Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Promise Keepers

Religion and the Post-Welfare State

Charitable Choice

McCaughey Babies

Islam In Virginia

Patriarch's Visit

Religion in a Cold Climate

Clinton Scandal

Whose Man in Havana?: John Paul's Visit to Cuba

by Anthony Burke Smith

In January, American journalists headed south to Cuba for what they expected to be the last great contest of the Cold War. And before Monica Lewinsky sent many of them packing back to Washington, one story after another resurrected the old Cold War narrative of the religious Free World versus atheistic Communism. Pope John Paul II’s trip was a "battle for Cuba’s soul," Newsweek declared. Time headlined its story, "A Clash Of Faiths."

Here was the freedom-loving Polish pope, slayer of the communist dragon in his homeland, ready to do battle once again with the forces of Marxist oppression. This time, the fight involved staring down Fidel Castro, the Jesuit-educated Catholic schoolboy who exchanged faith in God for faith in modern revolution. It was "an encounter between two titans of the late twentieth century," wrote Serge F. Kovaleski in the Washington Post. In a January 14 editorial, the Post said the trip was "shaping up as a classic end-of-era confrontation." The editorial’s headline: "Our Man in Havana." Yet the trip failed to conform to this neat formulation. The pope, as it turned out, did not traverse Cuba as a champion of Western liberal democracy but instead enacted his own trademark "theo-drama," one that is often quite critical of the United States. Nowhere was the pope’s distinctive agenda more evident than in his call for the end of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. This appears to have had the largest impact of anything that happened during the entire pilgrimage, but its significance was missed as a result of the prevailing story line. The story line meant seeing everything through the lens of Cold War politics. On a pilgrimage eve edition of Nightline, Ted Koppel warned viewers not to believe the Vatican and the Cuban government when they said the pope’s trip would not be political. "Everything you’ll be seeing over these next few days is about tension, tension between those who left and those who stayed, those who revere Castro and those who revile him. Tension and division." And that’s how the story played through the following week.

Coverage of the early days of the trip found little to report in the pope’s condemnations of abortion and appeals for personal morality, focusing instead on his criticism of the state-controlled education system, his call for the release of political prisoners, and his urging of Cubans to reclaim their own history. Pontifical masses were read like tea leaves for signs of struggle over Cuba’s future. This led to some wildly over-dramatized reporting as Christiane Amanpour of CNN wondered after the pope’s first day in Santa Clara whether "this could spin out of Castro’s control." USA Today, by contrast, suggested that the "early returns were good for Castro’s vision of a secular Cuba in which Catholics would remain under his thumb." The final "climactic" mass in the symbolically rich Plaza of the Revolution in Havana-where a wire sculpture of Che Guevara competed with a mural of Jesus Christ put up for the papal mass-gave reporters a great opportunity to play the Cold War theme. With Castro in attendance, the coverage stressed how John Paul’s call for freedom of conscience and human rights elicited chants of approval from the crowd.

After the trip, analysis centered on determining who had won the battle between freedom and Communist oppression. Many commentators agreed that "the genie was out of the bottle," and that Cuba could never return to its pre-papal visit days without running great risks. John Paul’s support for political dissent and the release of political prisoners, and his encouragement of Cubans to take the future of their nation into their own hands, had created, so the analysis went, a free space for the further development of civil society in Cuba. More nuanced assessments pointed to significant differences between Poland in 1979 and Cuba today, noting the small percentage of practicing Cuban Catholics, the marginalization of the Church in Cuban society, the competition with popular religions such as Santeria, and the status of Castro himself as a homegrown revolutionary. But while helping to fill in the details, this analysis did not fundamentally challenge the dominant picture of the trip as a clash of aging Cold Warriors.

John Paul’s call for an end to the American embargo of Cuba, however, didn’t fit the picture. In subtle and not-so-subtle terms throughout the trip, the pope asserted his opposition to the embargo, suggesting that he aimed to challenge American policy as well as Castro’s regime. Events after the trip indicate that the pope in fact provided cover for both the Cuban and U.S. governments to move towards improving relations. Castro’s release of several hundred prisoners in February, President Clinton’s easing of curbs on aid and travel to Cuba in late March, and a growing sentiment in Congress for allowing unrestricted food and medicine to the island, suggest that the pope’s call "to change, to change" was having some effect. Not all journalists, however, missed the boat. Syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., who once covered the Vatican for the New York Times, wrote of John Paul’s "papal paradox"-his simultaneous embrace of human rights and skepticism towards the modern world. Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service also recognized how the pope’s Catholicism subverted the stark dualism of Cold War confrontation: "For all of their differences, these two men must understand each other culturally. Castro is recognizable to the pope in ways that say, Bill Clinton-a Protestant, individualist and a capitalist-is not."

In fact, signs of "papal paradox" were evident throughout the trip. While the pope’s first two masses seemed unremarkable in their focus on personal morality, family life, and abortion, they were also part of John Paul’s distinctive cultural crusade to combine these longstanding Catholic concerns with modern human rights. And as if to confirm Rodriguez’s insight, in a little reported event during the Plaza of the Revolution mass John Paul explained that he concluded his homily in Latin because "Cuba is part of the Latin tradition. Cuba is part of Latin America. Latin language."

Likewise, the pope’s call for ending the embargo, repeated in his departing comments at the Havana airport, was not (as some commentators suggested) a concession, the price of his admission to Cuba. Rather, in line with the Catholic social justice tradition, the pope condemned the embargo as a threat to the full flourishing of human dignity in Cuba-similar to Castro’s repressive government.

The failure of coverage to recognize what John Paul II was up to in Cuba is not unconnected to longstanding difficulties of approaching Roman Catholicism through the familiar terms of American public discourse. Whether "swing voters" in elections, or cultural conservatives who act like political liberals, Catholics often elude traditional categories of left and right in analysis of American politics and press coverage. For just as the pope pursued a Catholic human rights agenda in Cuba that identified the Church’s traditional religious authority with a renewal of civil society, many American Catholic proponents of a "seamless garment" have advocated a pro-life politics that cuts across both liberal and conservative persuasions in the United States. Indeed, as much as Catholics have become mainstream in American society, Catholicism as a religious tradition remains a difficult subject for the media to adequately interpret.

Ironically, however, John Paul’s Cuban agenda turned out to be more attuned to American political realities than the media construct that drove coverage of the trip. For across the ideological spectrum Americans appeared ready, even eager, to cast off a Cold War mentality and follow the pope’s lead on the embargo. After the trip was over, the consensus of opinion in editorials and commentaries ranging from The Nation to William F. Buckley, Jr. was that American policy towards Havana needed to be reevaluated. The widespread American support for John Paul’s critique of the embargo indicated that the nation was more prepared than anyone realized to explore new possibilities with Cuba. Coverage to the contrary, his pilgrimage was not the culmination of an anti-Communist crusade but an effort to shape the new, still emerging, post-Cold War era in the Americas.