When Pope John Paul II made his groundbreaking trip to Cuba in 1998, the first by a Pope to the communist country, the world stood back and waited for fireworks. This was a meeting, or confrontation, of ideological opposites – craggy conservative Catholic versus Marxist legend.
Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba, the third papal visit to the island, is turning out to be a more relaxed affair. A known critic of capitalist economics and a Latin American, in some ways Francis has much in common with his host, Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul.
It would be a pity if the Pope’s obvious affection for Cuba resulted in him avoiding all criticism – and critics – of the regime, however.
Cuba is an unfree society and the Pope has a duty to remind his hosts that wanting to preserve the social gains of the 1959 revolution is not an excuse for permanently depriving people of their right to choose their government. If he does not address human rights in his sermons, he should press home the point in private conversations with officials. So far the Pope has done no more than call for more freedom for the Church, which is fine in its way, but the Catholic Church is no longer persecuted in Cuba and hasn’t been for years.
The Pope must also remember that Americans – his next hosts after Cuba – are following his behaviour in Havana. To judge by polls, most of America’s 51 million or so Catholics, a third of whom are Hispanic, are delighted by their leader and by his left-sounding pronouncements on economics and global warming.
But if the Pope wants to continue to act as a bridge builder between the US and Havana, he should not bring with him to Washington a reputation as a Fidelista. Francis played an important role in bringing the two sides together by hosting a secret meeting of the two in the Vatican last year. If he can help nudge the process towards completion and the lifting of US sanctions, it might be the most important legacy of his papacy.
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