This week, Pope Francis is visiting Cuba and the United States, the two countries whose deal he brokered last year. That deal may have been the easy part; he now has to engineer a new path for the Catholic Church in Cuba.
For more than half a century, and for longer than the diplomatic rift with the United States, Cuba has insisted that only the state can legally run schools. The hundreds of thousands of Cuban children who attended church schools before the 1959 revolution included Fidel and Raúl Castro. In 2015, Cuban families still have no choice.
How might the pope approach what will be one of his diplomatic objectives? The name of Felix Varela and the 1966 United Nations International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Raúl Castro signed for Cuba in 2008, may be good starting points.
Varela, the Catholic priest and campaigner for human rights in 19th century Cuba, taught and wrote tirelessly in Cuba and, after his exile, in the United States. The pope will visit the center in Havana that bears Varela’s name. Raúl Castro has praised his work, saying Christianity has more in common with communism than capitalism. And Oswaldo Payá, the Christian dissident who was harassed relentlessly by the government until his death in 2012, used Varela’s name for a petition to the Cuban national assembly for more openness and civil rights.
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So Varela means a lot to many Cubans of all beliefs. The U.N. Convention may seem an arcane instrument for a pope to bother with. But it contains a provision that guarantees parents’ rights to choose schools “to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” Banning faith schools is contrary to its fundamental principles, and Cuba has formally accepted those principles.
Pope Francis will be talking to a government that, with the momentum to scrap the U.S. embargo growing, will now have to explain why it maintains its revolutionary-era decrees. Francis is fresh from visits to Bolivia and Ecuador. Both countries boast left-wing governments who see American influence on the continent as less than benign, but the Catholic Church plays a strong role in society and politics.
In 2015, Ecuador’s Catholic Church had 2,198 priests, ran 1,469 schools and educational institutes, 173 hospitals and numerous orphanages and homes for the elderly. In Bolivia, there were 1,208 priests, 1,791 Catholic schools and 183 hospitals. Yet in Cuba the comparable figures would be around 360 priests, no schools and no hospitals.
The church has made progress in Cuba. It is no longer an object of government repression. It has negotiated the establishment of a seminary to train priests and permits to build a few new churches, which are being funded by Catholics outside Cuba.
The church has also run in-house programs in computing and business training, but this is a long way from reopening church schools. And the revised Cuban foreign-investment law of 2014 still bans any foreign investment in education.
These questions may seem of minor importance when Cubans do not yet see their government with policies that will allow work and talent to build significantly greater material prosperity.
But Raúl Castro’s stance on the choice of schools will send an unmistakable message. Either the revolution is still concerned with controlling Cubans’ choice and access to information or it will, in the post-embargo era, show a willingness to drop it.
The church wants to do much more in Cuba, which is unique in Latin America in preventing it activities in many areas. So the pope’s visit has a deeper agenda than set-piece masses and protocol.
And Francis, like the saint whose name he chose, is a man of action, not just words.
Paul Webster Hare is a former British ambassador to Cuba. He teaches international relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.