Castro's calculated risk Will papal visit prove beneficial or ruinous to Cuban regime?


By inviting Pope John Paul II last month to Cuba, the last bastion of socialism in the Western hemisphere, President Fidel Castro took a calculated risk.

For five days, he listened politely as John Paul, the "avenging angel" of anti-communism, repeatedly demanded freedom for Cuban citizens, the release of political prisoners and a greater role for the Catholic Church. The pope denounced Marxist-Leninist ideology and warned Cubans against embracing "false Messiahs," likely an oblique reference to the cult of Fidelismo.

But for Castro, who has shown a knack for survival in his 39 years in power, the gamble might be paying off.

John Paul twice denounced the economic embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba, most pointedly at his departure ceremony, when he criticized "oppressive economic measures - unjust and ethically unacceptable - imposed from outside the country."

"In our day, no nation can live in isolation," the pope said. "The Cuban people, therefore, cannot be denied the contacts with other peoples necessary for economic, social and cultural development, especially when the imposed isolation strikes the population indiscriminately, making it ever more difficult for the weakest to enjoy the bare essentials of decent living, things such as food, health and education."

In the days after the historic visit, the first by a pope to Cuba, there has been movement toward easing the embargo and Cuba's international isolation.

On Monday, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a statement saying that positive steps taken by the Cuban government toward more religious freedom merited a re-examination of the United States' Cuba policy. Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the bishops' International Policy Committee, called for an end to "the onerous and evidently meaningless ban on direct flights to Cuba" and said restrictions on the sale of food and medicine should be dropped.

In Congress, bills in the House and Senate would permit the free sale of food and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons. The legislation is supported by religious institutions and human rights organizations. Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, has introduced legislation to drop the embargo entirely.

In the week after the pope's visit, the Cuban American Foundation, the leading Cuban exile organization, proposed sending millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Cuba, with the proviso that it be distributed not by the government but by the American Red Cross or the Catholic Church. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican who co-sponsored the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that tightened the economic embargo, quickly endorsed the proposal. Castro has rejected it, saying the conditions are unacceptable.

But even that modest proposal has divided the Cuban exile community. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Republicans representing the Miami area, angrily denounced any attempt to ease the embargo. The exile community could not have been pleased by John Paul's plea that they "cooperate, peacefully and in a constructive and respectful way, in the nation's progress, avoiding useless confrontations and encouraging an atmosphere of positive dialogue and mutual understanding."

In an indication of how the papal visit and Cuba's response played in the region, Guatemala days afterward re-established diplomatic ties after 37 years of severed relations.

It was said by some that Castro was opening a Pandora's box by allowing the visit of John Paul, who visited Poland several times beginning in 1979 to bolster the church and the Solidarity movement. But Castro might have known what he was doing.

"Go back to Henry IV of Navarre, who said, 'Paris is well worth a Mass,'" said Wayne S. Smith, a visiting professor of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University, referring to the Protestant king who converted to Catholicism to rule over France.

"And Castro is saying 500 years later that a rejuvenated Cuba and a repositioned Cuban Revolution is well worth a Mass, too," said Smith, who served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 1977 to 1982.

The religious freedoms granted by Castro are part of a transition that the Cuban government is going through since an economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of its major trading partner and benefactor, the Soviet Union.

In response to an economy that shrunk by more than a third in the early '90s, causing widespread shortages of food, energy and consumer goods, the government has introduced some limited free-market reforms, including encouraging joint ventures with foreign firms and allowing citizens to possess dollars and open small businesses such as restaurants, in which they can employ only family members.

It is this transition, and Castro's efforts to repackage the revolution, that has Cuba's president embracing the pope's message of social justice and portraying Cuba as a biblical David to what he described as the bullying Goliath of the United States and its trade embargo.

"Cuba is confronting the mightiest power in history, like a new David - albeit a thousand times smaller - who with the same sling of Biblical times strives for survival against a gigantic Goliath of the nuclear era who tries to prevent our development and subdue our people by hunger and diseases," Castro told the pope at the departure ceremony.

Smith sees a clear strategy here. "[Castro] has been described as a dinosaur, as the last of the Marxist-Leninist dictators, no new ideas, a bankrupt ideology," he said. "And suddenly here he is at the side of the pope, championing the poor nations, the poor of the world against the new liberal economic model, with the pope's blessing.

"So in a sense, [Castro] is repositioning Cuba internationally and certainly enhancing his image," Smith said. "The image of Castro and the pope sells well all over the world."

But, by allying himself with the pope and his message, Castro also conceded something.

"Beyond that, the pope was indicating his full expectation, his insistence, that the church play a significant role in the transitional process upon which Cuba has now embarked," Smith said. "And Castro has made it clear that he accepts that role."

Herein lies Castro's risk, which has yet to play itself out.

Smith's colleague at Hopkins, Franklin Knight, a professor of history who has traveled and lectured widely in Cuba, foresees an inevitable collision between the church and the state.

"I think over the long run, the liberties allowed the church are going to generate inherent conflict with the state," he said.

One area where this conflict might materialize is with the social services offered by the church's Caritas Cuba organization, which distributes medicine it receives from organizations outside the country, such as Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

In so doing, the church is setting up a parallel but autonomous "state within a state," Knight said, and "the nature of the Cuban state, which is authoritarian, if not totalitarian, is that it cannot tolerate within the present structure a state within a state."

John Rivera is The Sun's religion reporter. He traveled to Cuba to cover the pope's visit.

Pub Date: 2/08/98

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