On the flight from Rome to Mexico prior to his visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI stirred the hearts of many by declaring that Marxism had lost its relevance in the 21stcentury. The comment was seen as a preview to how he would comport himself in Cuba -- an anticipated and welcome contrast to the traditional international indulgence of the Castro dictatorship.
Alas, that was to be the most provocative thing he had to say over the entire trip. Instead, it is what he said next that appears to typify how the Church is approaching its mission in Cuba: that the Church was ready to help the island find new ways of moving forward without "traumas."
Apparently, "traumas" is Vatican-speak for the kind of upheavals seen elsewhere in the world of late, in which populations have risen up against oppressive and bankrupt dictatorships.
In other words, the Church has decided that its role in Cuba is not to be a change agent and it would shun any abrupt turn away from Castroism. It also means that the Church is placing its faith in the Castro regime (and its repressive apparatus) to manage a "soft landing" as Cuba supposedly transitions to wherever it is transitioning.
That is why the Pope's trip is a profound disappointment to many who were hoping for a stronger signal that the cries of the Cuban people were being heard for a better future over their dysfunctional and spiritless existence under the Castro regime.
Pope Benedict did pepper his public remarks in Cuba with words like "liberty," "prisoners," (although not "political prisoners") and reached out to "Cubans, wherever they may be" (more than one million in exile), but even the international press covering the visit seemed disappointed by his lack of powerful symbolism and rhetoric. The Pope "delivered a carefully worded, nuanced and balanced arrival address" and "kept his language lofty, his criticism vague and open to interpretation." Frankly, there is little in Cuba today that is "open to interpretation."
Indeed, the effort to avoid saying anything that would offend the Castro government was too conspicuous, as was the smothering regime choreography of the visit -- high-ranking officials always appearing near the Pontiff, media restrictions to control public perceptions, the arrests of dissidents. The Cuban people needed no translation on what was really going on: The regime was demonstrating that the Church did not exist as an alternative voice of authority, but that they and the Pope were compatible.
Neither was the visit enhanced by the fact that the Pope declined to meet with beleaguered Cuban dissidents (as Pope John Paul the Great had done 14 years earlier) because of a "busy schedule," yet found the time to reportedly add a last-minute meeting with cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (in Cuba for medical treatment), a man who has notoriously insulted Church leaders in Venezuela time after time.
In one encouraging note, however, a brave Cuban refused to go along with the regime's charade and began shouting during one of the Pope's addresses: "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" As he was being led away, he was punched by an official wearing a Red Cross vest. (Such is life in Cuba.) His fate remains unknown.
Cuba is, of course, hostile territory for the Church, which has been repressed -- at times violently -- for five decades. And it stands to reason there may be a bit of a whipped dog syndrome in the Church's reluctance to be bolder. But the Church is not without its own strengths -- a fact that terrifies the Castro regime, hence, the overexertion to try and co-opt it. But the bottom line is Pope Benedict declined the opportunity to meet the regime on equal terms, and the Cuban people are poorer off for it.
The irony is that the Vatican's choice of a passive and accommodating approach will only help to bring about the kind of turmoil it ostensibly seeks to avoid -- as the pent up frustrations of the Cuban people continue to be denied any viable outlet. It also diminishes the Church's own image as an honest broker in a future Cuban transition.
History will ultimately render the verdict on the Vatican’s choice, but the record shows that placing one’s faith in the hoped-for good will of a dictatorship never really does work out very well in the end.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.