The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Havana. (Kimli / flickr)
When Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba next month, he will once again reinforce a strategy that the Vatican has allowed the local Catholic Church there to pursue for more than three decades: diligently avoid any political confrontation with the Castro regime, collaborate with Havana to combat the U.S.-led embargo, and support the Cuban government's incremental economic reforms. In exchange, the Church has been able to maintain a certain amount of autonomy on the island, allowing it to rebuild its presence and position for the possible post-Castro economic boom times to come.
It is a controversial balance. Cubans in the exile community vigorously criticize the Church because they think Church leadership on the island should challenge the dictatorship. But the Vatican takes the long view. Rather than overtly push for change, the Church has come to pursue a strategy of "reconciliation." It has inserted itself as mediator between the regime and its most daring opponents, both those imprisoned and those out in the streets. The Church is present and persistent, but it is nonpartisan. The attitude harkens back to the ostpolitik it practiced during the Cold War -- in most communist countries, especially in those where Catholics were a minority, clergy hunkered down, ministered to the faithful, and survived. Today, in countries ranging from Albania and Montenegro to Romania and Ukraine, Catholic communities are thriving.
The Church has a storied past on the island. Think back to Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998. The occasion marked a milestone -- it was the first time a pope ever set foot on the island -- but the underlying history was tragic: After taking power, Fidel Castro jailed, killed, or exiled 3,500 Catholic priests and nuns. His regime confiscated seminaries and nationalized all Catholic properties. The first Cuban cardinal, Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, took refuge in the Argentinian embassy. From 1959 to 1992, Cuba was officially an atheist state.