The Pope in Cuba: Homily on family values exposes regime's failings

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The Independent Online
The Pope's address, devoted to "the great gift of the family", used the theme of family values to obliquely criticise Cuban social and political conditions.

He said that a combination of poverty, ideological dissatisfaction and lack of work opportunities were tearing Cuba - and many of its families - apart.

The Pope criticised even more directly a political system that separated children from their parents and encouraged promiscuity and lax moral values. And he criticised widespread recourse to abortion.

Fidel Castro is unlikely to be happy with the address, although observers expect more blunt criticism on other areas to come later on during the Pope's trip, especially at the final mass in Havana on Sunday.

The Pope's references to "material scarcities", "insufficient wages" and hints that it is this poverty that is leading to the "attraction of a consumer society" is a blow for Castro. He insisted defiantly that any problems "were not the fault of the revolution". Worst of all though, was the Pope's direct reference to "ideological dissatisfaction" - something that Fidel Castro finds extremely hard to accept, as can be seen by the regime's crackdown on dissenting voices in Cuba.

The Pope's reference to emigration is a touchy subject. More than a million Cubans live in exile in Miami - and as the economic situation worsens in Cuba, more and more of Castro's subjects have come to rely on their remittances, even though they are supposed to count among the regime's political enemies. The pontiff's comments on a system that he says obliges children to be separated from their families - and his contention that this lead to lax morals, promiscuity and sex at an early age - must also be a blow to his host and ideological adversary.

Anyone who visits Cuba even briefly cannot fail to be struck at the overtness of prostitutes - their sheer numbers and extreme youth - who are increasingly servicing the tourist industry. Given the revolution's earlier proud boast to have eradicated prostitution, their return is seen as an indication of the failure of the system and is attributed simply to poverty.

Cuban reaction to the speech was, on the whole cautiously accepting although many admitted they were surprised to hear someone - particularly someone of such moral authority - criticise failings here which everyone knows about but are obliged to pretend don't exist. "I think it was good that the Pope really understands we have problems and sympathises. Let's hope now something will be done to change the situation - but I doubt it," said Vladimir, a young mechanic.

Last night, the long-awaited personal meeting between Fidel Castro and the Pope took place, an extraordinary meeting of nearly an hour between two towering 20th-century figures, now aged 71 (the Pope) and 79 (Castro) respectively.

Given Castro's assertion when he met the Pope about the educational and cultural gains of the revolution ("superior to anywhere else in the world") and the Pope's readiness to comment on the regime's inadequacies, the meeting should be an interesting one.

Some Cubans insist the relationship of these two remarkable leaders is "one of friendship in which they are emphasising their common ground, not their differences" in the words of one earnest student. This is probably a naive view. The Pope is a practised politician who, as he said in his inaugural address, wants Cuba to open up. But he is sufficiently diplomatic and even-handed to add that the world has to open up to Cuba, too.

He has already called upon Cubans to take charge of their own destiny - another blow to leaders of a system that demand submission and obedience.