Pope Francis' role in U.S.-Cuba deal could fuel Catholic revival on island

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Just days after the Vatican was credited for its critical role in brokering a historic diplomatic deal between the United States and Cuba, some experts say the church's intervention was not simply an act of good will but something that could promote democratic changes on the island.

“This was a very direct intervention to try and expand the Catholic Church in Cuba,” said Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a professor of political science at Georgetown University who writes about Europe, Latin America and Catholicism. “Just as Obama had an agenda going into this, the church also has an agenda going into this.”

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama thanked Pope Francis for his “moral example” during negotiations. The Vatican hosted direct meetings between the U.S. and Cuba at the Vatican in October and the pontiff wrote personal letters to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro imploring both sides to resolve “humanitarian questions” involving the release of political prisoners in the U.S. and Cuba, including Alan Gross, the American who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

For the Catholic Church, these negotiations could improve relations with the Castro regime, which can help fuel a Catholic revival on the island. The church is hoping to bring back banned private Catholic education and the recognition of Catholic holidays. It also hopes to gain direct access to the media and avoid having to go through bureaucratic red tape that forces them to go through the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs for any changes or approvals, experts say.

“I suspect they are anticipating their role in negotiations will have a positive effect between the church and the regime,” Mujal-Leon said.

Fidel Castro, who attended Jesuit boarding schools, modified the Cuban Constitution in 1962 to make Cuba an Athiest state. He shut down more than 400 Catholic schools and accused parochial education of “spreading dangerous beliefs among the Cuban people.”

For decades, Catholics were shunned by Cuban society and the government and unable to practice their faith. Many of its clergy or religious leaders were expelled from the country and the remaining ones were harassed.

There have been improvements during the past 20 years because of continued pressure by the Vatican. In 1991, Cuba’s Communist party allowed Cubans to become Christians and a year later Cuba became a secular nation. In 1996, Castro visited the Vatican and two years later Pope John Paul II visited Cuba and the island celebrated Christmas as an official holiday for the first time in nearly three decades.

Today, the church and state appear to be working together like never before thanks to a controversial, relationship between Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, the Archbishop of the Archdioceses in Havana, and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Since 2006, the church has had more freedom to publish magazine articles establish websites, and Ortega was even allowed to say Christmas mass in a major prison in 2010.

A new Catholic church is also being built in the island, the first one constructed in Cuba in more than 50 years.

The relationship between Castro and Ortega has some Catholic Cuban-Americans worried and skeptical about the church’s involvement on the island. Some wonder whether the church will continue to demand human rights and democracy or would instead concentrate on trying to gain more followers and influence.

“The church leadership, in particular Cardinal Ortega, can be viewed as a collaborator with the regime,” said Jose Azel, a Cuban exile and senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami. “The church has lost a tremendous amount of popularity because of this and I think the Catholic Church will be looked at as a church that didn’t defend civil society but aligned themselves with the regime.”

But others predict there will be positive changes on the island for the Catholics and the church – even if they don’t entirely agree with Obama’s new policy.

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, a Catholic Cuban-American who serves on the advisory board for The Catholic Association and whose parents fled Cuba during the Castro regime, disagrees with Obama's deal, saying lifting the embargo won’t bring the kind of change the island needs. She said the island already enjoys the riches of tourism dollars from Europeans and Canadians, and none of that money is reaching the people.

“The American dollar is not going to do anything in Cuba,” she said.

But, Christie believes, the church can be the real agent of change for the people.

“I’m not as nervous with the Catholic Church. They have very definite ideas of human dignity that they won’t violate,” she said.  “I have a lot of trust in the church. I think there is a higher hand guiding the church. It’s not like other institutions. I am 100 percent sure that on the church’s part it is acting in good faith. I can’t vouch for the administration.”