A nun waves a Vatican flag while attending Mass with Pope John Paul II in Havana Jan. 25, 1998. During his five-day visit to Cuba, the pope called for a spiritual renewal among the Cuban people. CNS photo/Alyssa Banta

Move forward in Cuba

  • January 2, 2015

Following half a century of hostility, and guided by the intervention of Pope Francis, the United States and Cuba have agreed to try to become good neighbours. The detente announced between the two nations on Dec. 17 is welcomed news to end a year that witnessed too much hatred.

Pope Francis has spoken often of the need for dialogue and tolerance to replace the hostile and confrontational atmosphere that often permeates relationships between quarrelling nations. It is a testament to his stature as a statesmen that he could persuade these Cold War enemies to sit at the same table and, if not totally resolve their differences, at least find a way to civilly discuss them.

Their agreement to normalize relations does not automatically lift a U.S. embargo that has caused so much misery for Cubans. That can only happen by an act of Congress. But, clearly, if this new initiative is to have any meaning the embargo must be lifted as soon as possible.

The embargo was enacted for political reasons but it imposed enormous human and financial penalties on ordinary people. Already denied political freedom and human rights by Fidel Castro, many Cubans suffered the indignity of poverty after their island nation was economically isolated. The Vatican has often criticized the embargo. In a 2012 visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict said an evolution of Cuba into a free society was improbable amid “restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country.” He was right. The embargo must join the Berlin Wall in history’s dustbin.

Lifting the embargo will bring investment and jobs to Cuba and, over time, help ease the burden of poverty. That alone would mark this detente as a success for a Pope who has made service to the poor central to his papacy.

But integrating U.S. business into Cuba should also accelerate the advancement of human rights, democracy and religious freedom. That’s not guaranteed, of course, but it is an alluring prospect for a nation in which anyone born after 1959 has never been free.

The Cuban Church, in particular, has much to gain if Cuba is embraced instead of isolated. Cuba’s constitution guarantees religious freedom but in practice the state regulates religious activity. Fidel Castro’s post-revolution government jailed, exiled or killed scores of priests and nuns. As the state promoted atheism, it expropriated Church property, closed religious schools and tolerated workplace discrimination against practising Catholics. Despite this, more than half the nation still professes to be Catholic.

Cuban leaders may be thinking they can sweet talk Western investment and prosperity without advancing human and religious rights. If so, the West must prove them wrong. This new relationship must be a two-way street that achieves the economic, political and spiritual liberation of the oppressed Cuban people.

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