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Western Press Review: The Pope Visits Cuba

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary is focusing on Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, which begins today. The five-day visit is the first by any Pope to the communist-led Caribbean island nation.

He is due to celebrate Mass in five Cuban cities and towns, culminating in an open-air mass in the capital Havana on Sunday. The Pope is also due to meet with President Fidel Castro, who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church after he expelled 130 clergymen in 1961.

NEW YORK TIMES: Anyone hoping that the visit will make Cuba much freer will be disappointed

In an editorial, The New York Times notes that the Pope "has visited many dictatorships, but few of his trips have carried the expectations of this week's visit to Cuba." The paper writes: "Anyone hoping that the visit will make Cuba much freer or shorten Fidel Castro's rule is likely to be disappointed. Only a few previous papal trips have had political reverberations, and those have taken place in circumstances very different from those in Cuba today."

The editorial continues: "The above all an evangelist. He travels to minister to Catholics, win more rights for Catholicism and strengthen and then discipline the church. His political effect is greatest when the church itself has a major political role, which is not the case in Cuba....Cuba's Catholic Church has become a more active voice against the government in recent years. The papal visit may embolden it further and win some of the freedoms it still lacks, such as re-establishment of Catholic schools and more visas for visiting Latin American priests."

The New York Times concludes: "Often the Pope's biggest effect comes before he arrives...Last month Cubans got a public holiday on Christmas, and Havana's cardinal recently gave a television address for the first time since Mr. Castro took power. In this sense, the Pope has already put his imprint on Cuba."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Perhaps the frail pontiff is the only person who can engage Mr. Castro

Britain's Financial Times, in an editorial today, says that the papal visit to Cuba "brings together two of the great icons of the late 20th century. Yet the meeting of the two septuagenarians offers more than symbolism; it is an important opportunity to create a bridge to Cuba's future." The paper goes on: "That future, sooner or later, will be without Fidel Castro. Yet nobody has any idea what sort of future it will be. In the worst case, the island will be riven by violent struggle. It is in Cuba's interest and that of its neighbors --including the U.S.-- that this does not happen. It is also in Mr. Castro's interest, for he must want to preserve the gains of his revolution."

The Financial Times also writes: "Few men have the moral and intellectual stature to engage Mr. Castro about what happens when he goes. Perhaps the frail pontiff --no friend of unbridled capitalism in spite of his antipathy to Communism-- is the only person who can, and in the process begin mediation with the U.S."

GUARDIAN: The world media is hoping for a feast of contradictions

The Guardian, also published in Britain, writes in its editorial today that the Pope's visit "means many things to many people --which is why," the paper believes, "it may achieve rather less than anyone hopes for." The Guardian writes: "The most unrealistic expectations come from the U.S. where some of the comment portrays John Paul as a Super-Pope who will bring down the walls of Communism with a trumpet call for Christ."

"Officials in Cuba hope on the contrary that the Pope will undermine the U.S. embargo by expressing more clearly his objections to a policy which inflicts suffering on ordinary people. The world media is hoping for a feast of contradictions in the juxtaposition of 'two aging leaders' from opposite ideological poles."

The Guardian's editorial continues: "President Castro has urged fellow-Cubans to turn our to greet the Pope and attend his services. He chooses now to make the most of the similarities between Christian doctrine at its best and socialist morality --also at its best. This is an optimistic equation based upon the concepts of (so-called) liberation theology which the Pope has rejected before."

NEWSDAY: The Pope is not going to provoke an earthquake

Monday's (Jan. 19) edition of the U.S. daily Newsday carries a commentary by Cesar Chelala, described by the paper as an international medical consultant who writes extensively on foreign affairs. Chelala said that the Pope's "visit should fulfill many expectations, particularly among Catholics living on the island. But it will also raise difficult issues that both the Castro Government and the U.S. Government will have difficulty in acknowledging." Chelala continued: ""For the Catholics living in Cuba, the Pope's visit is a long-awaited show of support. Although until 1992 Cuba was officially an atheist government, the last few years have seen a loosening of the restrictions to practice religion. This tendency gained momentum with the Pope's announced visit."

Chelala also believes that the papal visit "may signal a new understanding with the Castro regime, in stark contrast with the belligerent attitude of the present and past U.S. administrations." He wrote: "Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly, hastened to indicate, however, that Cuba will not undergo rapid political change following the Pope's visit Wednesday to Sunday, as some East European countries did almost 10 years ago. 'The Pope is not going to provoke an earthquake,' remarked Alarcon, 'but is going to open, a little more, the relations between the state and the Catholic Church."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The Pope's peace-making has created a quandary for Washington

The U.S. writer Tad Szulc is author of "John Paul II: The Biography" and "Fidel: A Critical Portrait." On Monday, Szulc contributed a commentary to the Los Angeles Times on the Pope's visit to Cuba entitled "Can the Pope Overcome 100 years of history?" He described John Paul "as a peacemaker on the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War, which 'liberated' the island from Spain and turned it, in effect, into a U.S. protectorate." Szulc wrote further: A "half a century later, Fidel Castro's nationalist-Marxist revolution seized Cuba. In an extraordinary display of historical irony, the Pope's mission on this anniversary is to help achieve a modicum of peace between Castro's Cuba and his hate-filled exiled foes in the United States, as well as between Havana and Washington, which have lived in relentless hostility since 1959 (Castro-led) revolution."

Szulc continued: "The Pope hopes to end this bitterness by helping to create a climate favorable for reconciliation between the two countries at the same time as he hopes to bring about a 'reconciliation of all the Cubans. Despite its noble ambitions, the Pope's peace-making has created a quandary for Washington. The administration, not incorrectly, perceives the voyage as legitimizing the Cuban leader, undermining its efforts to oust him. It cannot, however, publicly criticize the Pope --it would be a political catastrophe for the U.S.' world image."

BALTIMORE SUN: Most often, the severest critics are loyalists who remain within the church

In the Baltimore Sun two days ago, Colman McCarthy, a Washington, D.C.. academic (who the paper describes as teaching "courses on non-violence at four Washington-area schools"), entitled his commentary, "Why the Pope's Popularity Suffers." McCarthy began by writing: "Among the God-starved in Cuba, Pope John Paul II is likely to bask this week in days of large crowds and appreciative worshippers. Cuba's somewhat underground church, denied faith for 40 years, will become an above-ground church this week when papal masses and papal sermons push aside the state-enforced secularism."

But McCarthy is critical of what he suggests is the Pope's "authoritarianism." He wrote: "Few critics of John Paul are heretics or former Catholics who stomped out (of the church) in a rage. Most often, the severest critics are loyalists who remain within the church. In an essay on authority published last year in the New Theological Review. Bishop Matter Clark of Rochester, N.Y. asked: "Why can't we not openly dialogue about the ministry of women, the meaning of secularity and the condition of homosexuality, the situation of the divorced and remarried? The answer from John Paul and the Roman curia --the Vatican's civil-service regulators-- is that these issues have been settled, discussion closed."