul II has drained away after almost two decades of no
real improvements in the country’s socioeconomic and political
situation, and in the spiral of poverty that stifles much of the
population. Cubans today confront ever more entrenched poverty, an
increasingly apathetic population, and a nation being
emptied—particularly of its young people—by a growing and seemingly
unstoppable emigration. Many people have discovered that the paradise
they dream about is not in the infinity of the heavens, but a mere 90
miles across the sea from this hell of hardship that Cuba has become.
These considerations aren’t enough to stop the fanfare. Crowds will
flock to greet Pope Francis, whether out of faith, curiosity, or
official summons. For several days, autocrats will smile, the pope will
bless us, religious choirs will sing, and even the staunchest atheists
may express pious devotion, however artificial. After all, we are a
people who have been trained against our will for over five decades in
The day after the pontiff leaves, when the prayers have been silenced,
the stands have been removed, and the facades of old buildings—painted
in a hurry to temporarily cover the dirt, the ruins, and the
indolence—begin to fade again under the merciless sun, thousands of
Cubans will return to the rhythms imposed by survival. The government
will have released more than 3,000 imprisoned criminals as a gesture of
goodwill to the bishop of Rome—many will likely go on to commit the same
crimes for which they were jailed. May God protect us! Political
prisoners will remain captive. To the regime, they are the most dangerous.
Cubans are all too aware that papal blessings have never found fertile
ground in this land, so they prefer not to place in the pope’s hands
what they must pursue with their own, unless God himself should come to
Of course, it would be unfair to blame the pope for our national
disaster. Nor would it be right to leave the solution to our many
problems to his well-intentioned prayers. But his visit to Cuba
nevertheless raises the question: Who will challenge a power that has
Source: What Cubans Think of Pope Francis’s Visit to Cuba – The Atlantic