Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba on Saturday, where he will stay for four days before heading to the United States, is something of a victory lap. The first Latin American pope’s back channel diplomacy played a major role laying the groundwork for the recent resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries. That shift was highlighted on Friday by the U.S. government’s announcement that it is easing more travel and commercial restrictions on the island and it will also likely be discussed in Raul Castro’s first ever address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if Francis takes advantage of the goodwill he has built up in Cuba to push for further reform to the country’s authoritarian political system. The Cuban government said it planned to release more than 3,000 prisoners as a “humanitarian gesture” ahead of the visit, however it also recently detained more than 50 dissidents, most of them members of the group Ladies in White which is planning to protest during the visit.
The pope has disappointed opponents of the Castro’s regime by not planning to meet with any opposition figures during his visit to the island. He also has a close relationship with Cuba’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who dissidents accuse of not doing enough to stand up to the Castros. Ortega recently suggested to reporters that he isn’t aware of any political prisoners in Cuba, despite an abundance of well-documented cases. (In fairness, Ortega’s good working relationship with the Cuban government was a big factor in helping to facilitate the delicate negotiations with the U.S.)
Many expect Francis to use at least some of his seven scheduled public addresses in Cuba to speak out about the need for greater personal freedoms and reform in the country, though perhaps not as forcefully as John Paul II did in his historic visit to the island in 1998. A Vatican official told CBS that discerning listeners would be able to detect “veiled criticism” in Francis’s remarks.
The current pope has a longstanding interest in Cuba. Following the 1998 visit, then Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote a now hard to find book called Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. In it, he called for more dialogue between the church and the regime, the promotion of political pluralism on an island ruled by one party for half a century, and an end to Cuba’s international isolation.
The pope is due to hold a formal meeting with Raul Castro and a meeting with Fidel is likely as well. They may have more common ground than you’d think: While the pope is not a Marxist and rejects the Castro regime’s state-promoted atheism, he does share some of their antipathy to the dominance of global capitalism. And, as it happens, both Castro brothers were educated by Jesuits, Francis’s own order in the Catholic Church.
Francis’s church has opted to play the inside game with Cuba rather than pursue John Paul II-style moral confrontation. So far it has worked exceedingly well at winding down one vestige of the Cold War—the decades old tension with the United States. It remains to be seen if the approach can help to open up the country’s creaky authoritarian political system—another unfortunate 20th century holdover.