There have been a few articles published recently contrasting John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 with Pope Francis'. All have given the advantage to John Paul, and, indeed, used the first papal visit to lambaste the latest. Although we are glad to have Francis' pilgrimage to meet Fidel Castro disparaged, it does not seem quite fair to blame the Argentine pope for following in the footsteps of his Polish predecessor; nor can we see anything that distinguishes the conduct of one from the other.
The phrase everybody remembers from John Paul's trip to Cuba was his call for the island to open itself to the world, and the world to open itself to Cuba. So innocuous was it that even Pope Francis felt that he could repeat it without giving offence to his hosts.
For Cubans, the problem with Cuba then as now is not that it is closed to the world, but that it is closed to them. Whether or no they are actually in a prison, Cubans are, for all intents and purposes, under house arrest, since they cannot leave their homes and settle elsewhere, whether in Cuba itself or abroad. Cubans are forbidden to move from province to province; from city to city; and even from one house to another house on the same block without the prior authorization of the state. Cuban citizens require both an exit visa to leave their country and an entry visa to return; and rarely are those who leave allowed to return (not that any but Castro's spies would want to). The only blockade facing Cubans is an internal one: they are hostages of a police state which has enslaved and interned them in a massive island-prison whose walls are as high as the sky and as deep as the ocean.
It was to Fidel Castro personally that John Paul should have addressed his request to open that prison and free its captives, as Reagan did when he challenged Gorbachev by name to "tear down that wall." Nothing that the outside world could have done — certainly not paying ransom to the captors — would have demolished the Berlin Wall, as John Paul well knew. He should also have known (and was too smart not to have known) that unilateral concessions to Castro would not obtain freedom for the Cuban people. "Opening the world (i.e. the U.S.)" to the tyrant would only strengthen him and make his victims even more vulnerable. Yet that was John Paul's solution to the "Cuban Problem" and his "solution" has been carried out by Francis to the detriment of all Cubans except Castro and his henchmen.
While in Cuba, John Paul engaged in a virtual orgy of hand-clasping with Fidel; but, like Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, refused to meet with or even allude to Cuba's political prisoners or human rights activists. John Paul, on his flight to Cuba, even praised "Ché" Guevara as someone whom he "was sure had desired to do good for the poor." Francis said nothing about "Ché" Guevara, although, like all Argentinians (whether on the left or right), the pope feels proud of that connection (as we may infer from Cardinal Sean O'Malley's comment about his "great joy and pride" in celebrating mass "under the picture of his fellow Argentine Che Guevara").
Pope John Paul II did not publicly lecture Fidel Castro on human rights or condemn his regime's violations of those rights as he had done in front of Ferdinand Marcos during his trip to the Philippines ["It is a fundamental principle, upheld always by the Church, that a government exists only for the service of man and for the protection of his dignity and cannot claim to serve the common good when human rights are not safeguarded."] Being a persecutor of the Catholic Church guarantees left-wing dictators respect and deference from the Holy Father. If Marcos had confiscated all Church property in his country as Castro did in Cuba and then had it in his power to return that property, he would not have been excoriated by the pope either.
On that first papal visit, the Cuban people genuinely believed that the pope was on their side. It seemed inconceivable then that the man who had defeated Communism in his native Poland and the Soviet bloc would uphold it in their country. The crowd at his first public mass waited anxiously for any indication of support or even one word of commiseration. What they got was John Paul's personal assurance to Fidel Castro that "the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are not a threat to any social project," and that what he had come to Cuba to promote was "the Gospel of Christ, not a political ideology or economic system." The pope's chief concern, then, was to guarantee the regime that the Church in Cuba, unlike the Church in Poland, would never become with his sanction an arsenal of ideas or a bulwark of liberty.
As if to encourage John Paul to remember their suffering and its cause, the crowd that heard his words but could not believe that he had abandoned them, began to chant "¡Libertad, Libertad!" The pope at first ignored their cries, and then, when they would not stop, John Paul admonished them to seek freedom in Christ.
Their lives on earth, apparently, were intended to be a never-ending hell; and the only hope that the pope held out to them was in the afterlife. As for this life, this island and this people, the pope graciously ceded all to the Cuban despot. Such papal conduct finds many parallels in the Dark Ages, but this is the first instance of such a dynastic concession in our own. It need hardly be pointed out that Pope John Paul was not willing to surrender the Polish nation to Communist slavery in perpetuity. Cubans, however, were quite expendable and apparently worthless in the eyes of the vicar of Christ. His successors have followed his example.
In Havana, Pope Francis is no John Paul II (In Havana, Pope John Paul II was no John Paul II, either).