The Two Faces of the American Journey

In Cuba, homage to the Castro brothers, silence over the victims of the regime, the refusal to meet with dissidents. In the United States, the exaltation of freedom against the “forms of modern tyranny.” The anguished cry of a Cuban exile

by Sandro Magister


ROME, October 1, 2015 - Days later and with the emotional residue swept away, the journey of Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States is unveiling its real connotations. Which are political and ecclesial at once.

As a politician, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has shown himself to be capable, pragmatic, implacable at times. He presents himself to the world as the advocate of the poor, of the oppressed, of the “discarded,” and says it with actions even more than with words. He goes to the Caritas soup kitchen, meets with the homeless, visits a school for the disadvantaged, mingles with immigrants and illegals, enters a prison.

Eight of these direct contacts were on the official program of the journey, and he added even more on his own.

But mind, all of them strictly in the United States. Not even one in Cuba.

Not a word there for the thousands of Cubans swallowed up by the sea while fleeing from tyranny. No call for the release of political prisoners. No caress for their mothers, wives, sisters, arrested by the dozens so that they couldn’t even go to the pope’s Mass.

Pressed by journalists on the plane heading for Washington, Francis said no, no meeting with dissidents was planned, and he kept to the program.

And yet this was not something unthinkable from the start. A few weeks earlier, the Cuban regime had allowed American secretary of state John Kerry, visiting Cuba to reopen the embassy, to meet with roughly thirty dissidents.

One of these, the most authoritative, a Catholic, nevertheless had to hide behind the cloak of anonymity in order to write his aggrieved commentary on the pope’s visit, for the missionary agency “Asia News.” In 1998, when John Paul II went to Cuba, he had even been able to take the offerings up to the altar during the Mass in the Plaza de la Revolución, while the square resounded with rhythmic chants of “Libertad!,” a word the pope used 13 times in his homily.

This time, nothing of the kind. The Castrist police catalogued and screened everyone coming to Mass with Francis, in Havana and the other cities, and peppered the crowds with informants.

In the nine discourses he gave in Cuba, Bergoglio used the word “freedom” only once, requesting it for the Church on the island together with “all the means necessary.” He paid repeated public homage to the Castro brothers and gave a friendly and admiring account of his private conversation with Fidel.

To general astonishment, he dedicated his clearest and most direct political comments not to Cuba but to Colombia: to the secret negotiations between the Bogotà government and the leaders of the Colombian guerrillas that were underway during those same days in Havana, with Raúl Castro as host and mediator.

And the good news, that of the agreement reached after seventy years of massacres and half a million victims, came when the pope was in the United States, on the eve of his speech to the United Nations. An agreement that was immediately credited by all to him, to Francis, and to the “decisive” move of that unexpected appeal raised from Havana.

The calculated silence on freedom in Cuba was counterbalanced by the expansive praise that Bergoglio dedicated to this in the United States.

The true key political discourse of this journey to the Americas, in fact, was not the one he gave to Congress, nor the one from the tribunal of the UN, both of these tailor-made to be welcomed by all and not antagonize anyone, but the one in Philadelphia, in the place, he said, where “the Declaration of Independence stated that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

Which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and therefore, he added, “our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power” and of all those “forms of modern tyranny [that] seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square.”

What a shame that in Cuba these words of his were kept in the dark.


This commentary was published in "L'Espresso" no. 40 of 2015, on newsstands as of October 2, on the opinion page entitled "Settimo cielo" entrusted to Sandro Magister.