The First Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to Cuba

On Saturday, September 19, at 15:52 (Cuban time; EST) Pope Francis’ airplane from Rome arrived at Havana’s airport. This post will cover the Pope’s flight to Cuba, the final hours of Cuba’s preparation and anticipation of his arrival; and his arrival.[1] Subsequent posts will cover each of the Pope’s other three days in Cuba and then each of his six days in the United States of America.

The Pope’s Flight to Cuba

At 04:15 (EST) the Pope’s plane left Rome with an entourage that included Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Vatican “Foreign Minister” Monsignor John Gallagher. From the plane the Pope issued many tweets. One of them said: “I ask you to join me in praying for my trip to Cuba and the United States.”

On the plane the Pope told journalists, “I love the Cuban people a great deal.” He also noted the need to extend a hand and open parish doors to immigrants.

Preparations in Havana

That morning U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement acknowledging, “The visit [next week] of His Holiness Pope Francis to the United Nations comes at a moment of challenge and hope. As the world struggles to cope with conflict, poverty and climate change, Pope Francis has been a leading voice for urgent action to protect people and our planet.” The Secretary General’s message also included the following words:

  • “I am deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to meet several times with His Holiness, who impressed me as a man of great humility and humanity. When we met last year at the Vatican in May, the Pope urged senior United Nations officials to ‘work together in promoting a true, worldwide ethical mobilization which, beyond all differences of religious or political convictions, will spread and put into practice a shared ideal of fraternity and solidarity, especially with regard to the poorest and those most excluded.’”
  • “Pope Francis has called on people everywhere to work towards realizing the new sustainable development goals ‘with generosity and courage.’ As I discussed with the Pope, this will require challenging all forms of injustice.”
  • “I fully concur with Pope Francis in his recent encyclical that climate change is a moral issue, in addition to its other dimensions, and one of the principal challenges facing humanity. His Holiness rightly cited the solid scientific consensus showing significant warming of the climate system, with most global warming in recent decades mainly a result of human activity.”
  • “Pope Francis and I wholeheartedly agree on the urgency for action, and the critical need to support the poorest and most vulnerable members of our human family from a crisis they did least to cause, but suffer from the most. Other faith groups have echoed this view, including most recently a gathering of eminent Islamic scholars and religious leaders.”
  • “Pope Francis’ message extends far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. On the first page of his recent encyclical, the Pope states that ‘faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.’”
  • “Pope Francis has demonstrated the value of religious leaders engaging on these pressing global issues. I count on him and other faith leaders to counteract the prevailing forces of division and hate with dialogue and understanding. Together, we can realize our vision of a peaceful world where all people live in safety and dignity.”
Frei Betto
Frei Betto

Later that morning Frei Betto–a Brazilian Roman Catholic priest and the author of “Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and Religion with Frei Betto” (1988)–held a press conference at Havana’s Hotel Nacional. He noted that “only two Latin American countries have had the privilege of receiving, in a relatively short period of time (17 years), the visit of the last three Popes: Brazil and Cuba.” While 70% of Brazilians are Roman Catholic, Cuba has religious syncretism. With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Frei said, the challenges point toward the need to change attitudes within the U.S. government. Francis is undertaking a revolution within the Catholic Church itself, which is why some see him as the leading statesman of our time and as a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, added Frei, Francis preaches in favor of peaceful coexistence in the world, reaching out to the poor and boosting high-impact programs to eradicate hunger, poverty and environmental degradation. The Cuban Revolution has taught evangelical values, which are the same as human moral values and are not “additional” for revolutionaries or for the religious.

Welcoming Francis at Havana’s Airport

Pope Francis & President Castro
Pope Francis & President Castro

The Pope was met at the airplane by Cuban President Raul Castro accompanied by the Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Cuban Archbishop Jamie Lucas Cardinal Ortega. In a lengthy speech that recited many of the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s claims against the U.S., President Castro said his meeting with the Pope at the Vatican gave them the opportunity to exchange ideas about important world issues. We have followed your statements about these issues with much interest. We want future generations to inherit human dignity from us. The weight of the crisis falls on the third world and minorities do not escape from it. Your Holiness, we have thanked you for your support during the talks between the United States and Cuba. Now the Pope’s meetings with the Cuban people will be very important.

Francis responded by thanking the Cuban people for their welcome and expressing his fraternal greetings to Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro. The Pope recalled that the 80th anniversary of Cuba and the Holy See’s uninterrupted relationship is being celebrated; that Popes John Paul II and Benedicto XVI had visited Cuba; and that this trip coincides with the centenary of the declaration of Cobre’s Our Lady of Charity as Cuba’s patron saint. Francis said that Cuba plays an extraordinary role in the meeting of the North and South, East and West. Its natural vocation is as a point of encounter. The process underway toward the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the U.S. is an example of the effectiveness of a culture of exchange and dialogue.

The Pope then left for the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana where he stayed the night. On the journey there an estimated 100,000 Cubans were on the streets to welcome him, as shown in the photographs below.

Motorcase

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Vatican Spokesman’s Press Conference

Federico Lombardi
Federico Lombardi

The Vatican spokesman, Monsignor Federico Lombardi, then held a press conference at Hotel Nacional. He said that peace was the key word for this visit, that the Pope was greatly moved by the Cuban people’s warm welcome and enthusiasm; that the Pope had highlighted the importance of 80 years of uninterrupted ties between Cuba and the Vatican; and that the Pope will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as a son and pilgrim.

Lombardi also emphasized that the Catholic Church and the current and previous Popes are opposed to the U.S. blockade. The process of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana constituted a sign of hope to change the history of relations between the two countries. Peace, reconciliation and the building of bridges: clear messages from Pope Francis regarding the significance of his current apostolic visit to Cuba and the United States.

According to Lombardi, the Pope’s speech at the airport and his subsequent speeches are directed toward Cuban men and women, including Cubans throughout the world no matter where they reside. Many of them remember the historic words of the first Pope to visit Cuba, now a Saint, (John Paul II): “May Cuba with all its glorious possibilities open up to the world, and may the world open up to Cuba.”

Conclusion

The incredible major sources for this and subsequent posts about the Cuban mission are Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, and the Vatican.

The online edition of Granma at 06:03 a.m. (Cuban time) commenced a minute-by-minute reporting (with photographs) of the Pope’s plane’s earlier departure from Rome and of the preparations in Cuba. It also mentioned the Cuban government’s establishment of a Twitter account: #ElPapaEnCuba. Another article in Granma focused on the actual airport arrival.

While the coverage of the Pope’s first day in Cuba by the Cuban media was focused on the details of what actually happened, the New York Times’ lead article chose to concentrate on what it saw as the Pope’s “new challenge” of trying to “open up Cuba to the Roman Catholic Church.” Its first quotation was from the Rev. Jorge Cela, who oversaw the Jesuit religious order in Cuba from 2010 to 2012, who said, “It is an occasion to ask for more openness. The relationship is not easy.” Its second identified source was Rev. José Conrado, a Cuban priest in the central city of Trinidad, who said, “We could do more. The church should not back off, even if doing so is difficult and problematic for the church itself.” The balance of the Times’ article talked about criticism of Cuban Archbishop Ortega and the need to find his successor when he retires.

The Washington Post’s lead article at least covered the welcoming speeches at the Havana airport in addition to discussing issues about the Roman Catholic’s role in Cuba and whether they would be the subjects of the Pope’s public comments or private discussions with President Castro.

 

International Reaction to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

The overwhelming international response to the December 17th announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation has been very positive, especially in Latin America. Future posts will examine the responses in Cuba and the U.S.

Latin American Reactions [1]

Virtually all Latin American countries had been increasingly frustrated with the 50 years of estrangement and hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. According to a historian of the region, Enrique Krauze, “Cuba has been the epicenter of anti-Americanism in modern Latin America” and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 “opened a new cycle of anti-Americanism.” 

Now, Krauze continues, the U.S. has renounced its “imperial destiny and recovers much of the moral legitimacy needed to uphold the democratic ideals that led to its foundation (and also of the countries of Latin America).”

The President of Brazil congratulated Raul Castro, Obama and Pope Francis. Similar comments were made by the leaders of Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Nicaragua.

Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, the regional forum where Cuba’s seat has been empty since 1962, said Obama’s decision removed a major irritant in Washington’s relations with Latin America. “This ends the attempt to isolate Cuba for so long. Cuba is undertaking a process of economic reforms that will, I hope, lead to political reforms.”.

These reactions were emphasized by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Roberta Jacobson, who said, ““Our previous Cuba policy was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,”  adding that it had caused friction even with countries friendly to Washington. She said that countries “with whom we have significant differences are going to be, let’s say, thrown off their stride by a move like this.”“It removes an excuse for blaming the United States for things,” she added.

The Wall Street Journal reported the day after the announcement of the detente that government officials, diplomats and scholars believe this change has “the potential to redraw political and economic alliances across the hemisphere,” especially with countries like Argentina, Ecuador and others. It will be most difficult for Venezuela, which has held “a long-held animosity toward El Imperio–the empire.”

But the President of Venezuela immediately called the detente a “victory for Fidel and the Cuban people” while also acknowledging President Obama’s “courage” in “perhaps the most important step of his presidency.”

On January 26th the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) [2] applauded the agreement’s making possible Cuba’s attending the Summit of the Americas in Panama this coming April.

European Reactions [3]

On the day after the historic announcement, the European Union released a statement hailing it as a “historic turning point.” It continued, “Today another Wall has started to fall. These moves represent a victory of dialogue over confrontation.”

The leading newspaper of Spain, El Pais, editorialized, “Today, when freedom seems to be calling for an end to the doors of Cuba, Spain must accompany Cubans in their new journey: supporting their political, economic and social modernization, with clarity, consistency and realism; aware of the limits of his diplomatic skills-but place value on the european-dimension and also aware that resetting relations with Cuba, the United States restored its relations with Latin America.”

Positive comments of the change came from leaders of Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

Other International Reactions [4]

Canada, we recall, hosted some of the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations that resulted in the December 17th announcement of the start of the process of their reconciliation. Afterwards Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, said, “”I agree with this policy. I don’t think previous U.S. policy has been effective. If you flood Cuba with American values, American people, and American investment, it will help transform the country.”

U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said at a press conference on December 17th, “I have been informed in advance by the US Government.  This news is very positive.  I’d like to thank President Barack Obama of the United States and President Raul Castro for taking this very important step towards normalizing relations.  As much of the membership of the United Nations has repeatedly emphasized through General Assembly resolutions during the last many, many years, it is time that Cuba and the United States normalize their bilateral relations.  In that regard, I heartily welcome today’s development.  I sincerely hope these measures, this announcement will help to expand further the exchanges between the two peoples who have been separated quite a long time.  The United Nations stands ready to help both countries to cultivate their good neighbourly relations.”

Conclusion

I would appreciate comments identifying other international reactions.

As was anticipated in the December 17th announcements by presidents Obama and Castro and as we already have seen, the path to lasting reconciliation is not easy for either country. There are many unresolved issues for the two countries over the last 50-plus years.

These words of congratulations from around the world will have to justified by the further negotiations of the two countries. If they fail to resolve these issues, the international reaction will be severe, and if other countries and international organizations believe the U.S. was primarily responsible for such failure, then there could be even worse anti-Americanism unleashed.

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[1] Rebussio, Maduro: It is a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people, El Pais (Dec. 17, 2014); Mezzi, Venezuela is left alone, El Pais (Dec. 17, 2014); Anderson, Mynaya & Vyas, Detente Scrambles Political Calculus in Latin America, W.S.J. (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, AP Analysis: U.S. Was at Odds With World Over Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18,2014); Romero & Neuman, Cuba Thaw Lets Rest of Latin America Warm to Washington, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, Latin America Cheers U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18,2014);  Krauze, End of Anti-Americanism?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 7, 2015); ECLAC applauds presence of Cuba in Summit of the Americas, Granma (Jan. 26, 2015)

[2] ECLAC was established by the U.N. in 1948 to contribute to the economic development of the region and to promote its social development. Its 44 members include 11 from Asia (Japan and Republic of Korea), Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and United Kingdom) and North America (Canada and U.S.) with historical, economic and cultural ties to the region. In addition, 13 non-independent Caribbean territories are associate members. 

[3] Rebussio, Maduro: It is a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people, El Pais (Dec. 17, 2014); Reuters, “Another Wall Falls:’ Europe Hails U.S.-Cuba Breakthrough, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Editorial, With Cuba, El Pais (Dec. 21, 2014).

[4] Goldberg, Canada’s Foreign Minister:U.S. Influence Will Make Cuba Better, Atlantic (Dec. 21, 2014), Reuters, U.N.‘s Ban Hails Obama for ‘Courageous’ Cuba Move, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014); U.N., Press Conference by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at United Nations Headquarters (Dec. 17, 2014).