Why Did Pope Francis Push for a U.S.-Cuba Thaw?
“How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?” That was Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s reply after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill advised him, in the aftermath of World War ii, to consider the Vatican’s perspective while laying out a plan for the future of Eastern Europe.
Stalin respected only brute force. The Vatican had none, so he dismissed it as irrelevant.
But today Stalin and the Soviet behemoth he led are long gone, while the papal system remains. And it was actually a pope—blending politics with religion—who sparked the revolution that eventually toppled the Berlin Wall, and brought down that Soviet system.
In the decades since the Berlin Wall crumbled, the Vatican has wielded its political power in other international disputes: In the early 1990s, it helped bust Yugoslavia apart along lines that benefited Germany’s Europe project. In 2007, it defused a potentially explosive conflict by persuading Iran to release 15 captured British sailors. The next year, it was instrumental in forcing the resignation of an Italian prime minister.
But last month, all these events were eclipsed by a bolder and starker display of papal political might: Restoring diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba after a 53-year deep freeze.
“Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me, and to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro,” President Barack Obama said Dec. 17, 2014. That appeal came in the form of letters the pope wrote to both leaders, which the Vatican followed up by hosting a secret meeting in Rome. But it was actually Francis’s predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict xvi, who in 2013 made the first high-level Vatican moves to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations. Francis carried on his work, and, after months of maneuvering behind the scenes, the historic deal was sealed.
“Francis is a master of blending the spiritual with the political,” wrote npr’s Rome-based senior Europe correspondent, Sylvia Poggioli. “[He] has embraced the bully pulpit of the papacy, emerging as a daring, independent broker on the global stage.”
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh said, “Francis is a genius at breaking through and building bridges across boundaries.”
But what kinds of deals is Francis brokering, and what kind of bridges is he building? Who do they benefit? Is there truth in the Vatican’s claim that the deal is “in the interest of the citizens of both countries”?
A Cure for Cubans?
Critics of American foreign policy in general and of the United States’ embargo of Cuba in particular have a tendency to romanticize Cuba’s ruling regime. That is a grave error. Under the Castros, the people of Cuba have suffered political terror and rampant human rights abuse. Fidel and Raúl have run the nation like a totalitarian police state, and they continue to model it after its former patron: the Soviet Union. Cubans are the only people in the Western hemisphere who haven’t been able to elect a leader in more than 55 years.
When Russia and Venezuela, the main sponsors of the Castro regime, started reeling in 2014 due to plummeting oil prices, it looked as if the corrupt Castro government might finally collapse. Such a collapse could have paved the way for democracy to prevail on the island. What the Castro brothers needed to survive was an economic lifeline from the United States.
That is exactly what the pope delivered. As a bonus, it bestowed international legitimacy upon their government.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Castro regime’s record knows that legitimizing and propping it up is not in the interest of the people of Cuba. The deal is predicated on hopes that the regime will reform, but it requires no change from it. And dictators voluntarily relinquish power about as often as they donate to charities.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said the normalization of relations “will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles.”
An Advance for Americans?
Under the Castro regime, Cuba has acted as one of the Western Hemisphere’s major sponsors of terrorism and drug trafficking. Legitimizing the regime is a boon to those who long for America’s demise. Giving into it emboldens U.S. enemies.
It is also significant that, as part of the deal, Cuba released Alan Gross, an American citizen wrongfully imprisoned for five years, and the U.S. released three Cuban spies. To America’s enemies, this deal sends a clear message: An excellent way to win policy concessions from Washington, and/or to rescue comrades captured by the U.S., is to take American citizens hostage and hold them as long as necessary.
Not only does this put America’s weakness on display to the world, it also potentially endangers Americans by putting a price on their heads, making them valuable targets for would-be captors.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “[T]he policy changes announced by President Obama will have far-reaching consequences for the American people. … There can be no doubt that the regime in Tehran is watching closely, and it will try to exploit President Obama’s naivety as the Iranian leaders pursue concessions from the U.S. in their quest to establish themselves as a nuclear power.”
Naivety or Calculation?
Much could be said about President Obama’s decision to bypass Congress and use yet another executive action. Much could be said about the perils of America appeasing yet another U.S.-loathing regime, and about the deal’s potential to prompt other enemies of the U.S. to take American hostages.
But more significant than any of these issues is the fact that the thaw was largely Pope Francis’s handiwork.
This has baffled many Cuban-American Catholics. Jose Sanchez-Gronlier, a 53-year-old lawyer who fled Cuba as a teenager after suffering persecution for his Catholic faith, said, “I don’t know what the pope was thinking. … I see a certain naivety in the pope.”
Was the pope’s role in this toxic deal due to naivety? If not, what motivated him to push for such an agreement?
Maybe he was motivated by a general desire to boost the profile and power of his office, and to revive the Vatican as a credible international authority. But perhaps it was part of something more specific.
Pope Francis has made clear that he wants to topple the global system of free market capitalism. “[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he wrote in Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), his November 2013 apostolic exhortation. “This opinion … expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”
Francis called free market global capitalism “a new tyranny,” and condemned it as “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”
Which nation is the mother ship of free-market global capitalism? The United States of America.
If Pope Francis is to be taken at his word, he could not possibly wish for the capitalist mother ship to thrive, prosper and continue inflicting its “tyranny” on the world. If he is sincere in saying the capitalist system is a force of destruction (and it would be difficult to question this pope’s sincerity), then he would feel not only justified, but obligated to use his influence to weaken it.
If diminishing U.S. power is among Francis’s goals, he may well discover that the current U.S. administration shares in it—to varying degrees on various policy points. Perhaps the pope has already made such a discovery.
The Vatican would also stand to benefit from increasing its influence specifically over Cuba. During the Cold War, opponents of the U.S. recognized the strategic value of this Island—just 90 miles from American soil. A Cuban foothold today would remain of immense geopolitical value.
It is also key that, despite the perils presented by the normalization deal, the majority of Americans support it. Is this because the deal came with the pope’s seal of approval? Francis’s popularity rating among Americans is at a stratospheric 78 percent, so his public endorsement couldn’t have hurt. This public enthusiasm might convince Congress not to fight the president’s executive action on the deal, or at least not to fight it arduously. Also, if Americans cultivate a favorable view of pope-president political collaboration, it could prime the nation to accept even more radical policy shifts in the future—if they are approved by the papal stamp. Francis is scheduled to visit the U.S. for the first time in September, after which such collaboration could become more commonplace.
Pope Francis directly commands no military divisions, but his power is formidable. Under him, the Vatican’s might and influence are rapidly growing. In the year ahead, watch for him to wield that power more boldly and more often.