Back in October, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone penciled in his calendar what promised to be an important six-day trip to Cuba. That promise has suddenly multiplied, with the Catholic Church's No. 2 official set to arrive in Havana on Wednesday night, just a day after Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced the end to his 49 years in power. It is perfect timing for the Vatican, which is aiming to play a central role in the island nation's transition into what many hope will be a post-communist future.
Bertone, the Vatican's equivalent of a prime minister, will try to use the fortuitously scheduled visit to give a boost to local Catholic leaders and position the Church as a bridge for bringing political and economic freedom to Cuba. The initial priority is reinforcing Catholic religious life on the island. Says one Vatican diplomat who monitors the situation in Cuba: "Steps forward have been taken, but the situation remains difficult. There needs to be new churches built on the island... [and] complete religious freedom." Ultimately, though, Vatican leaders are aiming even higher. As the only institution besides the state with a significant presence in Cuban daily life, the Church is uniquely positioned to play the role of mediator when and if Castro's successors begin to open up society and reach out to dissidents.
Roman Catholicism has never ceased to be a presence on the island nation despite the official atheist doctrine of the Marxist regime. Churches were never shuttered and diplomatic relations with the Vatican never interrupted, even as Cuban authorities closed Catholic schools and silenced Catholic dissidents. John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998, which Castro used to demonstrate his supposed openness, is credited with renewing religious sentiment across the island. Havana officials say today that the country now counts 520 Catholic parish churches, two seminaries, 1,000 priests and 1,500 Catholic missionaries. Bertone, who was invited by both civil and church authorities, is arriving in part to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of John Paul II's momentous visit. But his choice to stay six days, and hold a series of public masses and private encounters, is a sign that Bertone has big ambitions for the trip. His official itinerary includes a meeting with Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, but Vatican sources say that a meeting with Raul Castro, the heir apparent to his older brother, is almost certain. Depending on his health, Fidel Castro may also meet with the Cardinal. The two dined together in Havana in Oct. 2005 when Bertone, then Archbishop of Genoa, was sent as an unofficial emissary from the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI.
In an interview Tuesday with the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire, Bertone recalled his lengthy dinner with the Jesuit-educated Fidel. "It was a very long conversation. We spoke of many things, of hunger and of poverty spread through the world, and the need of a greater solidarity among people and governments. We spoke of wars and progress." Bertone said that Castro spoke highly of Benedict. "'I like this Pope,' he told me, 'He is a good person. I have understood that immediately seeing his face, the face of an angel.'"
There have long been mutual advantages to a cordial relationship between Vatican and Cuban officials. For the most part, the Church has been able to attend to its flock and maintain its unique status in Cuban society. The regime has always appreciated the Vatican's denunciations of the American blockade as a human rights violation. There is also fundamental agreement in both Cuban and Catholic doctrine about caring for the weak and underprivileged. Still, the relationship has its limits amidst the government control of information and silencing of opposition movements, which have often included Catholic intellectuals and clergy. The island's leading dissident, Oswaldo Paya, is a devout Catholic and is often referred to as the Lech Walesa of Cuba. In December, Cuban security agents stormed a church in Santiago, beating and arresting a group of human rights activists who had gathered to protest the imprisonment of three other pro-democracy dissidents. It is unclear if Bertone will raise this subject, which officials in Havana have tried to explain away as a local police action gone awry.
Vatican diplomacy is indeed a delicate endeavor, and freedom is a double-edged sword. If the Church is granted the role of mediator in the phase-out of the command economy and state-controlled media, it would apparently have much to gain in securing the good will of Cubans. Still, liberalizing Cuban society could come with troubling side effects for the Catholic hierarchy. A free economic market could bring the kind of unbridled capitalism that both John Paul and Benedict have denounced in the West, while complete religious freedom would open the door in Cuba to the previously shut-out evangelical Protestant movements that have converted millions of Latin American Catholics over the past two decades. With reporting by Francesco Peloso/Rome