Il Papa and El Jefe

Thursday, April 30, 1998

Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba was one of the great post–Cold War spectaculars and mysteries.

''Castro's underlings are anxious and afraid right now,'' a Vatican source said after the seventy-seven-year-old pope's return to Rome. ''None of this fits into the party logic.'' True, but what logic does it fit?

The most defiant surviving dinosaur of a discredited communist pseudoreligion invites an outspoken and articulate anticommunist pope, the world's foremost representative of a 2,000-year-old religion with 2 billion adherents, to give a series of unedited masses in major cities around his closed but still somewhat Catholic kingdom.

Why did Castro, seventy-one, invite him, and why did the pope go when, as he told reporters on the flight to Havana, he thinks Leninist revolutions like Castro's are characterized by ''hatred, revenge, [and] victims''?

The obvious answers leave many questions unanswered, including what comes next in Cuba and in U.S.-Cuban relations.

While still fighting dictator Batista, Castro wrote that his ''true destiny'' was a ''longer and bigger war''--now almost four decades old--against the United States.

The Cleanup Hitter

One of Castro's objectives was to take another mighty whack at the Yankees by recruiting the pope as cleanup hitter on his team of sluggers against the U.S. embargo. The United Nations had condemned it 143–3, and the top religious leader in the world, standing beside Castro on Cuban soil, called it ''unjust and ethically unacceptable,'' correctly noting that it hurts only the helpless.

Contrary to propaganda from all sides, the embargo is a win-win policy for Castro. On the pope's arrival and departure, Castro charged that Cuba is ''suffocating'' from this monstrous crime, which is nonsense since Cuba is developing trade relations with many nations. The embargo is mainly a nuisance; the pope even chided Cubans for blaming it for too many of their ills.

But it is a hideous scapegoat that Castro drags out to explain Cuba's dismal economy and the repression that are almost entirely the consequences of his own policies.

The United Nations had already condemned the American embargo of Cuba by a vote of 143–3. Now the top religious leader in the world was calling the embargo "unjust and ethically unacceptable."

If the embargo is lifted, some outside economic contacts will be easier--to the degree Cuba's self-stunted economy allows--but so will the influx of other influences. Castro knows that bombing Havana with a million Big Macs--U.S. products, citizens, and ideas--would be far more destructive to his system than Washington/Miami's futile effort to block Cuba's international ties.

Freedom of Conscience

Castro was almost equally pleased by the pope's condemnation of ''a certain capitalist neoliberalism'' both say impoverishes helpless countries and people.

But the pope has made these criticisms elsewhere, so was his repeating them on Cuban territory worth swallowing the accompanying criticism of conditions in Cuba? Typical of the pope's comments on political prisoners, corruption, and other problems was this, which goes to the heart of Castro's revolution: ''Liberation cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects but rather reaches its fullness in the exercise of freedom of conscience, the basis and foundation of all other human rights.''

The pope described himself as ''a messenger of truth and hope,'' and many Cubans, who have had little of these in recent years, responded. His mass was punctuated by repeated cries of ''Freedom!'' from the audience.

The pope said his reason for going was to strengthen the church, the only significant organization in Cuba that is not entirely under government control, both to serve Cubans' personal needs and to expand links among Cubans at home and abroad, thus making the post-Castro transition smoother.

That transition touches the broader goal of this geostrategically thinking pope. As he provocatively--and perhaps unwisely--said back in Rome, he hopes ''the fruits of this pilgrimage will be similar to the fruits of [his 1979] pilgrimage to Poland,'' a trip that promoted the birth of the Solidarity union movement and the collapse of communism.

A Finely Honed Repressive Machine

The Cuban Communist Party Congress in October 1997 adamantly reaffirmed party dedication to the failed ''socialist'' policies of the past, and this has been repeated since the pope's departure. History teaches that Castro is slow to reform and so far impossible to overthrow. And yet . . .

Circumstantial evidence suggests that though the Cuban Interior Ministry is a finely honed repressive machine--people were arrested even during the pope's visit--Castro may have wanted more than anti-American propaganda from the visit.

Consider the invitation itself, Castro's knowledge that after him the reforms will come no matter who takes power, his recent and very uncharacteristic intimations of his own mortality, and his repeated endorsements of his younger brother Raul, also in uneven health, as his successor.

The Other Castro

Castro's problem is simple, and he may--or, alas, may not--be striving to face it. Proud and stubborn, he has built a four-decade career on condemning everything associated with the United States. He cannot, will not change his tune--as the latest free-for-all against Washington/Miami shows--and become a ''capitalist roader'' like China's Deng Xiaoping, who made reforms approved by the ''imperialists.''

But Raul could. Sure, Raul has always licked Fidel's boots and parroted his policies in public, even since the pope's visit. But it may be more complicated than surface images, for those who know the brothers find Raul less stubbornly proud and more pragmatic.

Raul has just returned from China, where Communists discovered two decades ago that only capitalism--for them, under the guidance of the Communist Party--could save communism. Fidel was there in 1995 to see firsthand China's explosive growth over the past two decades while Cuba stagnated. Insiders believe that that is the direction Raul would take if given the chance.

Fidel knows it. When Deng died last year, Fidel praised him for ''consolidating socialism'' in China, a comment anyone could use to justify the use of similar reforms to ''consolidate socialism'' in Cuba. Fidel will have stood firm to his anti-imperialist principles but also opened the door to the future.

Raul is not Washington's or Miami's or my or probably most Cubans' first choice as leader for the post-Fidel period, but he is the one Cuba almost certainly will get.

Constructive change in Cuba and in U.S.-Cuban relations is more possible since the death of Jorge Mas Canosa, a fiercely patriotic Cuban-American who had become Castro's most relentless critic abroad.

Without Mas enforcing an exaggerated unity among Cuban-Americans, tensions between Cuba and Miami will recede and pressure on Washington to support the embargo will decline. Politicians will be free to consider U.S.-Cuban policy on its own merits rather than in terms of getting Florida votes.

On another--but not unimportant--level, the pope's visit gave Cubans the unprecedented freedom to hear alternative viewpoints in their own land, raising hopes that freedom's door, now pushed slightly open, cannot be slammed shut again without greater repression than before. And the Vatican has said it will be watching developments there very closely.

The pope has given Castro the chance to retire as the ''statesman revolutionary'' he appeared to be during the visit. If this is part of what Castro wanted and he eases up, even in the medium term, prospects for a more peaceful transition in Cuba will be greatly enhanced, and history will come closer to absolving him.

But if Castro in particular, along with Miami and Washington, keeps beating the old war drums, polarization will increase and the United States may be pulled in militarily. The pope's visit has provided an unprecedented opportunity to resolve peacefully what could otherwise be a bloody passing of the Castro regime.