Dec 17 4:25 PM

The spirit is willing: Papal role in Cuba thaw started with John Paul II

Pope John Paul II traveled to Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1998.
Jose Goitia / AP

U.S. officials have reportedly acknowledged that Pope Francis played a significant role in nudging President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro toward the rapprochement signaled by Wednesday’s prisoner release and White House policy announcement.

But the Vatican’s role in promoting a U.S.-Cuba thaw is not a new innovation by a pontiff whose political inclinations are clearly more progressive than his predecessors — and closer to the more left-of-center consensus in his native continent of Latin America.

Obama’s announcement, after all, acknowledged that the U.S. had finally acknowledged the failure of an embargo long decried — and ignored — by the vast majority of the international community. At this year’s version of the annual U.N. General Assembly vote on the Cuba embargo, 188 of the 193 member states voted to strike it down; only the U.S. and Israel voted no.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama vowed Wednesday, promising “a new chapter among the nations of the Americas”.

Those nations, of course, have regularly berated Obama, seeking an end to the embargo since the earliest days of the administration. And the president was expecting another pile-on at the 2015 Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama in April.

The Catholic Church had embraced that same consensus long before Francis was elevated to the papacy. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Cuba, and his even more hardline-conservative successor, Pope Benedict, also visited the island in 2012.

John Paul II had raised eyebrows in 1996 when he granted a Vatican audience to the former seminarian-turned-revolutionary Fidel Castro. Even more remarkable, back then, was the apparent meeting of minds the two men had at the U.N. World Food conference in Rome that year on the question of hunger — and embargoes. Castro tore into the conference goal of eliminating half of world hunger by 2015, insisting that it was unconscionable that leaders with the resources of those gathered in Rome could tolerate the persistence of any hunger at all. “The rich do not know hunger,” he said, but it was “the constant companion of the poor.” Hunger was not a natural phenomenon, he argued; it was “born of the unequal distribution of riches.” He also denounced “criminal policies and absurd blockades”.

John Paul II echoed Castro’s insistence on the goal of eliminating all hunger, and also drew a distinction between “the opulent and the starving.” Even more notable was his call on delegates to consider the plight of “people who are the victims of embargoes imposed without sufficient discernment.”

The long-term goal of John Paul II’s engagement with Cuba was not clear, but his 1998 state visit marked a major turning point that established the Vatican’s role as a mediator respected by the authorities in Havana. A half-century of authoritarian one-party rule has left precious little independent civil society, and the Church remains one of the few autonomous institutions in the country. A similar situation had prevailed in Poland, JPII’s homeland, in the late ’80s, as communist rule began to crumble, and there, the Church that had encouraged Poles to challenge their regime, later stepped in to play a crucial mediating role. It was the Church that convened the round-table negotiations that eventually set the terms of Poland’s peaceful transition to democracy.

Whether or not the Vatican envisages a similar role in Cuba, it has certainly stepped up to promote civil society in Cuba, while playing a leading role in engaging with the regime there.

So, the involvement of the Vatican in brokering the prisoner release and broader rapprochement announced Wednesday by President Obama is not an innovation of Pope Francis; it’s a continuation of work begun by his far more conservative predecessors.

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