Photo: Vatican Media / AFP.

Cuba’s Diaz-Canel and Pope Francis: the Price of a Meeting

28 / junio / 2023

Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel arrived at the Vatican on June 20, 2023. The meeting was scheduled as part of a tour the leader would make to Italy, Serbia and France. Diaz-Canel held a meeting with Pope Francis and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. This is the third time a Cuban dictator has visited the Holy See. Fidel Castro stepped foot in the Vatican during Pope John Paul II’s papacy, and Raul Castro did the same during the current papacy.

Diaz-Canel’s meeting comes at a time of domestic turmoil on the island: a complex economic crisis, political authoritarianism reaching a new level and 1037 political prisoners in Cuban jails, according to sthe NGO Prisoners Defenders. The visit also took place at the time of a series of political negotiations between the Cuban Government and the Biden Administration. Unlike the mediation situation during Raul Castro’s presidency in Cuba and Barack Obama’s in the US, the situation in Cuba today is very different. Verifiable evidence proves the Vatican’s diplomacy hasn’t been able to calculate a series of factors we’ll address in this article.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is an illiberal subject, according to his socio-political profile, which is nothing out if the ordinary within Church thought (you just have to remember the Church’s wide-ranging differences with this political trend in the 19th and 20th centuries). However, at the same time, this sentiment is a double standard for the Argentinian Pope who displays a strange closeness to authoritarian figures such as Raul Castro and Viktor Orban. 

Impressions of the Visit

Diaz-Canel’s presence at the Holy See hasn’t been well-received by groups within the Catholic community, in Cuba or in the diaspora. Historically, dictators’ visits to the Vatican have gone hand-in-hand with pro-democratic changes within the regimes in power, in the middle and short-term. However, both the Cuban President’s tour, as well as the Pope’s statements last summer, have triggered great unease in different groups within the religious community. Religious freedom has suffered a wave of systematic violations in recent years, from sending lays to prison to the current police interrogations of religious people or the expulsion of the Society of Jesus’ regional Jesuit superior in Cuba.

Another reason for this unease stems from the slowness of the alleged negotiation process to release political prisoners. Messages from Cuba’s church hierarchy imply that mediation work is underway. On the other hand, the Vatican’s diplomacy is marked by caution when giving information about processes underway. But both prisoners, as well as their families, have been waiting months for a pardon as a result of the Pope’s mediation. The humanitarian situation of prisoners and their families is getting worse because of repression and repeated human rights violations in prisons. 

In the international community’s eyes, Diaz-Canel’s visit gives the Cuban political system a lot of validation, based on the use of the Pope as an expression of political normalization. Official propaganda uses this close relationship with the Pope to give an alleged sense of calm in the country, when the island is in the middle of a surge of crime, violence and police harassment against political dissent. Furthermore, evidence points out that political mediation with the US is around the corner. A few hours before the meeting, the Holy See publicized the presence of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is a man with close ties to the Biden Administration and is a practicing Catholic.

Unlike the negotiation process from 2008-2015, political dissent is widespread and has mobilized in Cuba. A stronger international civil society forces both the Church and other international actors to speak out if there are negotiations. The Catholic Church has a large, institutionalized base on the island. Repeating behavior used during Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s time, will raise many questions among the parish and some groups within the clergy.

Diaz-Canel’s visit will also be used by the Communist Party’s political regime to present a climate of legitimacy and acceptance, to reduce existing pressures on political figures who are being widely rejected by Cuban citizens (including the First Lady Liz Cuesta and the Head of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee, Caridad Diego Bello). Diego Bello has been targeted by NGO’s specializing in religious rights for her censorship and systematic human rights violations.

If only Miguel Diaz-Canel’s visit to the Vatican yields tangible results in the short-term, as the Holy See’s press release doesn’t provide any interesting facts about it. However, many inside sources have spoken about the Vatican’s efforts for the release of the political prisoners from the social uprising on July 11, 2021 (although this number has been on the rise after a climate of popular protests we’ve seen on the island in recent years). Personally though, I’m convinced that the Pope’s mediation is the most effective and feasible way to get the prisoners released.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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