People gather near the White House in Washington July 25, 2021, at a protest calling for freedom in Cuba and urging U.S. President Joe Biden to do more to pressure the Cuban regime. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Pope Francis meeting Cuban leader ‘disappointing’

  • June 29, 2023

A Vatican meeting between Pope Francis and Cuban President and First Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel on June 20 drew a small protest at the Via della Conciliazione (Road of the Conciliation), the boulevard leading to St. Peter’s Square.

Demonstrators called for political prisoners to be set free and for human rights abuses to cease across the island-nation.

According to local media, the two leaders spoke about diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Cuba, the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, the situation in the country, the Cuban Church’s charitable activities and international issues.

The meeting between the Pope and Díaz-Canel came three weeks before the second anniversary of the 2021 Cuban protests where thousands of Cubans stormed the streets on July 11, 2021, shouting “Libertad” — a Spanish chant for freedom — and “Patria y Vida,” meaning “Homeland and Life.” They sought to rebel against the country’s dire economic conditions and the deep-seated authoritarianism of the ruling communist regime.

Ultimately, the government quelled the large-scale rebellion within a week by making hundreds of arrests and charging at least 710 Cubans with crimes, including sedition.

Cuban Catholics at home and living abroad have called upon Pope Francis repeatedly since that fateful week to deliver a strong statement of support for the people and a sharp rebuke of the Cuban government officials for their well-documented atrocities.

Considering the removal of Díaz-Canel was, and is, a prime objective of the protesters, the Pope hosting him at the Vatican is “disappointing” in the eyes of Cuban-born Catholic Dr. Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat.

“It pains me as a Catholic to see the Holy Father’s stand on Cuba,” said Gutiérrez-Boronat, who resides in Miami, Florida, where there is a large Cuban diaspora. “It pains me to see him warmly receive Cuba’s puppet president and sitting dictator. There are tough questions to be asked of a regime like this, such as the number of political prisoners they have, the repression of the Church and the participation in the genocide in Ukraine. None of that was asked.

“Cubans have suffered greatly (historically) under this communist occupation. We have had scores of young men die before the firing squad shouting ‘Viva Cristo Rey, Long live Christ the King’ before dying for their beliefs. I hope that the Holy Father changes his stance on Cuba and becomes a lot more critical of this regime. It is very disturbing to see this kind of meeting take place.”

Gutiérrez-Boronat, the coordinator of The Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, a coalition of 41 human rights organizations trying to end totalitarianism in Cuba, is engaged in a global full-court press. He is meeting lawmakers from around the world to mobilize support for the cause of Libertad. The day after the Pope met with Diaz-Canel, Gutiérrez-Boronat met with a number of Conservative MPs on Parliament Hill. He encouraged the opposition party to push for stronger Canadian awareness of the ongoing repression and enhanced assistance for the Cuban populace.

Conservative co-deputy leader Melissa Lantsman informed The Register in a statement that her party has “pledged our support for the Cuban people” and “we will continue to hold our own government to account to ensure that Canada’s role in the region aligns with our values.”

Stephanie Kusie, a Calgary Catholic MP, said it was clear from her meeting with Gutiérrez-Boronat that “the regime has only become stronger and gotten more ruthless in the implementation of their ideology.” Kusie said her party “thinks that Canada’s role has unfortunately been diminished and we should be taking a larger stand.”

A multi-lateral approach might need to be employed in Kusie’s estimation, considering emerging geopolitical developments. It was widely reported in recent days that the Chinese Communist Party is negotiating with Cuban leadership in Havana about establishing a joint military base on the island, located only 160 km from the United States. In May, media outlets conveyed that Cuban immigrants living in Russia have signed contracts to fight in Ukraine.

Specific legislative proposals to support the Cuban people could potentially be developed during the summer recess, which lasts until Sept. 18.

Gutiérrez-Boronat shared a document outlining some of his requests. He would like to see the July 11 uprising commemorated annually. He would like the Canadian government to support the Cuban people instead of monetarily fueling the regime. And he calls for Canada to join a chorus of voices speaking out against the European Union financing the Cuban government, specifically via the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement, which authorizes 80 development projects worth up to 155 million euros.

Other Cuban Catholics have been critical of Pope Francis. In 2022, The Catholic Register interviewed two Edmonton-based Cuban ex-pats, Eickerman Campos and Yanet Rodriguez Herrero, who took issue with Pope Francis speaking that July about his “human relationship with Raul Castro,” the former Cuban president and a military leader of the Cuban Revolution led by his late elder brother Fidel Castro.

The two have continually supported their brethren with protests from afar since 2021.

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