July 15, 2010
One of the many dashed hopes contrasting the Obama campaign with the Obama administration has been that of a fresh and open approach by the United States government toward Cuba.
Two months after his inauguration, President Obama rescinded the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on sending dollars to their relatives there, and immediately got this response from Cuban President Raul Castro: "We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."
Such a disarmingly frank overture yielded exactly nothing. Things have remained just the way they've been for half a century, with Cuba strangling from an economic embargo that has only served to stiffen its ideological stance: a little Cold War going on long after the big Cold War had ended.
Last week, the Cuban government announced that 52 of its 167 political prisoners would be released, and on Tuesday the first six of them were reunited with their families and left for exile in Spain.
It was not the United States, stuck in its unbending demand for unilateral social and political change, that arranged the releases but the diplomatic efforts of Spain and, most significantly, of the Roman Catholic Church.
Last month, the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, paid an official visit to Cuba to celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations. While there, he and the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, along with Spain's foreign minister Miguel Moratinos, met with Cuban President Raul Castro to negotiate a prisoner release.
The effort was successful, partly as a gesture to the Church, which since Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 has experienced less repression and growing influence. Cardinal Ortega has not softened his criticism of the totalitarian state nor his calls for democratization and social justice, and yet he has simultaneously managed to convince the government to relax its restrictions on religious activities. It is entirely possible that Raul, unlike his brother Fidel, sees the Church not as an enemy but as a pragmatic ally, an institution whose diplomats can go where Cuba's own cannot, to improve relations with other governments including the U.S., and whose influence on the citizenry can facilitate gradual internal change by promoting stability and restraining the advocates of radical overthrow.
Ortega pulls no punches on the other side either, sharply criticizing the Obama administration's apparent abandonment of its promise of dialogue. In a recent interview in the Archdiocese of Havana's magazine, Palabra Nueva, he noted that on the campaign trail Obama had "indicated he would change the style and would seek to talk directly with Cuba. After taking office, however, the new U.S. president has repeated the old model of previous governments."
On both the macro and the micro levels, we see playing out the unique political position of the Catholic Church, at once a religious body and a secular state, a fusion formed over 1500 years ago to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Long a world power, in modern times the Vatican lost its armies and almost all of its land, but it continued to play a significant role in international affairs, both through a diplomatic corps in formal parity with other states' and through its social teachings born of that fusion, more pragmatically philosophical than religious. The instrumentality of John Paul II in bringing down the Soviet bloc is perhaps its most recent and potent example.
Unfortunately, much of the Church's political power has been undercut by the internal corruption of the sex-abuse scandals. In contrast to Cuba's, American Catholic bishops — once greatly respected and regularly called upon to testify before Congress on social issues — have now been rendered impotent, partly because of the scandals and partly because of an obsession with abortion that has put them at odds with otherwise valuable political allies and even with some of their own institutions, as the opposition of Catholic hospitals and women's religious orders to the bishops during the recent health-care debate has shown. With the exception of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and several of his colleagues on immigration reform, the American hierarchy's voice for justice is now largely mute.
That's why it was almost rehabilitative to hear of the political successes of the Church in Cuba. In some areas of the world at least, the Church as state can still play hardball.