Cuba and the Vatican


The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2008, Opinion

Pope Benedict XVI is in the midst of the first journey to America of his pontificate, and he met with President George W. Bush this week. Hopefully this visit will reinforce the need for a joint commitment to freedom in Cuba.

The Catholic Church has taken a hardline position against right-wing dictatorships. But in Cuba, the Church has been silent - or worse - ever since 1960, when Fidel Castro expelled hundreds of Catholic priests because they alerted their parishioners of the communist danger surfacing in government circles.

In one especially shameful episode in the 1980s, Ventura, Cipriano and Eugenio García Marín and their mother entered the nunciature in Havana to ask for political asylum. Two days later they saw several priests get out of a black limousine. They were special troops from Castro's political police who entered the Holy See's diplomatic mission with the authorization and complicity of the pope's diplomats in Havana. The three brothers were executed, and their mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Cardinal Tarsicio Bertone's visit to Cuba this February was a different kind of outrage. In statements by the Vatican secretary of state, published by L'Osservatore Romano shortly after the cardinal's visit, the cardinal is quoted saying, contrary to historical fact, that Cuba's Catholic Church is not a "persecuted Church." He also described Cuba's universities as "renowned centers of higher education." In reality, they are sophisticated factories of atheism and apostasy.

The cardinal also said: "As we all know, Cuba's crucial problems are due to the embargo imposed by the U.S. and the economic sanctions of the European Union which slow down its development." The Vatican's chief diplomat appears to have forgotten that for almost 50 years the "crucial problem" of Cuba has been the communist regime.

Cardinal Bertone stated that the Vatican wants to encourage a dialogue between Washington and Havana that could "turn the page" in the antagonistic relations between the two governments. He added that this dialogue was also "the expectation of Cuba's president," Raul Castro. He added that he "assured [Raul Castro] that the Holy See will work hard to obtain the elimination, or at least the amelioration of the sanctions."

By pressuring the U.S. to lift the embargo, Cardinal Bertone plays the sad role of an effective ambassador of Cuban communist diplomacy. He also subverts the appraisal of Cuba's real "crucial problems" when he denounces the external embargo, while remaining silent about a communist regime that muzzles and holds in misery 11 million souls.

After the cardinal's visit, Havana promptly announced a series of cosmetic "reforms," which include financial incentives for small farmers; permitting the sale of laptop computers and cellular phones; the eventual weakening of restrictions for Cubans to travel abroad; allowing Cubans to stay in hotels, most of which have been part of Fidel Castro's abominable "tourist apartheid"; and the signing of an international agreement on social and economic rights.

But these measures may be little more than tools to facilitate Havana's ad hoc ambassador's work in Washington. Furthermore, the regime could promptly rescind such measures, just as Fidel Castro discarded previous liberalizing reforms after hoodwinking naive foreigners.

The Vatican's diplomatic behavior helps prolong the agony of my sisters and brothers in Cuba, and creates a grave problem of conscience for loyal Cuban Catholics who expect better from the pope. It in no way diminishes their veneration to express respectful disappointment and even disagreement with the Vatican.

I pray that future developments will prove wrong the concerns of so many Cuban Catholics on the island and in exile. Both the pope and President Bush have immense responsibilities before God and the Cuban people. It is my most sincere hope that they will not forget Cubans' aspirations for freedom, peace and prosperity.

Mr. Valladares, chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, spent 22 years in Cuban political prisons and served as U.S. Representative before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva from 1987 to 1990