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Pope John Paul II's Visit Heralds New Beginning for Cuba

R&L: In the weeks before Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, there was a great deal of speculation as to what he would say and do during his time there. What were your expectations of the pope’s visit?

Paredes: Knowing how the Holy Father has addressed local churches around the world in the past, I had no doubt that he would challenge the Cubans to rediscover their faith and to value their traditions and religious identity.

R&L: Were your expectations fulfilled?

Paredes: We did not know what the response of the faithful in Cuba would be, so it was wonderful to see the huge manifestations of faith and devotion at the Masses with the Holy Father in Cuba’s public squares. This was the first time in forty years that the church was allowed to hold any kind of public event, and the number of people who attended was overwhelming. It fulfilled my expectations beyond my wildest dreams.

My expectations were also fulfilled by the reception of the Holy Father’s message. His teachings and homilies were all in line with the vision of the church and the teaching of the gospel, while addressing the very concrete problems of the Cuban church. Families, youths, ordained ministers, bishops–each of these audiences openly received the teachings of the Holy Father. Further, I was encouraged by how well he was received by the learned community–that is to say, scholars, scientists, thinkers, artists, and the like–when he visited the University of Havana. It is exciting to see that the teachings of the Holy Father are religiously profound and not merely political discourse; they are much deeper and go directly to the nature of the human person and to questions of values and society.

R&L: You were present for the duration of the pope’s visit in Cuba. What did you see there? How did the Cuban people react to John Paul II?

Paredes: I saw ever-increasing enthusiasm from the first day onward. From the pope’s arrival, to the first Mass in Santa Clara, to Santiago, and finally to the major public celebration in Havana, one was able to perceive the enthusiasm, the excitement, growing daily. At the very end, in Havana, it was a highly, highly emotional experience.

R&L: Did you have a chance to speak with any of the Cuban people and see the visit through their eyes?

Paredes: Yes, I spoke with many people, including Catholics, non-Catholics, and even members of the communist party. All of them, believers and non-believers alike, were taken by the fact that the Holy Father could travel around the country and bring together so many people. They were amazed that the speeches of the Holy Father, whatever the event, were so rich in meaning. This is not something to which people in Cuba are accustomed. They have never heard those kinds of speeches; rather, they are accustomed to the highly political speeches of Fidel Castro. But in the person of the Holy Father you had a physically frail, elderly man full of goodness, wisdom, and simplicity–elements that people were able to perceive and to admire.

R&L: In the weeks leading up to the papal visit, many news commentators were emphasizing the political aspect of the Holy Father’s visit. You seem to be saying that the real story is its spiritual aspect. Can you address this dichotomy?

Paredes: It is my impression that the press is not too familiar with what the Holy Father does in these visits, and, more generally, with what the church does in her mission, so the press viewed this visit, really, as the meeting of two elderly statesmen who have different visions of the world and who came to meet and to confront each other. But the mission of the church–and of the head of the church–is intrinsically a spiritual one. The Holy Father’s goal is to confirm the faith of the local churches, so the press does not really understand what he was intending to do in Cuba.

This is painful because it created false expectations in the way his visit was viewed. The job of the Holy Father never has been to overthrow regimes. Rather, he has visited the entire church all over the world, and, in doing so, he has experienced conflicts with political systems because he presented the truth based on Gospel values and on the tradition and work of the church. So, the press was a bit confused about the real nature of his visit.

R&L: Totalitarian regimes such as Cuba fear and suppress the church precisely because the church understands itself to be an independent moral and spiritual authority, as you have been explaining. What is your view of the liberating power of faith, especially as it relates to the Cuban situation?

Paredes: The varied contributions of the Christian faith–such as its understanding of the human person, the teachings of the Gospel, and the mission of the church itself–in a regime such as Cuba, certainly has not been appreciated. With the visit of the Holy Father and his message that the church has a mission in society to humanize conflict and to bring the human person to her greatness, the Cuban regime now has begun to pay attention to what they have done with their forty-year experiment in communism.

The Christian faith calls the human person to greatness–that is to say, to goodness, to sacrifice, to service, to solidarity, to a life of truthfulness–and everything that is contrary to that truth about the human person becomes a counter-force for authentic growth and development. That is our contribution as people of faith, and I think the Cuban government is going to begin to take a new look at what they used to mistrust. They had a philosophy, and they developed a view of an atheistic society out of that philosophy that led them nowhere. Indeed, a society based on atheistic values has meant regression and underdevelopment for Cuba, so they necessarily have to rethink their position with regard to religion, faith, and the church.

R&L: With that in mind, what will be of lasting significance from the papal visit?

Paredes: There is no doubt in my mind that Cuba will never be the same, that this is a new beginning for Cuba. The lasting contribution of this papal visit will be a departure from the historical view of the Cuban regime that they have created a model country based on a materialistic view of society. The spiritual message, the call of the Holy Father for the greatness of the Cuban people, the teachings of high moral values that are essential to develop a good and healthy society–these are the major contributions of the papal visit and are the reason the Holy Father spoke so much about the truth and hope that is needed in today’s world, particularly in the context of the Cuban society.

R&L: Much of what you have been describing about the pope’s visit has a great deal of connection with themes in his social teaching. How do you see what the pope did in Cuba as related to what he has said in the encyclicals promulgated throughout his pontificate?

Paredes: There is no doubt that the Holy Father has made an incredible effort throughout this pontificate to bring out the best of the teachings of Vatican II. The Holy Father has felt compelled to highlight important dimensions of our Christian life in such encyclicals as Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus, and Veritas Splendor. In all of these encyclicals, and especially in Redemptoris Hominis, he sees the human person as the key element in history. This is the major contribution of the Holy Father to political systems around the world. If an organization in our society plans to build human relationships on the dictates of the state and to deny the personal capacity of each individual to make options and to exercise those options freely in society, then it is clearly doomed to failure.

We saw this in the Soviet Union in 1989; it did not have the right anthropological foundations, so the regime collapsed. Societies must address the essential characteristics of the human person, and the Holy Father has used his encyclicals to demonstrate the fact that societies must promote those conditions that guarantee human rights, respect for each individual, freedom, justice, and solidarity.

R&L: What is the economic situation like in Cuba?

Paredes: Any observer who goes to Cuba will conclude that their economy is in big trouble. No one can deny that there is great economic scarcity in that country. The lack of any kind of maintenance of their infrastructure is rather evident, as is the lack of goods and services of all sorts. There is no capital, no money. So, they are having a very difficult time.

R&L: Is this a result of the United States embargo or of Cuba’s economic system?

Paredes: I think, primarily, the economic system has failed. I will not deny that the embargo has in some ways contributed to the situation, but it is not the only reason the economy of the Cuban society is in such bad shape today. Chiefly, it is a result of the failed economic policies of the regime.

R&L: What, then, needs to be done with regard to the embargo, and what are the prospects of such a plan, given the experience and stance of the Cuban-American exile community?

Paredes: I believe that the United States has to take a hard look at its relationship with the Cuban government. The Holy Father was rather explicit at the very beginning of his visit in Cuba: Let Cuba open to the world and let the world open to Cuba. So, I believe that the Cuban government has to take real steps to open herself to the world, and we, as part of the world society, have to take a hard look at our policies toward Cuba. One of these policies is the embargo.

Embargoes especially hurt the most needy. The regime has remained unchanged for forty years despite the fact that the embargo has lasted over thirty-seven years, so let’s find a new approach. If we found a new way of doing business with China, Vietnam, and Korea, why not Cuba? Now, I am by no means suggesting that we simply be naive and not face the hard issues at stake, but through dialogue and careful work we could arrive at an understanding with the Cuban government.

R&L: In conclusion, you mention above that you are certain that Cuba will never be the same as a result of the pontiff’s visit. So, what is in store for Cuba’s future?

Paredes: The Cuban government will have to make some very serious moves toward opening Cuban society. First, they will have to create a space for the church, which means it must allow for real religious freedom–not simply the right to worship but also the right to teach, to speak, to serve, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick. The Church has a mission to fulfill, so the Cuban government, if it is sincere in rethinking its positions, has to signal to the world that it is moving in that direction by allowing the church real freedom in these domains.

Further, I believe that the Cuban government has to come to terms with the United States, to shift the language it uses to address us and to change the tenor of its aggressivity toward the United States. Finally, the Cuban government has to take a serious look at their economic policies, which will mean that private enterprise has to begin to have a role in Cuban society in order to create a new dynamic for the economic process that the rest of the world uses to do business today. Only after the Cuban government addresses these questions can we seriously talk about a meaningful future for Cuba.

I am hopeful, even considering the hard realities of Cuba, that the Cuban government will make such moves. Further, I am hopeful that the United States government will begin to take a hard look into its relationship with this regime. These are the initiatives that need to be taken by both sides in order to see a new future for Cuba.