Papal visit threatens Castro’s dictatorship

When Pope John Paul II steps off his airplane today, several young Cubans will lift a tray of their native soil to his lips. The symbolism of the pontiff’s kiss could not be stronger as he makes his first visit to Cuba. The man who helped end communism in Europe has brought his message to Fidel Castro’s island. And the graying dictator — 39 years after his revolution — might finally have met his match. For many Cubans, both those who have fled and those who remain, the pope’s visit represents the opening of a new era for religious freedom in Cuba.
Of course, Castro’s opponents have every reason to doubt the pope’s ability to spark change in Cuba. Since early hopes for Castro’s quick demise have faded, especially among those who fled to the United States in the years after the 1959 Communist Revolution, eight U.S. presidents have left office. Castro remains in power. But John Paul’s visit offers a real chance to undermine the dictator’s police state. The pope’s visit can serve as a reminder that in the Western Hemisphere, only Cuba has not found its way to democracy. And the trip can energize Cubans who, starved for personal freedom but still supporting Castro’s social reforms, will form the basis of a real civil society on the island.
John Paul has a record of encouraging such civic development. In his homeland of Poland, his works helped inspire the movements that ultimately toppled the Communist regime. Similar popular movements have followed the pope’s visits to oppressed nations in the Americas and Africa. At the very least, by opening up personal space for Cubans to decide spiritual matters for themselves, the pope’s visit will directly expand the personal freedoms of the island’s people.
Vatican officials stand poised with discerning eyes watching both the Cuban and American reactions to the papal visit. Americans will likely be chastised by the pope for their trade embargo, which is almost as old as Castro’s regime. The pope will undoubtedly call on U.S. President Bill Clinton to lift the trade ban on the grounds it hurts the innocent — and impoverished — Cuban people. The Clinton administration’s efforts to ease trade restrictions could be bolstered by the pope’s plea. Even Congressional Republicans could be moved by the staunchly anti-Communist pontiff. As a sign of support for the papal visit, the administration has given special permission for Catholic pilgrims — including top U.S. bishops — to travel to the island.
As for Castro, he will most likely be called upon to release political prisoners, allow Catholics to establish parochial schools and recognize greater freedoms of conscience. John Paul is fervent in his denouncements of both communism and capitalism as materialistic ideologies that infringe on human freedom. That message could be refreshing for Cubans, who have for too long been offered only two choices: the totalitarianism of Castro’s revolution or the cruelty of America’s free market.
Even if John Paul’s visit fails to spark outright revolution — which it probably won’t — it will have long-lasting effects. If Cubans are allowed to choose their own God, they can’t help but imagine what it might be like to choose their own government. That will be a greater challenge than any U.S. President has offered Castro since the Bay of Pigs.