Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba presented a unique challenge to the Communist dictatorship that continues to oppress the island. Though Raul Castro met with the Pope and did his best to associate the regime with the religious spectacle of the public Mass, there was no mistaking the Pontiff’s message. Calling for “authentic freedom,” he said spiritual freedom isn’t possible without political liberty.
Yet while Pope Benedict’s words will inspire the Cuban people to hope for something better in the future, Cuba remains one of the least free nations on the planet. Reportedly, the Communist authorities took no chances about the papal visit encouraging agitation for freedom by arresting known dissidents and blocking their cell phone transmissions. The question now is whether Western intellectuals and others who have been campaigning for more trade with Cuba and efforts to normalize relations with the Castro government will draw the right conclusions from these events.
Much of the recent discussion about Cuba in the United States has centered on the idea that American sanctions and continued attempts to isolate the island are counter-productive. It’s true that the Castro brothers and their minions have used the U.S. boycott to foster a sense of paranoia that has buttressed the Communists’ hold on power. But the idea that Cuban freedom can be won by American trade is a myth. In the best case scenario, the Communists might move toward a hybrid systems like China’s in which capitalism is encouraged while allowing the regime to maintain its vise-like grip on political power. The result might be more wealth but no freedom. That’s why the Pope’s clarion call for “authentic freedom” is so important.
Soviet mass-murderer Josef Stalin once mocked the power of the Papacy by asking how many divisions the Pope had. The answer was one that wouldn’t be properly understood in the Kremlin until a generation later when the courageous Pope John Paul II used his bully pulpit to advance the cause of liberty in Eastern Europe. But the Pope’s spiritual divisions didn’t topple the Berlin Wall by themselves. They needed the assistance of an American superpower whose leader wasn’t afraid to speak up for the cause of freedom.
But Pope Benedict can’t count on the assistance of a president like Ronald Reagan. In its three-plus years in office the Obama administration has been the least interested of any American government in a generation. Though U.S. officials asked the Vatican for assistance in securing the freedom of Alan Gross, an American who is unjustly incarcerated in Cuba, the Castro regime knows it need not fear a concerted push from Washington.
The Pope’s divisions in Cuba should not be underestimated but, like the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, they need active and vocal assistance from the United States. Were President Obama to prioritize Cuban freedom, the pressure on the weakened regime might make a difference. It’s time for this administration to put itself on the side of those actively working for the Cuban people, not businessmen looking to profit from cooperating with tyrants.