Another Pope in Socialist Cuba: What do the Popes and the Castros have in Common?
[Translated from GegenStandpunkt analysis on Radio Lora, Munich, May 21, 2012]
Before last Easter, Pope Benedict XVI paid Cuba a largely staged visit. Back when his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, paid his first state visit to Cuba, the press still asked itself how the “regime” would react to the Catholic provocation. This time nobody doubted that the visit would be on the best of terms. After all, Fidel Castro some time ago ended the old hostility towards the Church – a relic from the time of the revolution. Since 1991, Cuba no longer considers itself an “atheist country.” And since the inaugural visit of John Paul, nobody wants to know anything about the fact that Marxism fundamentally criticizes religion for being an infatuation of the people and an ideology that benefits capital and power. Also, when he was taken for a ride in his Popemobile, it was demonstrated to the Roman visitor that Catholic churches are preferred for the renovation of decaying Havana.
So the question is: what was the Pope's motive for coming to Cuba again and what was the Cuban government's expectation from this invitation on its part?
Contrary to rumors, the Pope's motives were not democracy and human rights. What he wanted, he brought up in a rather pushy way: The Catholic Church is treating the whole world as a mission area anyway, and thinks that Cuba is a promising country to set an example for the advertising campaigns it plans in other Latin American countries. Some remarkable successes have already been realized and can be further extended: In 1998, Christmas again became an official holiday in Cuba, and as a next step the Pope is now given Good Friday as a present from the government. And, for some time, a seminary has been allowed to train future Cuban priests. The Pope wants this expanded and demands more liberties for his Church officials. The open-minded attitude of the Cuban leadership gives the chief Catholic from Rome ideas about how and where his Church should be involved, and he wants to get official permission for that.
Of course, the Church doesn't like the fact that Cuba still bases itself on socialism as state policy. But one has to be pragmatic for the mission and grant the Lider Maximo Fidel Castro a personal audience with mass appeal. Eight hundred journalists make sure that the Catholic propaganda is registered worldwide, for example when the Pope advertises church service as a “path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole.” The chief Catholic announces what the Cubans supposedly have been lacking all these years: state permission to go to church. And the “Holy Father” also knows what the Cuban government is missing, namely “the Church's help in the search for new models.” Of course, the fact that the people in Cuba have to struggle with mass poverty is of no interest to an old dogmatist like Joseph Ratzinger, who's on a mission. For him there's no doubt anyway that the quest for material wealth, however humble it may be, is the Devil's work that just turns human beings away from the only true faith, namely the imagining of an omnipotent Creator-God above all world leaders. That's his message to the Cuban people: precisely because their everyday reality is unsatisfactory and disappointing, they should look for the meaning of life by serving a higher being. Then poverty is even a good condition for the real faith.
In his baggage, however, the Pope brings a special offer for the Cuban government, one that only the Catholic Church can make – because its boss is at the same time the chairman of a club with one billion members and chief of state of the Vatican City State. This is a real subject of international law which has diplomatic relations with 180 states. He can celebrate his mission as a state visit and at the same time offer a government like the one in Cuba, which finds itself under pressure from international sanctions, a special advantage: as head of both, state and church, the Pope gives a moral blessing and political recognition to a regime that is otherwise considered revolutionary and therefore disreputable, thus a fine piece of international legitimation for the Cuban state power.
And what do the Cuban hosts think at this summit? They have demonstratively moved away from the position that the Catholic Church is an enemy that has to be gotten rid of. By no means do they want to refuse the offer to improve their international reputation by a papal blessing. Maybe, after all, the governments or the publics in the countries of the capitalist west can be impressed by this. Thus the Cuban government tries to at least use the Church for its purpose, and for that it permits the insolences which take the stage as diplomacy from the old enemy of the communists. If that was all it was, one could consider the limited permission to the Church as a deal for Cuba and the compliments to the Pope as chumming up with him for that purpose.
It’s remarkable, though, how indifferent the Cuban government is to the institutional church’s offensively declaimed denial of any reference to socialism coming from the “grassroots church.” Wherever – especially in Latin America – Catholic grassroots movements have referred to a “theology of revolution,” priests have been unseated, especially during Joseph Ratzinger’s leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a modern continuation of the “Holy Inquisition.” Unimpressed by this, the Castro brothers obviously think they have something in common with the Church. In 1998, Fidel Castro had already shown himself impressed by the Pope as a fighter for ideals and explained it to his people like this:
“We don't need to fear the Pope, he is fighting for the same values as we are.”
An astonishing confession! – considering that the revolutionaries around Castro had fought not only against the earthly capitalist system of exploitation, but also against the Catholic Church as a spiritual institution that preached that it was the religious duty of the Cuban caudillos at Washington's mercy to submit under the God-given earthly rulership. In the course of their revolutionary development, the Cuban leaders must have discovered some sympathy with the moral principles preached by the Pope, so they could give up their opposition to the Church. Nonetheless, they are confusing a few things here. Obviously, they are giving credit to the Church for following its missionary cause and positioning itself outside of – and occasionally dissociating itself from – the capitalist business world, as the Pope recently did again in Mexico by issuing warnings about a “deification of money” that “enslaves the people.” But simply because the Pope praises “brotherly love,” condemns “egoism” and encourages the rich to do good deeds, he's far from being an enemy of the capitalist economy, but is nothing more than an advocate of the poor. Papal “advocacy” never aims at fighting poverty or even abolishing its causes, but always merely at raising awareness of poverty in the rich and promising spiritual compensation and a better beyond for those who patiently bear the cross of poverty, thus submitting to the earthly circumstances as the vale of tears decreed by god.
And what role is played by Cuba's own values, the socialist as well as patriotic ones? The Cuban regime had originally started out trying to show the people and the world that a socialist national community could abolish oppression and poverty. So the whole thing was about the material needs of the people, about a better life. But from the start, this was contradicted by the regime's anti-imperialist and socialist ideals. With growing economic problems, the Party relied more and more on its people's willingness to make sacrifices and their socialist enthusiasm. Moral agitation and praise of values took the place of a rational explanation of unfavorable circumstances.
This is the even more the case in the current political situation in Cuba, with the Party establishing rather drastic changes. The former attempts to provide the people with basic supplies are being ended because the state considers them too expensive. The reasons for this are not minced: Since Cuba tries to satisfy its demand for foreign currencies and import goods on the world market, it's in the economic situation of a third world country. The “construction of socialism” has turned into an emergency program for the “protection of national security.” Now they are looking for a new economic foundation, at least to save the state as a last refuge of the revolution. In order to make sure it survives, the Cubans are given the task of living self-sufficiently – but without having the necessary means of production. The Party thus sacrifices the content of its socialist plans in the hope of preserving the agent of those plans, the state power itself.
That's why “values” are ubiquitous in the speeches and writings of the Cuban communists. The government knows that it creates new survival problems and antagonisms within the nation. The people are supposed to endure the decreed hardships, keep on cooperating, and commit themselves to solidarity. Practically, that means replacing state provision with private sharing and help and somehow compensating for the ever-present deficiencies and supply gaps. The appeal to the ideals of the revolution and loyalty to the fatherland and folk heroes are all the more necessary – “Patria o Muerte!” as the Castros are still known to finish all their speeches – in order to obligate the Cubans to ignore their everyday destitution and scraping by and see the survival of their state's power as the only perspective for their own survival.
On top of that, Cuba's leaders are not only proud of this miserable propaganda, but they go so far as to consider their philanthropic values ennobled by their alleged similarity to the Christian slogans promoted by the Pope. That's why they aren't bothered by the fact that the Cuban campaign for values actually has a common denominator with the clerical one: anti-materialism. Both sides want to convince the people to give up their materialistic ambitions, their need for some kind of modest prosperity, or at least a secure survival. The only difference the two ideologies have to offer concerns their reason and purpose.