As Pope Francis walked down the aircraft steps in Havana on Saturday, September 19, he suffered his own Marilyn Monroe moment, losing the white papal zucchetto (pumpkin) skullcap to a stiff Caribbean breeze.
The Cuban President, Raul Castro, welcomed him at the airport with a politically charged and defiant speech, making it clear that his country would not be pushed around and that it put the needs of its people over the accumulation of capital. He asked for Guantanamo Bay to be returned to Cuba and for nuclear disarmament, quoting his brother Fidel to say that nuclear weapons, together with climate change, threatened humanity’s survival.
The younger Castro threw down an uncompromising line, not a tantrum. He thanked the Pope for the thaw in diplomatic relations with the United States and for his stinging criticisms of the market, the arms race and the environmental destruction – hinting that Cuba and the Vatican shared common ground on social justice issues.
The Pope, as would be expected, was guarded in his tone, dealing more with faith than politics, though he spoke of the danger of a third world war. He also used words like liberty and reconciliation, which the Latin American Right adopt as their own when not in power and promptly forget when they are in government. The Western news agencies spun the Pope’s words to suggest Cuba was being chided, admonished, berated or reprimanded for its supposed lack of religious freedoms.
After six decades of revolution, Cubans are not particularly religious and Catholics are not a majority. But neither is it like the Albania of Enver Hoxha or China during the Cultural Revolution. The first congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 1975 did declare the island as an atheist state but within three years religious beliefs were recognised and in 1992 atheism officially gave way to a secular state. At least five articles of the Cuban constitution recognise religious rights and prohibit discrimination on religious grounds.
Different Christian denominations are present on the island while the large black population has its own ancestral religions with their own pilgrimage sites and places of worship. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez made the Cuban leadership realise that it was possible to be a believer and a revolutionary and there has been greater tolerance of religious beliefs since then.
On Sunday, September 20, Pope Francisco visited Fidel Castro. The Pope presented books and the papal encyclical Laudato si’ (“Praise Be to You”) on fighting global warming and environmental degradation. The former Cuban President’s gift was Fidel and Revolution, a book based on conversations between him and a Dominican friar. The visit so incensed the arch-conservatives in the Catholic Church and in the media in the United States, his next destination, that some of them are, apparently seriously, looking to see if the Pope can be excommunicated or taken to the Hague for extolling a “genocidal communist regime”.
There is genuine affection for the Pope in Cuba for his humility, his opposition to the US sanctions against their country and for moving the church away from serving the powerful. The highlight of the papal visit was the congregation at Havana’s revolution square. Among the audience of the Argentinean Pope was the Argentinean President, Cristina Kirchner, and looking over them was the huge bronze sculpture of the Argentinean revolutionary icon, Ernesto Che Guevara. His daughter criticised the Cuban Communist Party for asking the people to attend the mass but some of her father’s comrades were present in the audience, curious about the “Pope of the poor”.
Cuba is living its best diplomatic moments. Its standing in Latin America cuts across political divides as President Obama found out in Chile in 2011. After a prolonged broadside against Cuba before an elite audience, he paused for applause and was met with prolonged silence instead. Havana is hosting the peace talks between the Right-wing Colombian government and the Left-wing guerrillas to end the continent’s oldest insurgency. Now with the Pope’s visit, it becomes harder for Spain, the last bastion of anti-Cuban diplomacy, to carry the rest of the European Union with it.
The Pope and Cuba’s communist leaders share much more than what was revealed in public. They are wary of a global war and global warming. In different ways, they see capitalism as the problem. But while Cuba would like to do more together with the Vatican, the Pope must necessarily be cautious. He still has to work with a conservative Synod. His reforms at the Vatican have only just begun. The US bishops are openly against him and the Spanish legion is quietly furious.
The soft-spoken former nightclub bouncer from Argentina is a pugnacious character. But for all his instincts, he will have to move cautiously on ties with Havana. It remains, for now, a love that just about dares to speak its name.