A popular joke about the arrival of Pope John Paul II to Cuba referred to the wind blowing away his skullcap and its falling into the sea during a walk along the Malecon. Fidel Castro then walked on the water and rescued the silk cap. The next day, the newspaper Granma’s editorial declared that “ El Comandante is God,” while L’Osservatore Romano asserted that the pontiff was responsible for the miracle and the Miami press concluded, “Castro can’t even swim anymore.”
On Saturday Pope Francis came to the island and a playful wind snatched his skullcap from his head as he was descending the stairs of the plane. It was just nature, the Havana breeze making itself felt. However, this unexpected little thing could symbolize his visit to Cuba, a journey where the moments outside of protocol will define the success or failure of his stay in this country.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio has a busy schedule of activities programmed, but certain “surprises” have already obliged him to diverge from the official program. After the daring breeze that greeted his arrival, the pope had to listen to a combative welcoming discourse from Raul Castro, where he made it clear that there is no need “to intervene, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any other state.” In simpler language, “Mind your own business and shepherd your flock.”
Although the Cuban government has publicly praised Francis’s role as mediator during the secret talks between Washington and Havana, it also wants to make clear that the papal arbitration ends when he begins to ask for internal changes on the island. Equipped with the latest measures relaxing travel and trade with Cuba, just approved by US president Barack Obama, the Bishop of Rome could invite Raul Castro to put things in order in his own house.
In this diplomatic action, Francis should advocate for respect for freedom of the press, expression and association, an end to any vestiges of political imprisonment, and the restoration of citizenship rights to exiles. If he managed to push these changes, the Pope would score a historic mediation: one between the Cuban government and its own people.
The Cuban government wants to make clear that the papal arbitration ends when he begins to ask for internal changes in Cuba
Even the words almost whispered into the ear of the General President are within the protocol, part of the program. But the shouts of the four members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba arrested in the Plaza of the Revolution diverged from the program. Francis acted initially as pastor, putting his hand on the head of one of the regime opponents and seeming to listen for a few seconds, but then State Security dragged the dissident beyond the range of the cameras and, as of now, his whereabouts remain unknown.
Another event that has distorted the papal activities calendar is the arrest of the activist Martha Beatriz Roque on two consecutive days when she tried to honor an invitation to the Apostolic Nunciature to greet the pontiff. State Security appeared to have a parallel agenda for Francis and among its most important points is to block the Cuban opposition from any contact with him. Hence, they also did not allow the Ladies in White to reach the Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution.
On the other hand, a programmed part of his visit was the meeting with the former Cuban president. Unlike that popular joke starring Wojtyla, this time Fidel Castro did not jump vigorously over the wall of the Malecon, rather the Pope went to his house, where he was barely able to leave. The final photo of the meeting, taken by the dictator’s son himself, had certain airs of extreme unction, winds of finality. The Pope’s skullcap appeared firmly perched on his head, prepared for the political blizzard that awaits him.