On his four-day visit to Cuba, Pope Francis called for forgiveness and spiritual transformation in a land that has seen little of either in decades. Multitudes eager to hear his message responded with rousing cheers. Cuba's rulers responded with police-state tactics.
Raul Castro set the tone. He was all smiles at the arrival ceremony, happy to share the stage with the leader of the world's Roman Catholics. But Cuba's president inserted a political advertisement into the cordial event by demanding that the United States return the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, a stunningly inappropriate issue to raise at the welcoming ceremony.
Boorish but typical, and it was downhill from there. Cuban authorities carried out a series of repressive actions while the pontiff was on the island, focusing on dissidents. Some of them had been among the relative few explicitly invited by the Holy See to take part in papal audiences.
According to a variety of reports, authorities made sure at least two prominent dissidents were unable to attend public events where they could greet the pope. Both Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva were detained on Saturday before one such event, and were also kept from a vespers service with the pope on Sunday at Havana's historic cathedral.
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In addition, some 20 other members of the opposition group Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) were reportedly banned from a celebration of Mass by the pope. Activists passing out pamphlets at the service were seized by the police.
"Personally I feel very satisfied with the recognition implied by the fact that they invited us to the pope's activities," Roque said afterward in a gracious response to a regime that doesn't deserve it.
Her experience suggests that the reason behind the failure to include face-to-face meetings with dissidents on papal agendas in Cuba is precisely because this puts a target on the backs of the invitees. The Cuban regime does not respect moral boundaries, and it's unlikely to make an exception for anyone meeting with the pope.
Politics dominate Cuban life
Pope Francis was on a spiritual mission to bring an uplifting moral message to Cubans trapped in the grip of an immoral dictatorship. But in Cuba, politics affects every aspect of daily life, and religion is no exception. A church seeking to expand space for the kind of charitable, educational and social activities it runs in other countries is deemed a potential threat to the state, and thus the state only grudgingly grants it more freedom to operate. Papal homilies, in keeping with this modus vivendi, steer clear of explicit political content.
Within these confines, the pontiff aimed some carefully worded critiques at the authorities. On an island ruled by Marxist dogma, he urged Cubans to serve one another and not an ideology.
And he also encouraged Cubans to refrain from "looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbor is doing or not doing" which seemed a clear reference to the state's odious network of neighborhood spies.
The church's patient statecraft has given it greater freedom of action and made it easier for believers to practice their faith. But in doing so, the church runs the risk of being too careful instead of taking a bold stance on behalf of human rights in Cuba.
That would be a mistake of historic proportions. The Cuban people will long remember who has been at their side in this time of trial against a state that shows no sign of remorse or retreat. They need a fearless champion.
Recall the admonition of Pope John Paul II in 1998 to the Cuban people: "Do not be afraid." The church itself must take these words to heart.