Who am I to tell the pope how to be, well ... the pope? But after President Raul Castro of Cuba, an observant communist for most of his life, said he was so impressed with Francis that he was considering returning to the Catholic Church,
I would have liked for the pope to first have handed him a list of political prisoners, adding, “Free these people, and then we’ll talk.” If Francis said anything like that, it was in private. To borrow Marco Rubio’s very good line about Raul’s possible conversion, we await “a pretty long confessional.”
As it is, Castro remains the ruler of a country that has a miserable record on human rights. Things have gotten a bit better in the last several years, but people can still be arrested on a whim, jailed for as long as the government likes, frequently beaten and, when released, lose their jobs. The Communist Party is still the country’s only political party and Castro, as luck would have it, runs both it and the army. He’s a regular multitasker.
I guess because Francis has been such a refreshing pope, I hold him to a higher standard than I do others — usually on the left — who give Raul and his older brother Fidel a pass.
Too often the Castro regime’s brutality has been overlooked just because Fidel chatted it up with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and kept the same hours as Hugh Hefner. In the eyes of too many people, it is virtue enough to be the enemy of the United States. For that, all sins are not just forgiven, they are not even noted.
Typical of the sort of person I have in mind is Francois Hollande, president of France for some odd reason. He visited Havana earlier this month and actually met with Fidel Castro, who at the age of 88 has been more or less in seclusion.
Hollande apparently could hardly contain himself. “I had before me a man who made history,” he exulted afterward. And some history it has been. Castro imposed a communist dictatorship on the island and ruined his nation’s economy.
Yes, yes, the American economic and diplomatic embargoes surely helped. Still, other nations were willing to do business with Cuba, but there has been little business to do. Cuba still has only rudimentary stirrings of private enterprises, a lot of it associated with tourism — mom-and-pop stuff. Hollande boldly spoke out on behalf of French business interests. “Of course, we would like to see your rules relaxed and for our companies to be able to manage their resources more freely,” he told the Cubans. Nothing about human rights.
In December, President Obama announced a resumption of diplomatic ties. It was about time. Not only did the 53-year boycott do no good, but it managed somehow to get nations all around the world to overlook the nature of the Cuban regime.
This was true on the American left as well, where the phenomenon the human rights community calls “Cuba chic” led to hosannas to the Cuban health care system and silence about human rights and the rule of law.
In Cuba, you get free dental care — but the rest of the time, you’d better keep your mouth shut.
Now, though, the American bogeyman excuse is fading. With Cuba standing on its own and not as the oh-so-brave opponent of the Yanqui Imperialist, maybe other nations — particularly those in Latin America — will ask the Castro brothers to clean up their act and maybe even permit an opposition press. According to Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, the reforms thus far have amounted to nothing much — little more than long-term imprisonments being replaced by short-term ones. I suppose that’s an improvement, but even just a brief stint in one of Cuba’s notoriously overcrowded and fetid jails is enough to suppress dissent.
Back to the pope. He is to be lauded for being the essential intermediary between Cuba and the U.S. The Vatican was the venue for secret meetings between the U.S. and Cuba and also served as something of a mail drop.
Francis’ papacy has thus far been both admirable and refreshing. More’s the reason then for him to use his immense moral authority to tell Raul Castro that while the church was always ready to receive him, he didn’t seem ready to be received by the church.
He has much to confess — and many prisoners to release.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.