Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Pope Francis gifts a gentler, inclusive vocabulary to a bellicose Cuba

Pope Francis arrives in his popemobile to celebrate Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana on Sunday.
Pope Francis arrives in his popemobile to celebrate Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana on Sunday. adiaz@miamiherald.com

At first, I didn’t understand why Pope Francis snubbed Miami.

If his mission is to inspire “a revolution of tenderness,” as he said in Santiago de Cuba on Tuesday, to reconcile a broken people and build bridges, why did he leave out of his Cuba-U.S. journey the heart of the Cuban diaspora?

In spirit, he didn’t.

In homilies and speeches I watched live from Miami, Pope Francis made reference to Cubans outside the island. The moment he set foot on the island, at the airport, he addressed “all of the Cubans scattered around the world.” In his Havana homily, he remembered those who aren’t in Cuba “feeling that for them, there is no room.”

To those expecting public a denunciation of human-rights abuses and lack of freedoms, Pope Francis’ historic visit to Cuba was a disappointment — just as they expected. Just as they predicted.

If tough talk ensued in the almost hour-long meeting with dictator Raúl Castro, who shadowed the pope the entire visit, we haven’t heard about it. But I find it hard to believe Pope Francis would not address at least the three dissidents arrested right in front of him in Havana after they broke through security. One of them approached the Popemobile, clamoring for freedom, and was blessed by the pope.

In public, Pope Francis’ words were purposely gentle — a striking difference from the bellicose language that Cubans have had to endure from the regime for more than five decades — and, most significantly, they were inclusive.

He wasn’t overtly political, but poetic, evangelic and diplomatic. From the onset, he framed his visit as an incentive for Cuba to “travel the road of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation.” Mid-trip, in Holguín, he characterized the strategy of rapprochement as “a game of glances capable of changing history.”

And, miracle of all miracles, who could have predicted who would so passionately speak for us?

Leonardo Fernandez didn’t lead the nightly news or garner front-page headlines. But the university student’s words to Francis are traveling around the world as people search for political subtext and substance in the pontiff’s historic whirlwind journey. Those people are asking the inevitable question: What now?

Cuban police locked down and prevented dissidents from being in the presence of Pope Francis — and Pope Francis didn’t force the assignment of a place for them. But an eloquent indictment of the dictatorship came in a brave and impassioned speech by Fernandez, a Catholic university student tasked with speaking to the pontiff at a public youth gathering in Havana.

He said that in the crowd were young people with different ideological points of view, different faiths or none at all, and different goals in life.

“What unites us,” Fernandez said, “is the hope of a future of profound change for Cuba, where our country is a welcoming home to all of its children, however they may think or wherever they live.”

Young people like him in today’s Cuba lose faith. He wants “to dream,” he said, of a Cuba “for all and for the good of all.”

The pope encouraged him and others to play a role in building that inclusive homeland.

On both sides of the Florida Straits, Cubans are tired of political chess matches without results.

Se quedó corto,” I’ve heard people say. Francis came up short.

But he gifted to Cubans a new, gentle vocabulary to maneuver the times, and to us, our place at the table.