Some Clues to Possible Scenarios
A COMPASS FOR PILGRIMS TO CUBA PART IV
María López Vigil
John Paul II has made over 80 trips to other countries since becoming pope in 1978. The upcoming visit to Cuba (January) 21-25, 1998) could end up being just one more on the list, undoubtedly with more expectations and more coverage, but just another trip. Or it could have important, unpredictable consequences. No one knows.
* In the history of almost four decades of revolution, no other event will expose Cuba to so much international scrutiny for so many days. Pope Wojtyla's trips are accompanied by an ever more fine-tuned technology that converts them into a fabulous show— copyrights included— aimed at impressing the international television media that always cover the Pope's movements. Many of the media coming to Cuba are constructively curious, but others come with a mercenary nose for morbid news. The Cuban experience will be challenged by this media onslaught.
* The economic and political moment in which Cuba will receive John Paul II is particularly difficult and tense because of the malevolent and erroneous US policy, which has topped off its aggression of more than 30 years with the Helms-Burton law, the supreme expression of the right of might and contempt for international law. Despite its shortages, Cuba decided to receive the Pope, counting on its strengths. It doesn't want to be isolated. It calculates that it has the reserves to pass the test successfully.
* Many other moments of the revolution were more dramatic, of greater transcendence or risk, more decisive, but no other moment will have as many cameras focused on it as the Pope's visit. Sophisticated apparatuses will not only capture what actually happens, but will also have the ability to immediately edit any image to have the desired impact. When the Pope visited Ecuador in 1987, an indigenous person in Latacunga gave him a wool poncho. The neck of the poncho was very narrow and when the Pope tried to put it on, his head would not go through. John Paul II tried again and again. Seeing him in that fix, the indigenous multitude burst into innocent laughter, and kept on laughing. But the journalists who edited that moment of the visit erased all the laughs and "made" the poncho bigger. Television viewers around the world saw the crowd piously watching as the Pope put on the indigenous clothing with no problem. Technology today can do more than record reality...
* In all the more or less transcendental moments that Cuba has lived through up to now, the Cuban government always had total control of the situation. This time they will not have such control. For several days government officials, from Fidel to the last policeman, will accompany but not protagonize. The Pope's visits have their own dynamic. They're like a high speed train that can't slow down or try to brake, much less stop. The protocol, the symbolic and religious norms that dominate the scene in the trips of this unique head of state—who is both Archbishop of Rome and Universal Shepherd of the Catholics—cannot be subjected to the controls the Cuban state is historically accustomed to imposing.
* The greatest challenge is symbolic. It touches something symbolically very profound. The Pope will celebrate the closing outdoor mass in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. "We've been going to that plaza since we were little, and always for political or patriotic reasons. The revolution always made the call, we went to see Fidel, and the plaza always filled to listen to him. Now the Pope will be in that same plaza; he'll make the call, he will speak... What an upset! It's as if the Pope were to invite Fidel to speak from his balcony at the Vatican and St. Peter's Plaza were to fill up to listen to the Comandante!" I heard the premonition of this topsy-turvy event from more than one Cuban. It is the main challenge facing the revolution in this visit. Accepting it is a sign of maturity.
* The symbolism doesn't end there. The Cuban people have never seen Fidel Castro in second place when some world personality or leader visits Cuba. But papal protocol does not even allow Fidel to be next to the Pope in his masses, in his jaunts—if he takes any—in the Popemobile or in various other moments of the visit. The Catholic bishops will be with the Pope more than the Cuban authorities. For Cubans, who have not seen images of papal visits to other countries around the world, this protocol may also have a political reading; things are bad, Fidel has given in, he had no other choice, the Church has great power here...
* There is also another sensation in Cuba on the eve of the papal visit, the exact origin of which is difficult to define. Some dissidents, and some in the Catholic Church—who knows how many, or who exactly?—believe that the multitudes that will attend the four open air masses that the Pope will celebrate in Santa Clara, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Havana should be interpreted—by whom?—as "the first massive manifestations of opposition to the government." Certainly there are those who are working feverishly to see to it that the Pope's acclamations are heard, read and interpreted as "death" to Fidel. This information—which is real and not the fruit of imagination—could lead the government to restrict spaces or attempt to confront the visit's various challenges from defensive, dogmatically secular or obsoletely atheist positions. The cure would be worse than the disease.
* Like "practice sessions" to familiarize the population with the papal visit, the government authorized the Catholic Church to celebrate open air masses throughout the country. These sorts of masses have not been celebrated in Cuba for over 35 years. The Catholic hierarchy takes the image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre to these liturgies, which awakens religious passion among both Catholics and those who believe in Santería. In some places these concentrations were prohibited because of the mood of disorder and political confrontation some wanted to stir up. The slogan, "John Paul, friend, will never be defeated!" has been heard in some of these masses. In all of them, the altar was adorned with the Cuban flag and the yellow and white Vatican flag.
* For months Cuban groups in Miami have been discussing on their radios and in their newspapers whether the Pope's visit is an opportunity or not. A sizable sector thinks that the Pope should never have accepted Fidel Castro's invitation to visit Cuba; they criticize the Cuban bishops' "weakness" and are heading up campaigns to keep Cuban-US pilgrims from going to the island, on the grounds that this would only help the Cuban government pull in dollars. They are dead set against the visit and the visitors. Other groups have announced that they will travel as "pilgrims" in yachts and boats from Miami to the coasts of Havana "with or without visas," to provoke the government into an uncontrollable situation. The government has authorized the arrival of boats and planes with Cuban-US Catholics as long as they fulfill the necessary migration requirements. The archdiocese of Miami, where over a million Cubans live, has hired the cruise ship Majesty to take 1,000 pilgrims to Cuba for the papal visit. Responding to a request from the archdiocese, the US government announced in August that it would facilitate the paperwork to allow them to travel. It is logical to assume that some Cubans who will go from the United States will generate tensions once in Cuba. Planned confrontations? An open question still, but one thing is sure: the Cuban groups in the United States, whether they go to Cuba or not, are the most committed to creating problems there before, during and after the Pope's visit.
* Some Christian groups in the United States have made commemorative shirts for the Pope's visit to Cuba. The shirt is black and has a circle in the center with an image of Fidel and the Pope shaking hands during the interview at the Vatican in November 1996. Around the circle, in English and Spanish, the shirt says: "To be a Christian and not be a revolutionary is to live in mortal sin (Camilo Torres)." How many will go see the Pope in such attire? Surely very few.
* News, predictions, suspicions, fears and Cuban society's deeply rooted defensive attitudes all weigh heavily on revolutionaries preparing for the papal visit. To go or not to go: that is the question. The debate is taking place at workplaces and within the Communist Party. Will we go or not go to those huge masses? Some argue that many people are going to go anyway and if the masses are interpreted as "opposition" to the government, there's no point in going and increasing the numbers. Others, considering that same possibility, think that the best thing is to go and be there, to contain or neutralize any provocation.
* Some revolutionaries are mainly curious about the promised spectacle. "If Michael Jackson came I wouldn't miss the concert," I heard an army officer comment. "How can I miss the Pope's visit?" I also met many revolutionaries who are calm. Whatever the message in his masses, and however the crowds react to them, these people are relaxed. "The revolution would have to be in pretty bad shape if it feared the Pope," they say with a shrug. They think that all this "Popemania" might force the party and the popular organizations to work more closely with the people.
* What happened in Nicaragua in 1983 is unlikely to happen in Cuba in 1998. Among other things, "what comes out of Rome is what goes to Rome," as the saying goes. The Pope will say in Cuba what the bishops have already said to him. He will reflect information he has received, echoing the perceptions and demands of Cuba's Catholic Church. If bishops of any country emphasize certain issues, that's what the Pope talks about when he visits that country. Those who prepare the visit influence its content. What will have gone from the Cuban bishops to Rome during these preparatory months? And what has gone to Rome from the Nuncio? This is an unknown, but a constant in Cuban Catholic Church policy has been to reject all provocation that seeks violent social upheaval and to reject the US economic blockade policy against Cuba.
* Some months ago, the version making the rounds in the Cuban government was that the Pope would not attract all that many people and that if he spoke unfavorably of the revolution, the public would reject what they heard. The version today is that many people are expected and the Pope will probably give a non-confrontational message.
* In the November 1996 audience in the Vatican, the Pope's appreciation for Cuba's President, expressed with various atypical gestures, and the emotion that this produced in Fidel Castro, were obvious to any observer. Visibly moved, Fidel declared afterward that the meeting had been a miracle: "For me it's a miracle to have been able to greet the Pope, and the miracle is that an extraordinary man has met with a modest fighter, a modest politician." Fidel's praise of the Pope did not end there. "His personality, his goodness, his noble face and his way of being made an indelible impression on me," he said, adding that "when I was a boy, I never imagined that one day I would meet the Pope, and this has naturally affected me." When saying goodbye to the Vatican cardinals and bishops, Fidel said to them: "Perhaps we Cubans who are here [the delegation that traveled with him] will feel a little more assured of who we are when we leave."
* Jokes about the Pope's visit are floating around Cuba. A sample: "Do you know the three reasons why the Pope will visit Cuba? First, to see a country with 'camels' (slow, lumbering humpback buses 'Made in the Cuban Special Period'). Second, to see a people who are living 'a miracle.' And third, for a chance to have an interview with the Devil."
* What kind of bilateral dialogue, of personal meeting, will take place in Cuba between "the devil" Fidel Castro and Karol Wojtyla, two leaders with so many things in common: leadership, experience, both are elderly men, both aware that they have played stellar roles in world history, both experts in designing and maintaining government strategies?
* The Pope's trips are always a success when analyzed from the point of view of multitudes and image. Are they fluff successes? It's very hard to analyze the lasting impact on the consciences of those who go to see and hear the Pope. In the Cuban case both dimensions, that of superficial fluff and that of deep waves and currents, are important. The two dimensions are closely linked and both can have consequences.
* The most visceral critics of the Cuban regime hope the Pope's visit will be to give extreme unction to the moribund Cuban revolution, whose days they believe are numbered even though its death throes has unexpectedly stretched out over seven years. Those who defend the Cuban experience believe the Pope has before him a golden opportunity to baptize one of the most authentic processes of real socialism, of human and social transformation; one in which God was present, albeit without being named, in each effort to multiply the loaves and fishes to distribute them equitably and in each struggle to assure that no one would be left out.
* In his trips, the Pope does not so much confront the host government as seek to legitimize and strengthen the local Catholic Church. It is possible that he will do the same in Cuba. If he does emphasize the local Church, "the day after" will present a greater challenge than the actual days of the papal visit. It will be a challenge for the government, but an even greater one for the Cuban Church. Will the Church try to reinforce its demands or open spaces from which to dispute hegemony, supporting itself in the Pope's surely triumphal passage through Cuba? Or will it seek to deepen within the people, perhaps temporarily dazzled by the papal spectacle, the attitudes of solidarity and commitment to work and community that the Cuban crisis demands of all?
* In his homilies and speeches the Pope tends to use a generic and abstract spiritual language. This allows poor and rich alike to appropriate many of his messages; it allows victims and victimizers to dispute his words and defend opposing positions with them. His messages are very apt to be manipulated in opposite directions. In Cuba, such indefinite language may be the most convenient and most prudent, but may also be the one that best lends itself to mercenary manipulation. Cuba is the country about which information is the most strongly manipulated and distorted, and has been for many years. The US media information powers who specialize in this work will fine-tune it even more for the Pope's visit.
* John Paul II will come to Cuba in a key year in Cuban history. It is the 100th anniversary of the end of the Spanish empire in America, and 100 years since the first US imperial war in the world. In February 1898, the United States intervened in the war of independence that Cuba had already won against Spain, in order to appropriate the island, a proposition it has not yet renounced. Will the Pope make any reference to this centennial? Surely not. Will there be some criticism, even if subtle, even only implicit, of the Helms-Burton Law, which on top of trying to economically strangle a small country is also a well structured US pilot project to sound the depths of European and world resistance to its willingness to violate international rights to further its own strategic interests? The more explicit the Pope makes this reference, the more valuable will be his support of the Cuban people.
* The Pope's most beloved and constant theme in any country around the world is family unity, condemnation of divorce and abortion, and the exclusive use of natural birth control. Surely the Pope will address these issues. Cuban society is noted for sexual liberty; several generations have lived their sexuality without prejudice. Cuban women enjoy reproductive laws and rights like those of any First World developed society. The society has recently been concerned about teen pregnancies, the irresponsible use of abortion as a birth control method and the family crisis, which is complicated by the economic crisis. How will the Pope's doctrine mesh with this unique Third World society?
* The Cuban government and the Vatican-Cuban delegation in charge of preparing the Pope's visit have had various points of debate. Even though the fuel shortage is a central element of the Cuban crisis, the Church is asking the government to provide public transport so people can attend the papal masses. "As much as the country's material limitations allow, there will be transport," responded the government. The Church is also requesting access to mass media to inform the population of preparations for the visit and, naturally, to awaken interest and guarantee participation. That possibility was opened. "The spaces conceded do not satisfy the Church's expectations, but they are a help," said a Church spokesperson. For years the Cuban media have been characterized by informational voluntarism: there is more talk of what should be than of what is. There's a lack of debate and of plural voices. How will they act on this occasion? Will Cuban radio and television directly transmit the Pope's masses, in addition to the space conceded to the Church? And if they do, how will they do it? Will coverage of the visit be as broad as in other countries? National media treatment of the Pope is a major issue. Will a holiday be declared in the four cities the Pope will visit on the day he is in each one in order to facilitate the population's participation?
* In Cuban exile sectors it is considered that Fidel Castro "played with fire" by inviting the Pope, since his visit will strengthen the Catholic Church and result in a detonation that will inevitably oblige the government to provide greater political openings. This expectation also exists in diplomatic sectors. Spanish chancellor Abel Matutes declared that he hopes the papal visit "will contribute to promoting reforms in the regime." US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she sees the visit "as an important opportunity to carry the message about the importance of respecting human rights to the Cuban people." These declarations will build like an avalanche and will pressure the Cuban government and the Pope himself. The Pope's visit also benefits Cuban authorities and the project of overcoming the crisis which is overwhelming them. It's hard to imagine the government making any significant changes in the political system as a result of the visit or deciding to open spaces to the few internal dissident representatives. One thing has nothing to do with the other. What can be expected is the opening of some space for Churches in the media and more freedom to develop pastoral work.
* Everything is possible in the Pope's messages in Cuba. The compass points to all four corners of the earth. The part of the North that is sincerely worried about the impoverishment of the South hopes that John Paul II will clearly condemn the US policy of economic harassment against Cuba, which ignores the UN and international law. The South, especially the Latin American South, wants the Pope to recognize and value all the justice, the sovereignty, the opportunities for a dignified life that socialism has given to the Cuban people and all the heroism and efforts of that people to find their own path. The East, today dissolved, knows that Karol Wojtyla actively contributed to the end of socialism in Poland and in Europe and knows that the demands the Polish Pope will make in Cuba will be very influenced by the footprints of his personal success. The West, self-satisfied and victorious, which only loves the god of money, trusts that the Pope will push the "democratic" changes that those who trade with religion hope to see in that small and rebellious island. Anything is possible in the Pope's messages. The compass points in all directions.