In the living room of the cardinal Roger Etchegaray’s house in Rome a Cuban Christ’s Nativity is exposed since more than 20 years. The Christ’s  Nativity is a present Fidel Castro made to him during one of their meeting, between the end of 80s and the beginning of 90s. Roger Etchegaray first met the lìder màximo in 1989: the cardinal was still president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and went secretly to Cuba to strengthen the relationships between Cuba and the Holy See. Cuba was beginning to open up to world, but the world was still not open to Cuba.

Benedict XVI came to visit Cuba the last week, and many things of changed. Fidel is not governing any more, and the new lìder is his brother Raul.  Fidel Castro is now a more than 80 years old private citizen, and he is living the end of his life writing and thinking. Yet in 1989, Fidel Castro explained to Etchegaray that his «reference points» were The Capital by Karl Marx and the Gospel. It was not surprising. Just a few remember that Castro – a self proclaimed atheist – studied in a Jesuit school. Fidel Castro considers  his revoluciòn as a deeply religious fact – and maybe this view has been influenced by Frei Betto, a radical priest, Liberation theologian, who talked several times with Castro during the 80s. Now, Fidel Castro is a different man: he is not imprisoned by his myth anymore. Now he can be who he truly is: a man that is searching for the sense of life.

The meeting with Benedict XVI

March, 28th 2012. At around noon and a half, a white car parks in the front of the Holy See Nuntiature to Cuba. Fidel Castro went to visit the Pope, accompanied by his restricted convoy staff, his wife and his two sons. Right in time for the after lunch coffee – he and the Pope drank it during their private meeting. Castro is welcomed by cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State. Bertone and Castro already knew each other. Bertone went to Cuba in 2008, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the memorable visit to Cuba of John Paul II. And he came back to Rome with the Fidel’s invitation to the Pope in his pockets. Before, in 2006 Renato Raffaele Martino went to Cuba to present the Compendium for the Social Doctrine of the Church, met Fidel Castro and got from him an invitation for John Paul II. And even msgr. Angelo Becciu, Substitute (number 2) of the Vatican Secretary of State got invitation for the Pope when he was at his previous post of Papal nuncio to Cuba.

Some years have passed by before those invitations could become real. In the meantime, Fidel Castro fell sick, transferred all of his powers to his brother Raul, chose to retire. It is not time for rallies anymore, and Fidel makes his (few) political proclaims to his reflecciones published on the web-site Cuba Debate. For Fidel, it is time to think. On his bedside table, Fidel still has The Capital by Karl Marx and The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin. But – someone close to him confess – he often meditate the Gospel, that he knows since the Jesuits school’s time. «I could go to school, to Jesuit school – Castro once explained – because the priests did not have an income. They just got food and shelter and they lived in austerity. Austere, serious, ready to sacrifice and hardworking, Jesuits served for free, and this is how they cut the outcomes». More: «The spirit  of sacrifice and the austerity of Jesuits, their way of living, their work and their commitment made the school accessible for a very cheap price. All of those Jesuits were politically right-oriented.  Some of them were obviously generous and they express their solidarity to other people. Under certain aspects, they were irreprehensible». Yet, they «appreciated good attitudes, the correctness, the honesty, the courage, the skill to the sacrifice». But «I – Castro concluded – never really had a religious conviction or a religious faith. No-one was able to instill it to it. I instead have a political faith that makes me a trusted and optimist man». This anecdote tells how much Church is – and has always been – important in Cuba.

The Church is so important in Cuba that Raul Castro – that is driving Cuba through a difficult transition – had a 40 minutes private meeting with Benedict XVI and wanted to be with the Pope in every moment: he welcomed the Pope – and it was not previewed – also at the airport of La Habana.

When the Pope landed at Santiago de Cuba, Raul held a long speech – a sort of rally – speaking about the difficulties of Cuba, especially because of the bloqueo, the U.S. embargo to Cuba. In fact, there is a way out of the embargo: the importation from the United States (especially raw materials) goes from the U.S. to Cuba through military channels, and even the paper on which the newspaper of the regime Granma is printed comes from the United States.

Fidel Castro did not want that his meeting with the Pope could be charged with a political meaning. He is not the lìder màximo, now. He is spending is old age reading and studying. More than all, he is now looking for truth. And who is the best person to talk with, if not the Pope that always talks about truth?

Interview with the Pope

Fidel Castro arrives at the Nunciature after lunch, and after the Mass the Pope held in Plaza de la Revoluciòn. There, the Pope pronounced 20 times the word «truth» and 12 times the word «freedom», which are – the Pope explains – linked and indispensible the one with the other, and that are expression of an only reality that is realized in Christ, the only one that «show us the truth and give us genuine freedom The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom».

Here they are, having coffee together. On one side, Fidel, making questions. On the other side, Benedict XVI, giving answers. «What does a Pope do?», Fidel Castro asks. «He serves the universal Church», Benedict XVI replies. Castro thanked the Pope for the beatifications of Mother Theresa, benefactor of Cuba – he was very grateful to her – and John Paul II, the first Pope who visited Cuba.

If Fidel Castro is a man full of questions, Benedict XVI seems to have all the answers: his faith is feed with reason, the word becomes Word. And this Word is edgy like sword. «Cuba made some steps forward», Benedict XVI said during the Mass in the morning. But – he added then – this is not sufficient.

During the private meeting, Fidel Castro also asked about the current difficulties of humanity (recently, Fidel Castro became interested on the ecological quest, and the «Green Pope» – as Benedict XVI has been defined – seems to be the best interlocutor), and he underlined «the difficulties of Science to respond to the current questions of the humanity». These are the topical issues of the Benedict XVI’s magisterium. And so the Pope explains the problem of the absence of God and its consequences, and speaks about the relationship between faith and reason. Fidel Castro is curious. «His Holiness – he asks – would you send me some books to flesh out what you just said to be?» «I must think the proper books to send you», the Pope answers.

The past Fidel

Fidel Castro is now searching for something beyond reality. Yet, he is the one that more than any other tried to eradicate Christianity from his country. After the revoluciòn, religious activities and proselytism were limited, and – since 1961 – the ecclesiastical goods were confiscated without any compensation, and hundreds of foreigner member of the clergy were expelled from the island. In Cuba, there was State atheism until 1992. Then, the turning: the Cuban constitution of 1992 pledge religious freedom (art. 55). In fact, more than religious freedom, it is a sort of freedom of worship. Only after the John Paul II visit’s they who attend Masses are not considered suspicious, the Christmas day is considered a national holiday – and after Benedict XVI’s visits the Good Friday has become a national Holyday in Cuba – and some religious groups obtained the permission to import religious materials and to meet leader of their religion. This is also a sign of the diplomatic impact of the Catholic Church. For example, the John Paul II’s visit to Cuba opened to the concession to the Jewish community in Cuba to publicly celebrate their rights and to import religious material and kosher food for their Pesach (Easter).

The diplomatic impact of the Church in Cuba

But there is a long story about the diplomatic impact of Catholic Church in Cuban affairs. Christmas 1989: the wall of Berlin just fell down, and cardinal Roger Etchegaray, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is in Cuba. His mission? Bridging. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray – at the end of his mission, at the end of the New Year’s Mass – posed a crowd-pleasing question: «What message shall I take to the Pope?» «That he come! That he come! That he come!» thousands of voices roared in unison. «I hear your message – replied Etchegaray – I don’t know what he will say, but I am certain he will come». Etchegaray’s nine-day Cuban tour was capped by an intimate meeting with Castro during Christmas week, underscored an easing of tensions between church and state in the officially atheist country, where practicing Christians and Jews have been objects of government repression for almost 30 years.

Castro made no secret of his eagerness to welcome the pontiff, partly because a visit would burnish his fading international image and partly because he believed John Paul sees eye to eye with him on many of the world’s secular problems, such as disarmament and Third World debt and poverty.

Despite longstanding diplomatic relations between Havana and the Vatican, John Paul II was cautious, waiting for positive steps toward religious freedom by the Cuban government before committing himself. Castro’s steps toward detente with Catholics, Protestants and Jews in Cuba were mostly small but significant, wrote Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religion and history at Havana University who was then permitted to circulate the country’s only independent publication, a twice-monthly newsletter, La Religion en Cuba. But, however it  appeared, government tolerance of Lopez’s newsletter was relatively risk-free for the Castro regime. The copier-produced publication had a circulation of only 30 each issue and only 12 paid subscribers, all of them foreign journalists or embassies. Not all government steps toward better church-state relations have been such small ones, however. In a sharp turnabout from 1962, the government allowed in 1988 30 foreign priests to join the 210 native priests already working in Cuba. About 30 foreign nuns also arrived, and the Cuban leader was quoted as describing the nuns already working in Cuban hospitals and mental hospitals as «models for Communists».

Cuba’s relaxation of official restrictions on religion began with the unusual publication of a book-length series of interviews conducted with Castro in 1985 by Carlos Alberto Christo, a radical Brazilian priest who calls himself Father Betto.

El bloqueo, the Church and Papal Diplomacy

Cuba, 1996. Just some days before sending its foreign minister to Havana, the Vatican issued its first public attack on the principal U.S. law intended to isolate Cuba. The Helms-Burton act, which President Clinton signed in March after Cuba’s communist government shot down two U.S. civilian planes piloted by Cuban-Americans, allows Americans to sue foreign firms for using property seized from them after Cuba’s 1959 revolution. It also bans executives of suspect companies from entering the U.S.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray called some provisions of the Helms-Burton Act «legally questionable» and noted that Cuba’s Roman Catholic bishops have spoken out against the legislation and told that Helms-Burton not only has drawn criticism in Latin America but from «the Western allies of the United States».

In the mean time, John Paul II decided to be directly involved in the Cuban affairs. Active, but mostly secret, diplomacy: this was the John Paul II’s modus operandi, a sort of revival of the Ostpolitik of the last Eighties, when the Pope had a topical rule in the transition of the Eastern Countries from Communism to Democracy.  And so, John Paul II acted in the way he acted with Poland, his native country: he asked to preach his political message of reconciliation among «all the Cubans» living in Cuba and in foreign countries; at the same time, he began a dialogue with Castro; and then, he auspicated the establishment of a diplomatic and political dialogue between Washington and Havana to favor a pacific transition in the island, when the time would come; above all, the pontiff auspicated the end of the American embargo in Cuba.

This was the climate, when the first steps for the historic John Paul II’s visit to Cuba are taking place. This secret diplomatic process had been set by the same John Paul II at the beginning of Nineties and developed through a series of high level meetings between Holy See and Castro’s officials.  Soviet Union had been for thirty years the main supplier of economic aids to Cuba: its collapse brought to a fall of Cuban economy and of the Cuban standard way of living – albeit this was low even during the best years of the Communist era. In the midst of this scenario, the Pope tought that the time had come to make some more step forward.

So, the 12th of July 1994, Bernardin Gantin, then Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for the Central America, had a private meeting with Fidel Castro in the Holy See Nunciature in Cuba. Then, Castro spent two hours at the nunciature, chatting with Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Habana and created cardinal by John Paul II in the October 1994. – the first Cuban cardinal created after the revoluciòn and the second Cuban cardinal of all the times.

The creation of a cardinal was intended as a reconciliation gesture toward Cuba and toward Fidel Castro. And Castro responded by permitting to 2,500 Cuban faithful to fly to Rome and take part to Ortega’s consecration, while the Castro’s administration was represented by a upper-grade official that also took part to the official settlement in the Cathedral.

Back to Rome, cardinal Gantin reported to John Paul II about the improve of religious atmosphere in Cuba, and he also reported that Castro would more than properly welcome a Papal visit. «Changes toward the Church – Gantin said – are part of a wider change in Cuba, that is both social and economic change». And he added that «generally, the country urges big transformations, and these latter seem to have begum, albeit on a smaller scale». Gantin also affirmed that «the acceptation of the Church, with his features of serve of Truth an Peace, can already be a meaningful change of the Cuban government».

John Paul II diplomatic approach

John Paul II’s diplomatic approach to Cuba has always been, since the beginning, linked with the hierarchy of Cuban Church. Similarly, the American ecclesiastical hierarchy had always been in touch with Cuba bishops. In 1972, the Conference of American Bishops backed the 1969 request by Cuban bishops to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In 1985, American and Cuban bishops conference exchanged a visit. One of the main supporters of a new diplomatic tie between Cuba and U.S. and the most prominent personalities against the embargo was the cardinal Bernard Law, then archbishop of Boston. He visited Cuba in 1985, and then in 1989. Both in 1985 and in 1989, Law met Fidel Castro. Boston archdiocese, under Law’s administration, had its own aid-plans to Cuba, separated and different from the one of the other Catholic organization in the United States.

And then, the impact of the Etchegaray’s visits. After his first visit, the then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace explained to the Pontiff that Catholic Church would be able to play a political role in Cuba. One only condition: the credibility of the Church «could not ever be put in discussion». Etchegaray moves, the events the Holy See followed and attentively orchestrated, showed that the aim had been reach: the Church was credible in Cuba, and it could so play a role in a quiet transition of powers in Cuba.

September, the 8th 1993, the 11 Cuban bishops wrote the message El amor todo lo espera (Love endures all things), underlining that «Cuban problems must be solved with the cooperation of all the Cubans», and that the Cubans «wish a friendly and free dialogue in order to cordially express their point of view… following mercy, amnesty and reconciliation» This message was a turnabout on the Church’s approach to the regime, since it substantially proposed to Castro and to his opponents – included the political refugees in the U.S.A. –  the opening of a political dialogue for a pacific national reconciliation.

Cardinal Etchegaray met  Fidel Castro once again on December 1993, and he spoke with him about the message of Cuban bishops. Both Castro and Etchegaray underlined their backing to peace, reconciliation and to the end of U.S.A. embargo. It was probably after that visit that Castro changed his attitude toward Catholic Church. The lìder màximo seemed to accept the role of the Holy See as a credible partner for the dialogue about the future of Cuba. At the same time, the regime abated the restrictions to the Cuban Church. And then, it was John Paul II that broke into the Cuban political scene, speaking for the first time against U.S. trade embargo.

And then, in 1996, John Paul II received Fidel Castro in Rome, in the Vatican. The feeling among the Castro and Wojtyla seems evident, and it is favorited by some concession Castro makes to the Catholic Church. It is the right time for a Papal trip to Cuba.

John Paul II in Cuba

«Cuba needs to open herself to the world and the world needs to draw close to Cuba», John Paul II said in Havana, during his visit. All the diplomatic steps of the past had been fruitful, and for the Pope harvested the fruits of that dialogue. In Santa Clara, the Pope spoke about family, in Camaguey of young people, in Santiago de Cuba of the homeland, in Havana of the mission of the Church. He openly criticized socialist society in Santa Clara, depicting it as a society that shares families, reduces the freedom of expression and the spaces for the pastoral action. This way of reading was obviously contested in Latin America. «The Pope – Frei Betto wrote after the visit – lacked of the right keys to acknowledge the originality of the Cuban social experiment, that undoubtedly is now influencing the redemption now in act in Latin American. Karol Wojtyla looked at Cuban socialism through his Polish lenses, as if the island was a country of the Eastern Europe». John Paul II also visited the Sanctuary of San Lazaro in Havana, and there he talked about the Cuban health system, «an important conquer in the midst of the difficulties of the country». And in Plaza José Marti he spoke against the neo-liberal capitalism and about the embargo against Cuba.  A new way was open in Vatican-Cuba relations

Benedict XVI to Castro

And here is that Benedict XVI speaks to Fidel Castro about the absence of God. In the hands, a cup of coffee. In the front, a man that is thinking about the future of the world.

The absence of God is one of the main theme of Benedict XVI pontificate. He – during the Angelus of the first Sunday of Advent 2011– recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah, and he denounced: «It seems to reflect certain panoramas of the post-modern world: cities where life becomes anonymous and horizontal, where God seems absent and man the only master, as if he were the architect and director of all things: construction, work, the economy, transport, the branches of knowledge, technology, everything seems to depend on man alone. And in this world that appears almost perfect at times disturbing things happen, either in nature or in society, which is why we think that God has, as it were, withdrawn and has, so to speak, left us to ourselves». And the Pope concluded: «In fact, the true “master” of the world is not the human being but God. The Gospel says: “Watch therefore — for you do not know when the master of the house will coming, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning — lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (Mk 13:35-36)».

Maybe the Pope had in mind these words when he spoke to Fidel Castro about the absence of God. His commitment as Pontiff is to turn faithful, the Church, the World to God. It is an evangelical commitment, and it is in contrast with the sufferance of the world. This sufferance – according to Benedict XVI – comes directly from the eclipse of God. And this eclipse of God is brought on by the human being himself.

When you put the man in the middle, and put aside God, that the most harrowing things happen, where one can experiment the «abandon of God». In Poland, when he visited the concentration camp in Birkenau, Benedict XVI claimed: «Where was God in those days?  Why was he silent?  How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?». And the answer was always the same: «They wanted to kill God».

And now that Castro is so curious about spirituality; that Cuba is definitely opening even if a lot of steps are to be made; that everything is going to change; that in Cuba no one wants to kill God anymore; and that Cuba has been consecrated to the Virgen del Cobre; now what will be the future of Cuba?

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