Cuba and the Vatican: the Miracle that Never Arrives / Miriam Celaya

John Paul II and Francis (internet photo)
John Paul II and Francis (internet photo)

Cubans will continue to leave for places where they believe God has placed his hand beyond the intervention of his Holiness

cubanet square logoCubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 7 July 2015 — It’s been 17 years since a head of Vatican State visited the Island for the first time. John Paul II arrived in Cuba in 1998, preceded by his well-deserved reputation. He had played an important role in the Polish transition – his native country — where democracy was finally achieved after decades of subordination to Soviet communism.

Such credentials of the Pilgrim Pope aroused expectations among many Cubans still being hit by the deepest economic crisis in its history, and also hopeful about the possibility of an eventual transition derived from some “easing” of the rigid centralism of the economy and politics in the Island. They reasonably assumed that after so many shortages and scraping out a living, all that was left was for things to improve. In addition, it was unusual for a pope to honor us with his presence. National vanity reached unprecedented levels, and optimists of the day hoped that Jozef Wojtyla’s appeal would positively influence the goodwill of the Cuban government towards openness.

For even more reverie, the discourse of John Paul II before a square filled with a mixture of the faithful and the dilettante, and facing Che Guevara’s gigantic image, made an overt reference to the need to break the isolation endured by Cubans as a consequence of our political system: “Open Cuba to the world”, he said in his inspired homily to the delirious crowd listening, captivated and hopeful, as if, just by the Pope’s suggestion, the miracle of freedom and democracy for Cuba were to happen by osmosis.

The crowd, however, had their own reasons to believe in miracles. All in all, the government, which barely a decade before the Pope’s arrival had proclaimed itself as communist and atheist and had harassed the faithful of any religious denomination for 30 years, marginalizing and excluding them in what was a crusade in reverse — against the faithful to God — had carried out the spell from circulating the most intense hatred of everything that represented religion to legitimizing all faiths, and even blessing the entry of the religious into the ranks of the Communist Party. And it had accomplished this without gradations, without raising suspicion and, most importantly, without anyone asking for an explanation, since one of the most ineffable native virtues consists of confusing justice with amnesia.

Without a doubt, placing Marx and God on the same altar was the Revolution’s spiritual contribution that is yet to be properly recognized. Thus, a new specimen in the socialist fauna was born: the mystical Communist. Suddenly, being a believer became almost a stylish ornament. Christian crucifixes and Santería necklaces of African heritage proliferated happily among us, often mixed together as naturally as if they had never been banned, as if dozens of young Christians had not been shot at the La Cabaña Fortress, the concentration camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) had never existed, or as if the religious spirituality that had always been an essential part of the national culture had not been deeply hurt.

When John Paul II honored us with his presence, we were such a democratically religious country that Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes himself confessed to having Santería fetishes behind his door. And what about our Sinner-in-Chief, who personally welcomed the Holy Father and received his blessing from the Pope and from God, though he skipped confession in the process.

Nevertheless, the overall balance of the visit of John Paul II was positive, especially for the Cuban Catholic Church, which gained new social spaces, experienced a discreet vivacity and even founded magazines. Though their circulation is not large, these magazines are tolerated by the government and enjoy popular recognition. In the process we also recovered Christmas and the local clergy was granted permission for Our Lady of Charity to take a brief outing – in the manner of a procession — every September.

Since then, the world opened slightly to Cuba, though after Wojtyla’s departure, and to date, most Cubans continue locked up in this Island-jail without democratic freedoms and without the possibility to fully exercise of their rights.

The second Papal visit was in 2012, when Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope, reviewed the congregation’s membership of the hacienda in ruins, mainly to get some concessions from the substitute sinner for the Church. This time, the popular hopes had suffered a considerable decline, but Benedict also delivered his homily to the faithful in a mass — in which there were many representatives of Cuban émigrés — where he delivered another barrage of short-range blessings and left, not without witnessing a small turmoil by a political opponent who shouted slogans against the government and was brutally cut down by blows from a group of members of the national Red Cross, while around them the lambs of the flock remained undaunted, without even issuing a bleating.

Benedict XVI at the Plaza, Havana (Photo from the internet)
Benedict XVI at the Plaza, Havana (Photo from the internet)

Now it is the charismatic Pope Francis’s turn. He will come to Cuba this controversial 2015 with enviable credentials. If it were not enough that he is a Latin American, that he took part in the inspiration of the Liberation Theology, that he’s carrying out a fierce onslaught against corruption within the Vatican itself, or that he demonstrates the austerity and humility of the saint he choose for his Papal name, he enjoys the extraordinary merit of being a mediator in the current rapprochement between the governments of Cuba and the United States, thus helping to end the half century of hostility that has defined Cuban political and national life.

With such curriculum, coupled with such a resounding inspiring capacity that even the General-President in his recent meeting with the Pope experienced a kind of epiphany and promised to “go back to praying” — which shows that a metamorphosis from devout to Cuban Communist Party militant can be reversed — one would expect an avalanche of expectations among Cubans before the imminent visit. However, this is not what is seen on the streets.

The momentary wave of hope that uplifted Cuba with the December 17th announcement has faded with the absence of changes, though we no longer have an enemy at our doorstep. And Pope Francis will arrive in the midst of that feeling of apathy. He will arrive in a timely manner, before our emigration ends up emptying the entire Island. Because those who were very young when John Paul II visited have become adults, and many have fled Cuba. The dreams of prosperity and freedoms have crashed against the rampart of government inaction, and the cryptic speeches of the representatives of God are no longer enough to raise a new capital of faith. Very few here believe in Papal blessings.

After all, the Vatican is also a State, with its own government, policy, and interests. And — with apologies to the faithful — how could our hopes for freedoms interest those who, at least de jure, pin their greatest aspirations on the kingdom of heaven and not in the reality of earth? We have been numbed by the words of false prophets too often to place our expectations in another head of state. After 17 years since John Paul II set foot on Cuban soil, we are still not feeling the effects of his praises. Nobody –except the most obstinate dreamers — expects Francis to make miracles to effect the urgent changes Cuba requires.

Just in case, tens of thousands of Cubans still choose each year to seek blessings at their own risk, and are leaving for places where they believe God has placed his hand without the help of our Holiness at the Vatican. And this is the way it will remain, at least while the olive-green hell continues to dictate the guidelines in this damned Island.