Local Cuba expert says embargo, rights of church likely to get attention during papal visit

Categories: Around the Diocese,Papal visit

Tourists take a "selfie" in front of an image of Pope Francis in Havana Sept. 18, the eve of his visit to Cuba.  (CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto, EPA)

Tourists take a “selfie” in front of an image of Pope Francis in Havana Sept. 18, the eve of his visit to Cuba. (CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto, EPA)

Gary Prevost, professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph and St. John’s University in Collegeville, has done writing and research on Cuba for 30 years. He has authored or co-authored three books on Cuba, including “United States-Cuban Relations — A Critical History.” He has visited the island of Cuba 15 times, most recently with students this past May. Pope Francis visits Cuba from Sept. 19 to 22.

Q: Why do you think Pope Francis chose to visit Cuba?

Prevost: The Cuban government extended an invitation for the pope to visit very shortly after his election. The previous two popes, Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, visited the island within the last 17 years. The Cuban government was eager to continue that relationship with the Vatican.

I think they were particularly keen because he is the first Latin American pope. The Cuban government is a long-time promoter of Latin American unity and the importance of Latin America in world affairs and wanted to have the privilege to host him. That was the view from the Cuban side. From the Vatican side, part of it is just the logistics. As an older man, a large trip like this provides the opportunity to combine two trips that the Vatican wanted to make.

But I also think there was a political reason, and that is we now are aware the Vatican played a role in the diplomatic thawing between the United States and Cuba, along with diplomats from Canada. I think this was something the Vatican wanted to have happen, to have a diplomatic thawing. It was a validation to include Cuba in this trip as a way of validating a positive development, so that he is able to speak positively when he is in Havana and then, when he is in Washington with President Obama, to make a positive statement of the fact that these two countries are now having the most serious diplomatic negotiations they’ve had in 50 years.

Q: What should we be watching for during the pope’s trip to Cuba?

Prevost: We will be watching for exactly what the pope will say about Cuba. We know that, because he is going to be in a Third World country, he will likely continue some of the main themes he established in his visit to Bolivia and Ecuador, where he stressed the importance of the Roman Catholic Church standing for social change, standing for the needs of the poor.

His broad thematic things will continue in that vein. And we will look for what he specifically says about Cuba, about the achievements that Cuba has made in the arena of health care and education, but also what he might say about the Cuban political system. It is a one party state. Will he make any comments to that effect? Political opponents in Cuba are hoping that he will speak on those issues, but he may or he may not.

In general, we expect that it will not be a confrontational visit. We expect that the pope will find himself in agreement with the Cuban government on a number of national issues and on the desire as stated by the previous two popes that the United States’ embargo against the island be ended. President Obama has called for it, but Congress has yet to act on that request and there is no indication that it will anytime soon. So it will be interesting to see what he will say about the U.S. embargo, especially what he will say about it in the U.S. when he addresses Congress.

Q: What impact do you think the pope will have in Cuba and on the Cuban Church?

Prevost: The Vatican will go there with a very specific agenda, some of which will be shared publicly and others will be carried out in private negotiations with the Cuban government about the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba. While it’s not a strong church there — the number of churchgoers is relatively small, maybe numbering only a few hundred thousand in a population of 11 million — it’s an active church in the sense that there has never been a direct imposition against Cubans’ religious freedom.

But the church as an institution has long been constrained. For example, there are no Catholic private schools and, until very recently, there was no training of priests on the island. Until very recently the church was not involved in charitable activities; yet, Mother Teresa’s order was welcomed there in the last few years. Before Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, the important Catholic holidays of Christmas and Good Friday were not official holidays. But following his visit, Christmas became an official national holiday, and following Pope Benedict’s visit, Good Friday became an official national holiday.

In general, there are quite serious limitations on the church’s abilities to do public processions. Some are allowed in some situations. They also don’t have any access to Catholic radio, Catholic television. These are all things we expect the pope may press for. Whether or not he gets concessions on those things, that is a very open question. I suspect there will be some expansion of the rights of the church coming out of this visit.