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What Did Castros Want out of Pope’s Cuba Visit?

March 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
With Cuban President Raul Castro in the front of a Mass Wednesday in Havana's Revolution Plaza, Pope Benedict XVI called for greater freedom for the Roman Catholic Church -- the closest he's come to direct criticism of the regime. Jeffrey Brown, reporter Nick Miroff and author Ann Louise Bardach discuss the papal visit's impact.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the pope’s visit to Cuba, we turn to Nick Miroff, who covers Latin America for The Washington Post and the international news website GlobalPost. He’s based in Havana and Mexico City. And Ann Louise Bardach, an author and journalist who’s written extensively on Cuba, her latest book is “Without Fidel.”

So, Nick Miroff, what do we know about this meeting between the pope and Fidel Castro?

NICK MIROFF, The Washington Post: Well, they met for about 30 minutes, so it was a brief meeting.

And this was just before the pope’s departure back to Rome, and after the mass he celebrated this morning in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. We don’t know too much about what they talked about, other than Fidel asking him if there were any changes to the Catholic liturgy, since, as you may remember, Fidel and his brother, Raul, both went to Jesuit school as young boys growing up here in Cuba.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nick, you were in Revolution Square today for that public mass. Tell us about it. What was the atmosphere? What was it like?

NICK MIROFF: Well, in some ways, it was kind of like a political rally. Only, the banners hanging from the government buildings didn’t say socialism or death or long live the revolution. They said Jesus and Mary and charity unites us.

But, you know, I think today was a national holiday for Cubans, and the turnout in the square was significant, but, you know, compared to some of the political rallies that the government organizes here, it seemed a little bit thin. So I think, for Cuban Catholics especially, it was a great day and very exciting. But I don’t know if the rest of the population and other secular Cubans would see it as significant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ann Louise Bardach, what’s your reading of it? It looks as though the pope pushed a bit and then the government pushed back some. What do you see?

ANN LOUISE BARDACH, author/lournalist: Well, I think you have to look at this visit relative to the famous visit in 1998 of John Paul.

And there was definitely reduced expectations and reduced excitement. When — John Paul, or Juan Pablo, it was tremendous. And it was packed, the Plaza of the Revolution. It was over a million people. I was in it, and it was — the excitement was palpable.

We didn’t have that this time. But remember that John Paul is very, very beloved — was — in Latin America. It was a very significant opening. And this one has been – you know, the people who really wanted to go were the dissidents and opposition voices in Cuba, and they were barred from going, some of whom were arrested in the days previous.

And a lot of people who didn’t want to go were bussed in. So there’s a certain irony there. But, definitely, Benedict is not John Paul. But it’s an opening. And, in some ways, it enhances the role of the Catholic Church and Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, and enhances their role as the most important NGO in Cuba.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nick Miroff, tell us a little bit more about that, about the role of the church, I mean, how it has changed. How active is it? And how much clout does it have?

NICK MIROFF: Well, ironically, even though I think, you know, the number of Cubans who regularly attend mass is something like less than 10 percent, the institutional profile of the church has increased in recent years.

And that’s mostly because the Cuban government, and especially Raul Castro, has sought that and is interested, I think, in having a partner who can help both cope with the changes that the — the economic changes that the government is trying to do here, and generate support for those types of reforms.

And, also, I think the government is very much worried about what they would call an erosion of values, and is also looking to the church for help, and trying to find common ground on things that they do agree with. So, in some ways, it’s a partnership, with the church nudging the government gently along in the direction of the change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s an interesting word, Ann Louise Bardach, partner or partnership.

What do you think the government wanted to get out of this particular visit, then? You compared it to the last one. What about this one? What did they want to get out of it?

ANN LOUISE BARDACH: I think they wanted to enhance their perception, that they’re diplomatic, that they can play on the world stage.

And, also, remember, there’s a secondary plotline going on here. Hugo Chavez, who’s actually a very devout Catholic, happens to be in Cuba at the very, very same time for treatment of a very serious, grave cancer, probably colorectal cancer. And they’re in a very tough little position here if — a future without Hugo Chavez really puts Cuba in peril.

So I think that they’re looking at, what else. You know, we have to open to the world, as John Paul told them to do in 1998. But in terms of political reform coming out of this, I mean, right away, we had a top minister just slam that hammer down, and he said there will be no political reform. Those were his exact words.

JEFFREY BROWN: And were you. . .

ANN LOUISE BARDACH: But they’re. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry. Excuse me.

But were you surprised that the pope didn’t meet with any of the dissidents?

ANN LOUISE BARDACH: Not entirely.

But I thought that, at the very least, he could have spoken to the authorities and said, at least allow the Ladies in White, one of the most notable groups, that is completely involved with church activities, to attend. And, as I understand it, they were not allowed to attend.

And particularly in Santiago, where he had held the other mass, which, by the way, was in the church that Fidel and Raul Castro’s mother, Lina, used to go and pray for the welfare of her two sons, very interesting kind of backstory about that church there.

And particularly in Santiago, there was a lot of repression. And, in fact, somebody stood up at one point and said, down with communism. And then he said at one point, I haven’t been paid to say anything. And then he said “libertad,” liberty, freedom. And he was, of course, promptly taken away.

But that’s about the biggest expression of outrage we have seen on this visit. I think there will be some expressions later that they wished that the pope had reached out more to opposition people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nick Miroff, just very briefly, did the Vatican say why there were not such meetings?

NICK MIROFF: No, I didn’t hear any explanation for that.

And I would, I would agree with Ann Louise on most of these points. I think this was a — in some ways, a good trip for Cuba’s church, for the Vatican, and for the Cuban government, but, obviously, Cuba’s dissident movement is going to be disappointed, as well as other Castro opponents abroad. And I think most Cubans just sort of saw this as blah.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nick Miroff in Havana, Ann Louise Bardach in Miami, thank you both very much.

We taped that interview a little earlier this evening. Later, just before leaving Havana, Pope Benedict again criticized the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.