For the Catholic Church, Pope Francis’s rapprochement to the Castro regime is the triumph of hope over experience rather than a response to any religious awakening on the part of the Cuban Communist Party. Rather, Raul’s dealings with the Church – like those with the Obama administration are part of his pragmatic plan to transition Cuba from a caudillo form of administration under Fidel and himself into a one-party state bureaucracy. By dealing with the pope, he intends to finesse the Party’s fundamental problem with religion.
Communism’s essential atheism has always been a severe point of contention between the Castro regime and the Cuban people. From the revolution’s onset, Castro used Christian imagery of crosses and omens such as the white dove that landed on his left shoulder to give themselves a sort of spiritual legitimacy with this highly religious people. Even after 50 years of suppression and atheist state propaganda, Cuba is still heavily Catholic. This is one of the main reasons why the Cuban Communist Party was for a time the smallest ruling Communist Party in the world and is still a cultural stranger to the Cuban people.
The Party worked hard to suppress religious life. Applicants to the Party were immediately disqualified if it emerged that they were believers, or even that they had attended church or religious services. The regime declared the Catholic Church counter-revolutionary, closed churches and exiled priests. In the field of education, communists sought to truly crucify God. Religious schools were closed, and all religious classes were outlawed. Teachers in the state system taught all subjects through a Marxist prism. Children from intensely religious families were bullied by the very school system. Some were even accused of treason and counter-revolution.
The regime was trying to create the New Cuban Man who, like the New Soviet Man, would be obedient to the regime yet energetic in pursuit of the Marxist utopia. It did not work out this way, which is another reason why the regime realizes it needs help from the Church – not for the Church’s purposes, but for its own.
The New Cuban Man is apathetic politically, and averse to work. His soul has been crushed and his body used up. He is an opportunistic thief who steals from the state and from others unblinkingly. His moral nihilism has engendered cynical disbelief in the worker’s paradise of Communism. He cares only about survival. He repeats slogans to keep his job and praises his leaders to keep his freedom (secretly joking about their personal attributes in private). His petty pleasures include pointless promiscuity and intense drunkenness.
Still this New Cuban Man prays to God, mainly to ask for luck in obtaining eggs or meat on the black market to feed his semi-starved family, and to safeguard his new side-business from the government snitch in his apartment. He also asks for a little bit more life even if it be more of the wretched life he currently lives.
This New Cuban Man’s nihilism is what the Communist Party wants to fill by renting the Catholic Church’s legitimacy. The party line is that religion is the opium of the masses. But this opium is precisely what the Communist Party seeks to inject into the Cuban people as it seeks to create revolutionary Cuba 2.0.
In twenty-first century Cuba, Raul is trying to perpetuate a system of oligarchical collectivism whose only purpose is to maintain the power and privileges of Party officials and army generals – bureaucrats of the “banality of evil” type. The Party itself, it seems, has taken on the nihilism that it has fostered among those over whom it rules.
Raul Castro jested with the pope that he might re-join the Catholic Church. Francis seemed not to notice the obvious mockery, or to recognize that the Cuban regime’s theology is all about maintaining the permanent class distinction between those with and those without power in Cuba; that it is about keeping officials like himself separate and safe from actual and potential enemies of state.
The upcoming visit by Pope Francis cannot change these fundamental facts, or the essence of quotidian life in Cuba.