Pope Francis has added a significant side trip to his visit to the United States in September.
He plans to stop in Cuba first.
It will be a remarkable opportunity for the pontiff to preach his gospel and serve as impetus to move negotiations along between the island and the United States.
In recent history, two other popes have visited the Caribbean island — John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012. Those visits were largely ceremonial in a country where Catholicism has been unwelcome and frozen in a Cold War standoff with the United States. But Francis is not your grandmother’s pope — and his visit comes at a pivotal time.
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This is the pope who played an instrumental role in engineering the easing of relations between Cuba and this country, which had not diplomatically spoken since the early 1960s.
Pope Francis was credited as being the great mediator behind the scenes. In other words, he’s a major stakeholder in the historic negotiations currently under way that will affect both countries most dramatically.
Pope Francis is the man who wrote to the leaders of both countries inviting them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest.” When President Obama officially announced the opening of talks in December, the Vatican confirmed delegations from both countries had visited the pontiff in October.
Now the pope, with an invitation from Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, is going to see the fruits of his labor firsthand by meeting with both sides.
Pope Francis is a vibrant, activist pontiff with a genuine mission to make life better for his flock; an Argentine who speaks perfect Spanish and understands Cuba better than any other pope likely ever has.
We expect him to speak up loudly on behalf of the muzzled Cuban people. Talks or no, they remain citizens of a repressive country, a one-party police state. The observance of human rights — a mantra for the pope — continues to be trampled on the island.
The timing of the announcement of the pope’s visit was quite shrewd. It gives Cuba five months’ notice to make advances in its negotiations with the United States. The dialogue between the two countries continues to be difficult and has stalled over issues like the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana and the access to it that Cubans should have.
The United States recently removed the island from its state-sponsored-terrorism list — a goodwill gesture, but one rooted in reality. And President Obama greeted Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama two weeks ago. But Cuba appears to have made few concessions.
The Cuba conundrum is likely familiar territory for Francis, who has spent a lifetime navigating the aftereffects of the Cold War in Argentina and the rest of Latin America. As a clergyman, the church leader criticized Cuban state authoritarianism as well as the U.S. embargo.
Francis’ mediation — or interference — angered some Cuban exiles who favored no talks with the Castro brothers. Even Sen. Marco Rubio said that he would “ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”
Pope Francis should honor that request. He is the one person who can hold Cuba’s feet to the fire when it comes to ending human-rights violations of its citizens. After sagely mediating change from afar, the pope now say aloud in Cuba what the Cuban people can’t — they have a right to live in freedom.