Carlos Alberto Montaner in today’s Miami Herald compiled a series of observations on Cuba via sources close to the pope and his Vatican entourage. For them most part, these aren’t earth-shattering revelations but at least it confirms that, after all, the pope and the Vatican had their eyes and ears open while in Cuba.
Not surprising but a detail regarding the protester in Santiago and the pope’s reaction:
• First. Benedict XVI was struck by the huge contrast between the Mexican welcome — joyous, free, multitudinous and spontaneous — in a city that was alive and economically vibrant, and the tense Cuban ceremonies, evidently controlled by the political police, held in a country impoverished to the point of misery, and preceded by hundreds of detentions.
The horrific spectacle of a young man savagely beaten by a policeman disguised as a Red Cross stretcher-bearer touched the pope’s heart and caused him to take a personal interest in the man’s fate. After all, the poor man had only shouted “Down with communism,” the common man’s echo of what the pontiff himself had said when he left Italy, when he declared that Marxism was a failed ideology that needed to be buried.
Even less surprising:
• Second. The pope and his retinue found it lamentable that Raúl Castro chose to deliver in Santiago de Cuba a classic Stalinist Cold-War speech intended to justify the dictatorship. They had expected a message of change and hope, not a reiteration of the regime’s main arguments.
That text, along with the speeches made by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and the vice president in charge of economics, Marino Alberto Murillo, convinced them that Raúl Castro is much more interested in remaining anchored in the past than in preparing a better future for the Cubans.
• Third. They ascertained — painfully — that the plea made by the Pope John Paul II during his visit 14 years ago, to the effect that the Cubans lose their fear, had been for naught. Except for a few hundred opposition democrats who are permanently harassed and beaten, sometimes jailed, Cuba’s is a society rotted by fear.
But the manifestation of fear that intrigued them the most was not that of the oppositionists but that of the apparent supporters. They heard their double-talk up close and were terrified.
In private, the functionaries appeared open, tolerant and desirous of deep reforms that would include the political arena. One of them even admitted that a multiparty system and free elections were essential for society to truly advance toward modernity — even if the communists lost power.
But as soon as someone else joined the conversation or the journalists appeared, the officials reprised the most inflexible and Stalinist orthodox discourse, parroting the official script without leaving out a single comma. It was a painful spectacle.
• Fourth. The pope and his retinue confirmed what they already suspected: the Cuban Church is split into two very clear sides: that of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, compliant to the collaborationist extreme of asking the police to empty a temple occupied by parishioners who wanted to protest against the dictatorship, knowing full well that they would be arrested and surely mistreated, and the side of bishops like Dionisio García Ibáñez, who was an engineer before being ordained as a priest and is much firmer in his rejection of the Cuban regime.
While Cardinal Ortega expresses compassion for some victims of the government (evidently not all), Dionisio (even while remaining friendly with the cardinal) and other priests, like the famous Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez, a priest in Santiago de Cuba, are convinced that there will be no relief or reconciliation among Cubans until the regime is peacefully replaced by a true democracy that takes into account the opinions of all of society, not just those of a handful of ultra-communists who are entangled in the cobwebs of the past.
• Fifth. The Pope ascertained that his contemporary Fidel Castro — they’re the same age — is in worse physical and mental conditions than himself. The pontiff found an elderly man who is physically incapacitated, mentally erratic and seriously unable to communicate. Fidel is finished.
The pope, who is a good man, prayed for him. It’s the Christian thing to do.