Revolution was both the background to Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the takeaway, the many different forms revolution can take, the many different meanings the word can connote. Cuba still sees itself as a revolutionary society. The Cuban revolution is for Cubans not a finite event but an evolving effort to build a more just society. When in Santiago, at the last Mass he celebrated in Cuba, Pope Francis called for a “revolution of tenderness,” he was playing on the resonance the word “revolution” has for Cubans. He was also continuing his call for people to put service ahead of ideology, a point made earlier in the trip and one with equal relevance in the United States.
Pope Francis began his visit to Cuba by celebrating Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, the large open-air plaza dominated by government buildings and larger than life portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, two heroes of the Cuban revolution. An estimated 200,000 people attended the Mass, which was followed by a private meeting between Pope Francis and Fidel Castro in Castro’s home. The substance of the conversation between the pope and the leader of the Cuban revolution was not disclosed, but the two exchanged gifts. Fidel attended Jesuit schools as a youth, but it was his brother Raul, the current leader of Cuba whom the pope went on to meet with, who recently shocked the world when in a trip to the Vatican in July he declared that “If the pope continues talking like this, I may return to the church and start praying again.”
The papal visit to Cuba, the first for Pope Francis but the third since 1998 when Pope John Paul II visited the island and 2012 when Pope Benedict came, drew large and enthusiastic crowds. So did the other two papal visits, but this one, by a Latin American pope who midwifed the recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, the Vatican serving as a mediator during 18 months of secret talks between the two countries, has a special significance for that very reason, not only for Cubans but for the pope himself. Austen Ivereigh, author of a recent biography of Francis, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, commented, “What the Berlin Wall was to John Paul II, the sea between Miami and Cuba is to this pope.”
The effort to bring Cuba in from the cold, to end its diplomatic isolation and the trade embargo the United States has imposed on it for 50 years plus, reflects not only the pope’s priorities but those of a new generation of Latin American leaders who made it clear to Washington that they would no longer countenance the continued isolation of Cuba. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, long-time allies of the United States such as Mexico and Colombia joined with more leftist governments to insist that Cuba be invited to the next summit in three years’ time. If not, the ALBA bloc of nations, which includes Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and several Caribbean nations, told Washington that its members would also not be attending. (Cuba was ousted from the Organization of American States a few years after the 1959 revolution and kept out of its summits because of U.S. pressure.)
The growing assertiveness of Latin American leaders undoubtedly aided the pope’s efforts to initiate a change in U.S. policy towards Cuba. That Pope Francis sees the reconciliation between the United States and Cuba as a model for other nations was clear from his opening remarks in Cuba where he explicitly stated as much and urged the two nations to pursue the path to détente. He was forthright in calling for an end to the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.*
Will the pope’s remarks effect change in Congress? A reported 73 percent of Americans support the resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, according to a Gallup poll reported in August. Seventy-two percent support an end to the trade embargo. While younger Cuban Americans in Florida are less vehement in their opposition to the Castro regime than their parents, the Cuban-American community in Miami wields power in Congress and many oppose lifting the embargo. President Obama has been able to amend some aspects of it, but a recent vote in Congress upheld the embargo.
During his visit, Pope Francis did not make any public reference to the plight of political dissidents or to the Catholic church’s desire to open Catholic schools in Cuba and to broadcast over the air waves. But the rocky relationship between the Catholic Church and the Castro regime that developed when the regime nationalized the church’s land and the Catholic Church became a focus of opposition to the regime has considerably improved over the years. In the early 1990s Cuba abandoned official atheism as well as discriminatory measures against Catholics who practiced their faith and endorsed freedom of religion. About 65 percent of Cubans are Catholic, but only about 5 percent or less regularly attend Mass. A large number of Cubans are atheistic or agnostic, and an even larger number believers in Santeria, a syncretic blend of Catholicism and African religion. But there is interest in religion and openness to it. If the United States is becoming a more secular society, Cuba seems to be becoming a more religious one. The Catholic church has become a more influential voice in society in recent years. The sight of Raul Castro surrounded by, and chatting with, a cluster of clerics in black robes at the airport in Santiago as the pope prepared to depart was an interesting sight and showed the progress in relations between church and state.
Certainly the pope was honored by the Cuban government in multiple ways. Before his arrival, the government freed 3,522 prisoners and President Raul Castro attended all of the pope’s Masses in Cuba, including those in Santiago and Holguin. He warmly received Pope Francis when he arrived, thanking him for his role in mediating the talks between the United States and Cuba and praising his critique of unfettered capitalism. In words that might have come from the pope’s himself, the president of Cuba said the global economic system has “globalized capital and turned money into its idol.”
How to maintain Cuba’s revolutionary principles—its commitment to justice and equality—while making economic reforms that will improve the standard of living of the Cuban people is the task Raul Castro has set himself. Since he took office in 2006, he has instituted a wide array of reforms to diversify and liberalize the economy. Ending the U.S. trade embargo would go a long way towards improving the Cuban economy and easing life for the Cuban people. If Pope Francis could influence the U.S. Congress to drop its trade embargo of Cuba, that would be the “revolution of kindness” he spoke of in Santiago and a deviation from the power of politics as usual in Washington.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified a quote calling the U.S. embargo against Cuba “cruel.” The statement was made by Raul Castro, not Pope Francis.