There are aspects of American society that, from time to time, are just plain silly.
Take for instance the attention drawn recently to comments made by a baseball team manager about the dictator of Cuba. Why someone would ask a manager about international relations is beyond the pale in the first place, but why someone would ask this particular manager — known in baseball circles as something of a loose canon — is even more questionable, even though his team is in Miami, Fla., with its large Cuban population.
Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated said it best:
“Ozzie Guillen is a man who says what’s on his mind, except when he says what almost certainly isn’t on his mind, as when he expressed his admiration for Fidel Castro, whom he couldn’t possibly admire if he thought about it, which he didn’t, because he’s a man — like a lot of men — who says what’s on his mind even when there is nothing there.”
But here’s the thing. Those off-the-cuff comments garnered much more attention than some real and substantive events surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to Cuba, a visit that may well have lasting effects.
As everybody who grew up in the Cold War or who has read about the Cold War surely realizes, Cuba lies just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. It’s been something of a thorn in the side of American governments since January 1, 1959 — the day a tyrant named Fulgencio Batista fled the Castro-led Cuban revolution.
Within a year of taking power, the Castro government pledged its troth to communism, and what had been a poor and corrupt nation run by crooks became a poor and corrupt nation run by despots.
Fidel Castro clamped down on everything from social life to religious freedom. And the U.S. government clamped down on trade with Castro’s regime. As a result, the people of that nation have continued to suffer difficult economic times and the nation’s streets and roads are filled with 1950s era U.S. cars — the ones that happened to be in Cuba when the economic blockade began.
That blockade — both economic and political — has continued from the early 1960s to the present. But the purpose here isn’t to debate the policies or politics of our nation’s relationship with Cuba. (It should be noted, though, that the Vatican has repeatedly criticized the U.S. embargo as a measure that hasn’t harmed Cuba’s government but instead has had devastating effects on the Cubans themselves.)
The purpose is to call attention to something that seems to have helped the island nation and its people — papal visits.
In 1998, Blessed John Paul II made the first such visit to Cuba and following his request, the Castro government made Christmas a national holiday there and began easing restrictions on the practice of Catholicism and other religions.
The Vatican estimates that 60- to 70-percent of Cubans are Catholic, but it also says that only about 2.5 percent of Cuba’s population of 11 million can be considered practicing Catholics today. While that number seems small, it represents a significant increase since Blessed John Paul’s visit 14 years ago.
Pope Benedict XVI was in Cuba from March 26 to 28, and that visit has already born additional fruit. The Cuban government accepted the pope’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday this year, and there remains hope that the government will act — as it did with Christmas — and make Good Friday a permanent, national holiday.
Pope Benedict also had encouragement for Cuba’s people, and addressed the slow pace of change in that island nation.
“The church is always on the side of freedom,” he said in response to a reporter’s question during the trip. “God not only respects human freedom, he almost seems to require it.”
Yet the “path of collaboration and constructive dialogue” between the church and the regime “demands patience,” he said. And before he departed from Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport for his return to the Vatican, Pope Benedict reminded the people of Cuba — and the rest of the world — of the power of faith.
Wherever Jesus Christ is present, he said, “discouragement yields to hope, goodness dispels uncertainties and a powerful force opens up the horizon to beneficial and unexpected possibilities.”
That and similar comments during the pope’s visit were worthy of our attention. Diplomacy, political and economic pressure haven’t produced much cause for hope in Cuba. A growing faith, and the visits of popes, has.