Opening to Cuba

  • March 6, 2008

{mosimage}The announcement in mid-February by Fidel Castro that, at long last, he was relinquishing all claim to power in Cuba represents a watershed moment for international relations.

No one should expect momentous change to occur in the short-term. Indeed, the rulers of Cuba followed Castro’s resignation quickly with moves to solidify their control. Castro’s brother, Raul, formally became president of Cuba, though he had been de facto leader of the government since July 26, 2006, after his elder brother underwent surgery. Jose Ramon Machado, a 77-year-old leader of the revolution, was appointed to first vice-president, the number 2 spot. Four other stalwarts of the revolution were also appointed vice-presidents.

Raul Castro has shown himself in the past to be more of a pragmatist than Fidel. He has played a less prominent role in government, but has been a key figure nevertheless in ensuring the Communist regime’s longevity. And, on his first day as president, he promised that Fidel would continue to be consulted.

But with the departure of the revolutionary leader, the opportunity arises for his successors to quietly open the doors to change. In fact, when it comes to religious freedom, recent years have seen a thawing of the frosty relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government. For decades following his coming to power on Jan. 1, 1959, Castro had persecuted Catholics simply for attempting to keep their faith and worship alive. He worked to dismantle the church, expelling priests and nationalizing Catholic schools. Church activity was strictly limited to worship on church property and active Catholics were continually persecuted. But 10 years ago, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba heralded a new willingness by Fidel to allow more freedom of worship, though he still refused to countenance church-run schools or social projects.

The oppression of religion was, of course, only one facet of Fidel’s attempt to create a Communist paradise. What resulted, however, was an island that today is essentially a jail for its citizens, where opposition to the government is relentlessly rooted out, and the moribund economy relies most heavily on tourism from countries such as Canada and Great Britain.

Fidel’s retirement now opens the door to bringing Cuba into the global community of democracies. The most important factor in this regard is the United States government; its own restrictive policies against Cuba have been key in propping up Fidel’s regime by giving him a ready enemy to rally his people against. A thaw in Washington-Havana relations would be most opportune.

As for religious freedom, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has already signalled the Holy See’s desire to see Cuba expand religious freedom so that Cubans can enjoy the same freedom of worship that most democracies take for granted. Those countries that have maintained longstanding diplomatic ties with Cuba, Canada among them, should use this occasion to press the new president for reforms on all fronts.

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