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What the Pope Left the Cubans

HAVANA, Mar 29 2012 (IPS) - What will the Pope’s visit bring Cuba? This is the question that tenaciously preceded Benedict XVI on his way to this perennially polemical critical island, which remained apparently intact by the time he ended his intense three-day visit on March 28.

Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega asked himself – and all others – this question before the homily of the pontiff at the mass celebrated in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion, but he left it unanswered, like a great mystery (a word, moreover, very dear to the Catholic religion).

Before the Pope’s trip to Cuba, it was pretty clear that three sectors of the Cuban social and political arena hoped to obtain from the presence of the Pope and his symbolic mission on the island something more or less concrete.

On the one hand, the local Catholic Church seeks to strengthen its social and pastoral presence, though it was granted greater latitude over the last two decades and especially the past few years. Again and again it has called for reconciliation and pardon among those born on the island, as was clear at both masses celebrated by the Pope. Without a doubt the wave stirred up by the Pope’s visit will bring sand to these shores.

Although in the homilies the Pope did not refer explicitly to subjects that would have greatly pleased Cuban authorities – the U.S. embargo and relations with other countries, for example – he did, in his farewell words, call for conciliation. But the mere fact of his visit to Cuba and declaring to be satisfied with his stay is a political triumph for the government of Raul Castro, who attended both masses celebrated by the Pope.

The various domestic opposition groups were also very interested in the Pope’s visit and managed to sow tensions on the island with various concrete actions, like occupying in various churches – one for 48 hours – against the wishes of the Cuban clergy, or presenting petitions to win the attention of the Pope. And while the government did ramp up the presence of the police, visibly (and doubtless invisibly), the real payoff for this sector was increased visibility, especially abroad, which was generated by the papal spotlight.

For the people of Cuba, and especially Cuba’s faithful, the presence of the Pope in Santiago de Cuba, in the village of El Cobre (home of the parish that holds the original image of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint) and in Havana, can also yield benefits. For Cuban Catholics, including the large numbers who travelled to the island to witness the historic event, satisfaction might (or may already have) come in a less material and immediate and far more spiritual manner.

If fourteen years ago Pope John Paul II, true to style, touched on current events in a society that was deeply affected by the fall of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, his successor, true to his style, kept to the theological and transcendent (while still talking continuously about concrete charity) rather than current conditions, at a time when the reality of certain economic and social changes are being felt in Cuba.

In the homily given in Havana, the Pope dedicated the core of his remarks to the twin themes of truth and freedom as understood both in Christian theology and in a way that affects all social conduct through their ethical expressions. Without condemning or exalting, focusing on his apostolic message with a tone of conciliation, the Pope insisted that the search for truth was an exercise of authentic freedom, a spiritual challenge that affects not only Catholics but all citizens – and not only Cubans, of course.

If Benedict XVI’s visit will have any benefit for the majority of the island’s population, I think it will be found in his ethical message, which can be applied by all regardless of whether or not they are religious.

Cuban society is suffering from a persistent problem that is growing increasingly alarming: a moral deterioration that has been generated by all of the material and spiritual crises that the people have suffered in recent years. With the palpable erosion of traditional and universal values, the loss of a sense of courtesy and respect, and the spiritual atrophy of Cuban society these days, the people should look at themselves in the mirror the Pope is holding up before them with his invocation of truth, regardless of whether one believes in gods or their representatives on earth, setting aside grudges or alliances, including those of a political nature, which are so present in Cuban life.

If this was the only gift left by the Pope for the Cuban people, it was well worth suffering through the tensions that seized much of the island for the days of the papal visit. In this context, there were no losers; rather there were many winners, which is precisely what this nation needs most to overcome the hatred, the loss of values, and the aggressiveness that affect it and may continue to do so in the future.


(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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