Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Benedict and Fidel, so very far apart

MGR News Analysis - Perhaps a Reconciliation in Havana

"It's obvious that Marxist ideology, as originally conceived, no longer addresses reality, and thus it's impossible to build a society upon it" -- Pope Benedict XVI, in route to Mexico and Cuba, Mar. 23, 2012

"Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn't even know where north or south is. If you don't eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you're lost in a forest, not knowing anything." -- Fidel Castro, quoted in My Life: A Spoken Autobiography, by Ignacio Ramonet (2009)

Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Santiago de Cuba and this afternoon he travels to the capital, where he's scheduled to meet with president Raúl Castro and government officials. But it's still uncertain whether Fidel Castro will receive Benedict before he departs the island tomorrow. The Pontiff has several times said that he hopes to speak with the most iconic revolutionary leader of the 20th century, but Havana has insisted on downplaying the possibility. Fidel is not in the best of health, and he holds no official position in the government other than that of elder statesman and brother of the current president, to whom he yielded power in 2006. Still, it's tantalizing to think about such an encounter between two men born but a year apart in the third decade of the last century. Their very different trails in life have carried them to points distant, and one wonders what they might talk about as their own mortality stares them in the face.

Fidel Casto, raised middle-class, educated in a Jesuit prep school and college far beyond the means of most Cubans, a lawyer by profession, has arguably accomplished more than many world leaders simply by surviving so long. He's outlasted the last 10 U.S. presidents, six of whom are dead. Barack Obama is # 11, and his 86 years notwithstanding, there's no good reason to believe that Fidel won't outlast him, too. Even if he doesn't, nothing will change in Havana that's not already changing of its own accord.

Castro rode into Havana in a jeep, dressed in army fatigues, the first week of January, 1959. A few days earlier the country's former president, Fulgencio Batista, who had proven himself adept at dealing with American presidents and Mafia bosses alike, was forced to beat a hasty retreat to the Dominican Republic and eventually on to Spain when those tenacious leftist rebels in the countryside just wouldn't give up. Batista took a lot of Cuba's material wealth with him when he flew out of Havana, right after an all night New Year's Eve bash where champagne was dispensed as if there were no tomorrow (there wasn't, for him). Batista never returned to the island. Fidel's never left.

A young, newly elected American president took a quick dislike to Fidel and determined to dislodge his next door neighbor by one means or another. In April 1961, just 90 days after he was sworn in, John F. Kennedy approved a long planned operation to overthrow Fidel's regime with a rag-tag band of CIA-tutored Cuban exiles, as well as a curious assortment of American operatives. The country's armed forces, trained and equipped by Eastern Bloc nations, crushed the invaders in just 72 hours. It was a complete military rout and a major political embarrassment for Kennedy. The Bay of Pigs adventure was the last effort by the United States to change Cuba's government by the use of overt military force.

But other forms of pressure against Fidel continued to arrive from all quarters. Kennedy imposed a near total economic embargo against the island on Feb. 7, 1962. Fifty years later it remains firmly entrenched, and so does Fidel Castro. More than a few have argued that the embargo is precisely what has kept the regime in power; a former prime minister of Spain wrote several years ago that Cuba's government would collapse within 90 days if the embargo was removed. In any case, Kennedy's efforts to eliminate his nemesis to the south came to an abrupt end on Nov. 22, 1963. And in yet another assassination theory book which will be published next month, a former CIA analyst who is now a professor at the University of Miami argues that Fidel Castro was well aware that Lee Harvey Oswald would kill Kennedy in Dallas on that last Friday before Thanksgiving. Such are the curious courses of history. Truth is stranger than fiction.

On Jan. 3, 1962, Pope John XXIII signed a decree excommunicating Fidel Castro from the Catholic Church. It was a common move in that era, when numerous Catholic-turned-communist firebrands around the world were officially kicked out of the club. But excommunication in Roman Catholic theology implies far more. It means that one's soul is eternally and irrevocably damned, unless and until one is reinstated to the good graces of Rome. Only the Pope himself may do that. The Vatican announced months ago that Benedict had no plans to raise the subject in Havana -- if and when he should meet Fidel -- but surely many Catholics will wonder, why not? The Pope is not just another head of state. He is the emissary of Christ, says the Church, and from that perspective an argument can be made that it is his spiritual obligation to at least broach the subject. One can only speculate how Fidel might respond to the notion of formal forgiveness after half a century.

It's against this backdrop that two men, one in his 85th year of life and the other in his 86th, may or may not shake hands in the next 24 hours. If they do, it will undoubtedly be the last time. A final chance, perhaps, to mend an old fence on the world stage. To be sure, a dogged, fierce determination to tough it out, to stay the course, was displayed for all the cameras to record when the Pope arrived on the island yesterday afternoon. In a welcoming speech punctuated at moments with craggy, embittered tones, president Raúl railed against "the greatest power on the face of the earth which has tried to rob the Cuban people of their liberty, but the people resisted." Whatever his thoughts may have been, Benedict listened to the harsh denunciation attentively, his face a warm and gentle mask. Befitting a pastor, a man who came in this last week before Palm Sunday not to condemn, but perhaps to offer forgiveness.

Note: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez returned once more to Havana over the weekend, to resume chemotherapy treatments. There's no indication that he will meet privately with the Pope, even though he professes to be a devout Catholic. One Church official said that if Chávez wants to see the Holy Father, he can do so tomorrow (Mar. 28) when Benedict celebrates a huge public Mass -- his last act before returning to Rome. Late this afternoon the ailing president said he didn't plan "to interfere" with the official agenda during the pontiff's brief stay in Cuba. Chávez will return to Caracas on Thursday. Hugo Chávez' condition in dispute after his latest cancer treatment in Cuba: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/03/hugo-chavez-condition-in-dispute-after.html.

Raúl Castro (L) in earlier days, with an old friend who has long passed from the world stage, Argentina-born Ernesto Che Guevara.

Fidel Castro greets Pope Benedict XVI: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/03/fidel-castro-greets-pope-benedict-xvi.html#more.
50th anniversary of U.S. embargo of Cuba - Feb. 7, 2012: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/02/us-embargo-of-cuba-is-50-years-old.html.
Cuba - A paradigm for how not to conduct foreign policy: http://mexicogulfreporter-supplement.blogspot.mx/.
Gingrich spews the same old Cold War rhetoric on Cuba: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/01/gingrich-spews-same-old-cold-war.html.
What does Che Guevara have to do with Mercedes-Benz?: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-does-che-guevara-have-to-do-with.html.
The Ugly American - and the Jesuits: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2011/10/ugly-american-and-jesuits.html.
Have a free drink at the Hemingway Bar in Washington, D.C.: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2011/11/hemingway-bar-opens-in-cuban-diplomatic.html.

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