A Tale of Two Popes

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba is ten days away. But it is already easy to discern disquiet among the hardest of the hardliners that history could repeat itself. They’re busy creating expectations for the visit to fail. Why are they so grim?

What makes them nervous is that like the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, Benedict’s trip to the island could bolster the image of Cuba’s government and lead to progress in U.S.-Cuban relations.

The party line of the hardliners was pretty harsh in 1998. Then-Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart called the Cuban Catholic Church “untrustworthy,” and accused it of collaboration with the Castro government. Exiles in Miami who wanted to see John Paul’s visit first hand were branded as traitors by anti-Castro activists. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen attacked the Pope for opposing embargos and setting up “a great photo-op for the dictator, Fidel Castro.” Most of all, she predicted the visit wouldn’t amount to anything. “Life will go on in the same horrid way for the Cuban people.”

The reality proved different and more complex.

The images of Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro embracing destroyed their insistence that the Catholic Church in Cuba was under siege. It also gave hope to believers on the island that there would be more space for them in Cuban society. That did occur. However, the full reestablishment of the Catholic Church as a predominant institution did not.

The television coverage of the visit, as well as John Paul’s open air masses before tens of thousands of Cubans, affirmed that religious believers were no longer as stigmatized as previously. Furthermore, John Paul publicly criticized “any infringement on religious freedom,” and said that true human liberation had to include “the exercise of freedom of conscience.” Before his departure, John Paul denounced the embargo for its impact on Cuba’s poor, and the isolation it imposed on all of Cuba’s people. In ringing tones, the Pope called upon “Cuba to open to the world and the world to Cuba.”

The impact was also felt on U.S. policy toward the island. President Clinton – heeding as the Miami Herald reported, the Pope’s message asking help for Cuba’s people and the church on the island -loosened restrictions on flights to Cuba and family financial support, actions the Herald applauded. These changes provided emotional and financial support for Cubans with relatives in the United States and produced more questions about restrictions on U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel to and engage with Cuba.

Over time, the Pope’s visit strengthened the position of the Church. Caritas Cubana, the Church’s charitable agency, expanded throughout the island. A new seminary for training priests was opened in Cuba for the first time in fifty years. Cuban Bishops, as CRS reports, now speak out on the need for change in Cuba.

When Raúl Castro formally assumed the presidency in 2008, his first meeting with an overseas leader was with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarciso Bertone. Cardinal Jamie Ortega sat down with President Castro in 2010 to assist with the government’s release of more than 125 political prisoners. The church has even been allowed to provide graduate courses in business alongside the Spanish University of Murcia.

This is progress. Not all of it by any means is attributable solely to John Paul II or to the Catholic Church in Cuba; it clearly stems from the Cuban government’s view of its own interests; but the Church is committed to bending the arc of history in ways that will improve the welfare of all Cubans and offer hope for a brighter future.

This is what the hardliners fear from Benedict’s arrival. Among the frozen images of Cuba that the pro-sanctions crowd wants to preserve is that of a government hostile to and intolerant of the religious practices of its people. Network news footage of thousands of Cuban and U.S. Catholics worshipping together in the Plaza of the Revolution as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass is inconsistent with their political interests.

For more on the status of the Church in Cuba and Pope Benedict’s visit, please read this exceptional essay by Dr. Meg Crahan, The Institute of Latin American Studies, Columbia University, and advisory board Member of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. 


Florida state legislation forbids contracts with companies that work with Cuba

This week, lawmakers in Florida passed legislation prohibiting local governments from hiring companies that do business with Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. The law, which also applies to companies working with Syria, is applicable for contracts worth $1 million or more.

The legislation targets Odebrecht USA, a Florida-based subsidiary of a Brazilian conglomerate that is participating in an expansion project in the Cuban Port of Mariel, but has also helped build some of the biggest projects in the Miami region.

The intent of the sponsors of the Florida law is clear.  As the Herald reports, “It puts the decision on the companies that are affected,” said Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors. “Do they want to do business in Florida, or do they want to do business in these countries?”

But the constitutionality of the law was immediately questioned. Dan O’Flaherty, Vice President of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), stated:

It’s unconstitutional…States are barred by the Supreme Court decision from enacting procurement sanctions targeting companies doing business in foreign country ‘X.’

The NFTC sent letters to Governor Rick Scott and House and Senate leaders in Florida’s state legislature opposing the law.  In 2000, the NFTC brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar law passed in Massachusetts (Crosby v. NFTC). The court’s decision struck down a state law restricting state businesses from dealing with companies with ties to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Gov. Rick Scott has not indicated whether or not he will sign the legislation, which has yet to reach his desk.

U.S. Department of Justice opposes René Gonzalez’s request to visit ailing brother in Cuba, Alan Gross requests Cuba’s approval visit to his sick mother

The U.S. Department of Justice has stated its opposition to the motion by René González for permission to travel to Cuba for two weeks to visit his ailing brother, the AP reports. González, one of the Cuban Five, was released from prison in October and is currently being kept in the U.S. on probation.

The official response from the Justice Department cites security concerns of the FBI, specifically the possibility that González could become a source of information for the Cuban government. In addition to opposing the request, the response also outlines a list of provisions to be followed, should the court grant González permission to travel. González’s motion was presented at the end of February, and has yet to receive a response. He awaits the answer of Miami federal judge Joan Lenard, who will decide on the request.

An attorney for Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor in prison in Cuba, has also requested permission for his client to travel to the U.S. for two weeks to visit his mother who is suffering from cancer, AFP reports. The letter, written from Gross’ lawyer Peter Kahn to President Raúl Castro, states:

As you can imagine, Alan and she are tortured daily by the fact that they may never see each other again and her final wish is to be able to see her son once more before her battle with cancer is lost… Specifically, given that [Gross’ mother] Evelyn is in no condition to travel, we respectfully request that you allow Alan to travel to the United States for two weeks to be with his mother as she celebrates her 90th birthday on April 15, 2012.

Following the release of the letter, Kahn referenced the request of René González, stating, “I fully appreciate René González’s need to visit a dying family member…We need to remember that these are real people and real lives that are profoundly affected by these decisions.”

Cuban tour operators travel to U.S. for New York Times Travel Show

This year’s New York Times Travel Show, held March 2-4th, featured a panel titled “Outlook for Travel to Cuba,” which included three Cuban tour operators who received visas to travel to New York for the event. The panel marked the first time that Cuban tour operators, representing the Amistur, Havantur and San Cristobal agencies, had the opportunity to make presentations in the U.S.


 Cardinal Ortega gives rare televised address on Pope’s visit

Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega gave a rare televised address in the days leading up to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island, the AP reports. Discussing the reasons for the trip, Cardinal Ortega indicated that the Pope is seeking a revival of faith:

There was great interest in this pilgrimage because the Pope is determined to revive the faith in countries that were Christianized before but need a new evangelization, and he saw in this mission a true example of what it is to revive the faith of a people.

A similar address by Monsignor Dionisio García Ibañez, Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba (where the Pope is scheduled to arrive on the island) is planned for next week.

Such appearances on Cuban television, which is controlled by the government, are rare for the Catholic Church. Orlando Márquez, official spokesman of the Archdiocese of Havana, stated:

We hope this continues at the necessary moments even after the visit of the Pope…There is something unique in a message that comes directly from the church, from the pastors. That is what the faithful want and the people too.

Earlier in the week, state newspaper Granma published an editorial about the Pope’s visit, which stated:

Our country will feel honored to receive His Holiness with hospitality, and show him the patriotism, culture, and spirit of solidarity and humanitarianism of the Cuban people, upon which the history and unity of our nation are sustained. We will similarly receive, with the friendliness that characterizes us, the thousands of pilgrims that will be among us on these surely memorable days.

Finally, Vatican officials have reiterated the Pope’s availability to meet with Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro if he requests a meeting, reports the Washington Post.

Catholic dissidents’ protests in church end

The occupation by Catholic dissidents of the Church of Charity in Havana has ended.  As Phil Peters reports in the Cuban Triangle, the protesters ended their 48-hour occupation when police, called by the Archdiocese, showed up to remove them.   Cuba’s government for its part announced it would not prosecute the dissidents.

The occupiers, who settled into the church on Tuesday, had hoped to receive an audience with the Pope and to protest religious and political oppression on the island, reports BBC.  The Pope does not currently have any official plans to meet with dissidents during his trip to Cuba.

The dissidents were removed from the church last night at the request of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who released a press note announcing the removal of the individuals, describing the conditions under which they had been evicted and stating that all had been taken to their homes.  It was noted that the protesters did not resist the police and that the police were unarmed when they removed the protesters.

Phil Peters reports and reflects on Cuba’s own “occupy movement” in anticipation of the Pope’s visit here.

Reporters Without Borders criticizes Cuba’s control of the Internet

As a part of its March 12th “World Day Against Cyber-Censorship,” Reporters Without Borders included Cuba in its annual list of countries labeled “Enemies of the Internet,” Forbes reports.

The report specifically criticizes Cuba’s government for “waging a non-stop battle” on critical independent bloggers, and for rationing access to the Internet. The report adds that more Cubans are finding creative ways to use the little access they do have to interact via the Internet and visit social networking websites. The report also notes the arrival of the fiber optic cable that landed in Cuba from Venezuela in summer of 2011, noting that the cable has yet to become operational and that it is slated to improve the connectivity of those who already have access, rather than increase the number of people with access, to the Internet.

Cuba’s military launches official website

A new website on national defense has been launched by Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, Radio Cadena Agramonte reports. In comments to Juventud Rebelde, Colonel Jorge Galván Blanco, director of the publishing house Verde Olivo, stated:

Until now, anyone interested in learning about the Armed Forces or Cuban national defense, whether a Cuban or a foreigner, did not have a site with comprehensive information. They had to refer to dispersed sources that in many cases are outdated. That is why it was necessary to develop a site that…shows the truth about Cuba, what our country does to defend itself.

The official website, cubadefensa.cu, is now available to the public.


Ecuador’s Correa to boycott “the last summit without Cuba” to protest Cuba’s exclusion

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador will not attend the upcoming Summit of the Americas to protest of Cuba’s exclusion, Havana Times reports. At a summit of the ALBA trade bloc, Correa previously suggested that its member nations boycott the Summit unless Cuba was invited to participate.  The decision whether to include Cuba belongs to the summit’s host, Colombia.

As we previously reported, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba and, after meeting with President Raúl Castro, stated that Cuba would not be invited to participate. In announcing his decision not to attend, President Correa stated:

It is outrageous that in the 21st century something that calls itself the Summit of the Americas does not invite Cuba. If it is a summit of the Americas, all countries of America must be invited and attend.

The foreign ministers of Brazil and Argentina made public statements regarding Cuba’s participation in future summits, UPI reports. Speaking in an appearance with his Brazilian counterpart Antonio Patriota in São Paulo, Argentinia’s Foreign Minister Hector Timerman stated, “This has to be the last summit in which Cuba does not participate.” The two declared that Cuba’s presence would be necessary at the next Summit in order to “finally have a Summit of the Americas.”

Cuba eases regulation for imports of oil-related equipment

Cuba’s government has published new regulations intending to ease customs on imports of equipment relating to oil-drilling, stating that previous regulations “do not satisfy requirements of agility and speed,” the Cuba Standard reports. The new law designates the Port of Mariel, which is currently in the process of a major expansion, as the sole Cuban entry point for equipment relating to offshore drilling. The resolution additionally simplifies the customs procedures for such equipment, requiring that foreign vessels and aircrafts transporting these materials between the port and drilling platforms only have to pass customs and pay duties on their first arrival to the island, and before their final procedure. Under the new regulations, customs is also required to respond to import applications within 20 days.

Around the Region

ARENA victory in Salvadoran elections

The ARENA party gained seats in National Assembly elections, and won several key victories in municipal elections on March 11th, reports the BBC.  Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Analyst on El Salvador, was in San Salvador for the elections and provides a Special Update on the election’s outcomes, stating that:

ARENA, the conservative party that held power until 2009, is once again the primary political force in El Salvador following a defeat for the left in National Assembly and municipal elections that reflects  voter apathy, disillusion with promises of “change,” and profound concern about the inability of the government to control the critical public security crisis.

The election results provide a challenge and a difficult lesson for President Funes’ FMLN party. To subscribe to CDA’s monthly El Salvador Update and receive more analysis, contact Lisa Llanos at lisa@democracyinamericas.org.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky and 93 colleagues call for ban on military aid to Honduras

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL-9) with 93 other Members of Congress sent a letter (available here in English and Spanish) to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern over ongoing human rights abuses in Honduras, CNN reports. The letter calls for a suspension of U.S. aid to the Honduran military and police until the government takes more effective measures to protect human rights in the country, particularly in the Bajo Aguán region.

Forty-five people in the region have been killed since September 2009 for their association with peasant organizations, one remains disappeared, and another seven security guards, a policeman, a journalist and his partner, as well as three other people have been killed. The letter asserts that the situation in Bajo Aguán,

…reflect[s] a larger pattern of human rights violations in which human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders and opposition activists are the subject of death threats, attacks, and extrajudicial executions.

The letter calls for the Honduran government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the murders, threats and other human rights abuses, including the “intellectual authors of such abuses” as well as members of the military and police who are acting in collusion with them. It also calls for the government to provide protective measures for human rights defenders, witnesses, and victims, tighten its regulation of private security companies, and seek “comprehensive solutions to lack of access to land and livelihoods that underlie this conflictive situation.” The letter recommends that the U.S. withhold support until the Honduran government takes these steps.

Last week, seven Senators also wrote Sec. Clinton, similarly expressing concerns over human rights abuses. Their letter notes that, according to the 2012 Appropriations Act, 20% of funds designated for Honduras depend on reporting from the State Department that Honduras is implementing policies to protect freedom of expression and investigate and prosecute human rights violations by military and police personnel in civil courts. The letter requests that the State Department give a detailed update on whether Honduran authorities are complying with the provisions laid out in the Appropriations Act.

Bloggings by Boz, written by a consultant who works and writes on Latin American politics, security, economics and technology issues, posted his opposition to a cut-off of aid and recommended instead increased oversight and reporting requirements, and a review of each program to continue aid where it is effective and cut programs where aid is being abused. The post continues:

That sort of oversight is not as simple as requesting a pure cutoff. It requires a lot more time and attention by the executive and legislative branches, but it’s worth doing. For that reason, I think the Senators’ request and the requests for information out of the House letter are worthwhile and I hope to see the Obama administration respond.

Hugo Chávez to return to Venezuela this week

President Chávez has stated his intention to return to Venezuela this week after undergoing surgery in Cuba, reports the Associated Press.  Chávez will undergo radiation therapy to continue to treat his cancer, but stated in a pre-recorded address that he is very hopeful about his full recovery and chances of victory in Venezuela’s October presidential elections.

Recommended Reading

Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba, Dr. Margaret E. Crahan, Columbia University

Dr. Margaret E. Crahan, a Cuba expert at Columbia University and member of CDA’s Board of Advisors, provides context for Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Cuba, and its significance for the Catholic Church, the Cuba’s government, and the Cuban people.

Why we made the trip, and what we saw, Elissa Vanaver, the Miami Herald

This Miami resident reports on her recent trip to Cuba, including her reasons for traveling, her experiences interacting with Cubans and her observations upon return.

Want to See Cuba? Your Museum Might Take You, Elizabeth Olson, The New York Times

An article about how some museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC are organizing trips to Cuba and other destinations that are difficult to travel to on one’s own.

Recommended Viewing

CNN Reporter moves to Cuba from Seattle, CNN

CNN Reporter Patrick Oppmann is CNN’s new correspondent in Havana. In this video, Oppmann chronicles his move from the Pacific Northwest to Havana.

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