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Castro's Cuba

January 29, 1998

Last week during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba, American journalists and Cuban citizens described the atmosphere in Havana as nothing short of miraculous. Over the span of five days the Pope spoke out against human-rights abuses and religious persecution, urged the Cuban government to release political prisoners, and condemned certain of Castro's social policies. But the Pope also blasted the thirty-seven-year-old economic embargo levied on Cuba by the United States, referring to it as "unjust" and partly responsible for Cuba's "material and moral poverty." It remains to be seen whether the Pope's impassioned pleas will have any impact on American foreign policy toward Cuba.

What has the U.S. embargo meant to Cuba? How have ordinary Cubans responded to it? Is Fidel Castro's grip on power likely to loosen anytime soon? What kind of man is the Pope? These are some of the questions that The Atlantic Monthly has taken up over the past decade.

In "Cuba's Entrepreneurial Socialism" (January, 1997), Joy Gordon argued that despite the U.S. embargo, Cuba's economy has survived and even prospered in some quarters, owing to the country's "introduction of new elements to its mixed economy." Gordon further reported that the Helms-Burton Bill issued in March, 1996, is "widely considered a violation of international law, alienating U.S. trading partners and allies." Gordon wrote that the U.S. economy may be losing billions of dollars to Cuba's new trading partners.

Following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1990, many in the United States predicted the imminent collapse of Fidel Castro. In "Succeeding Castro" (June, 1990), Katherine Ellison explained why Castro's removal from power is unlikely despite the striking evidence of material shortages in Cuba. Few Cubans blame Castro or are "willing to defy his control." Furthermore, "new trade agreements and capitalist endeavors are evidence Cuba is attempting to solve its own problems." U.S. efforts to destabilize Cuba through an economic embargo, Ellison wrote, have only resulted in bitterness toward the United States on the part of fervently nationalistic Cubans.

Pope John Paul II's influence on world politics is the subject of Robin Wright's "What Would the World Be Like Without Him?" (July, 1994). A native of Krakow, Poland, where he served as archbishop of the Catholic Church, Carol Wojtyla played an instrumental role as Pope in Polish Solidarity's fight against the communist government. Before breaking away from Soviet control in 1989, leaders of the anti-Soviet resistance in Lithuania, Wright reported, regarded the Pope and the Catholic Church as their "primary instrument of defiance." And in post Cold War Latvia the Pope took on the "inequalities and excesses of capitalism," and presented "a landmark address outlining his vision of an ideal society."

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