Oppenheimer: The pope and the Castros
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba will not produce much change, but everybody — the Pope, the Cuban military regime, dissidents and Cuban exiles — can claim a semblance of victory from the high-profile event. The key question is who won the most.
Gen. Raul Castro, the Cuban leader, and his brother Fidel Castro were able to portray the image that they are not international pariahs who are shunned by many world leaders for running a police state that has not allowed a free election, political parties or independent media for more than five decades.
By receiving Benedict and giving him a welcome speech that was broadcast live at home and abroad, Raul Castro got a unique opportunity to lash out at the United States and stress the alleged achievements of his regime in front of a global audience. The sole smiling picture of him and the pope together, as well as the pope’s meeting with Fidel Castro, helped give legitimacy to the Cuban regime in the eyes of many.
At the same time, Raul Castro’s attendance at the pope’s Mass at Revolutionary Square helped the Cuban regime portray the impression that it is opening up.
Cuba’s octogenarian leaders are eager to convince the world that Cuba is changing. They are worried that Venezuela may stop sending up to $10 billion a year in subsidies to the island if Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez loses his battle against cancer, or if the Venezuelan opposition wins October’s presidential elections.
Benedict, in turn, most likely accomplished his goal of expanding the reach of Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church. He not only raised the Church’s profile in Cuban government media — the only ones allowed on the island — by having his ceremonies broadcast on state television, but got a chance to publicly urge the government to allow the church greater religious freedoms, including the right to open religious schools.
And while his message that “Cuba and the world need change” echoed John Paul II’s speech in Cuba 14 years ago, in which he prayed that “may Cuba open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba,” Pope Benedict also showed some spine. [More]