Why Did Pope Francis Push for a U.S.-Cuba Thaw?

The surprise restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba represents a major victory for the pope. Is it cause for celebration?

“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.

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.”

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 them. And dictators voluntarily relinquish their power about as often as they donate to charities.

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 the U.S.’s other enemies.

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.

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.

Pope Francis has made clear that he wants to topple the global system of free market capitalism. “Some 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. “[T]his 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 power 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.

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.

Full article: Why Did Pope Francis Push for a U.S.-Cuba Thaw? (The Trumpet)

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