But for many Cubans—who tend to be more superstitious than religious—the expectations that grew out of John Paul II’s visit stemmed not from the pope’s ministry or the people’s religious vocation, but rather from the important role that the pontiff had played in Poland’s transition to democracy, a peaceful process to which millions of Cubans aspired. Hopeful Cubans overwhelmed city squares to greet the clergyman. They took as a good omen the famous phrase with which the bishop of Rome bid us farewell from the steps of his plane: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent possibilities, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
To date, only part of that blessing has been fulfilled: The world has opened itself up to a Cuba whose government refuses to open itself up to those it governs.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba in 2012 strengthened relations between the Church and the Castro government, while expanding and consolidating the Church’s presence in Cuban society. But it did not create openings for democracy or civil liberties, despite the flood of blessings, which—like his predecessor—Benedict poured equally over the wolves and the flock.
Prior to Benedict’s arrival, the Cuban government had freed political prisoners locked away as part of the 2003 judicial farce known as the Black Spring. But other Black Spring prisoners still languished behind bars, and the Castro regime chose Jaime Ortega, Havana’s cardinal, as the mediator in the release rather than involving leaders of Cuban civil society. Notably excluded from the talks were the Ladies in White, female relatives of jailed Black Spring dissidents who long campaigned for the liberation of their loved ones by attending Mass and then embarking on a ritual procession through the streets—protests that are routinely repressed through beatings and arrests, but that have aroused solidarity around the world for their defense of human rights.
Now another pope passes through Cuba, after serving as an intermediary in negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the United States that have produced a momentous development: the restoration of relations between the two countries, interrupted more than 50 years ago in the midst of the Cold War. Pope Francis speaks our language. He is from our region of the world.
And yet, many Cubans recognize that Francis’s visit will not make a difference in their daily lives and problems. The capital of hope awakened by John Paul II has drained away after almost two decades of no real improvements in the country’s socioeconomic and political situation, and in the spiral of poverty that stifles much of the population. Cubans today confront ever more entrenched poverty, an increasingly apathetic population, and a nation being emptied—particularly of its young people—by a growing and seemingly unstoppable emigration. Many people have discovered that the paradise they dream about is not in the infinity of the heavens, but a mere 90 miles across the sea from this hell of hardship that Cuba has become.