- - Monday, September 21, 2015


Pope Francis arrives Tuesday to a hearty welcome in the United States, fresh from a triumphant visit to Cuba, where the Castro brothers not only put out a red carpet for him but put on a show of how to suppress dissent. Catholic dissidents to the Castro rule were knocked about by “state security” when they showed up for the mass the pope no doubt intended for all.

The pope has succeeded in prying open the dictatorship, if only by a very little, to accommodate Rome after the Castro regime subjected it to decades of persecution and the people to atheistic indoctrination. Ministering to the soul is the paramount concern of the Christian clergy, and bringing the Cuban people, once devout and faithful, back into the embrace of the West is all to the good as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far.

Cuba once had a close relationship with the United States, dating from extricating the island from the Spanish empire at the end of the Spanish-American War. Fidel Castro and the knives and guns of his Marxist revolutionaries changed all that. Barack Obama promised that he would remake the relationship, and now it is the mediation of the pope that enables Mr. Obama, for good or ill, to get on with transforming the relationship imposed by the reality of the Cold War.

So far, as with other “transformations” which Mr. Obama has imposed on American foreign policy, the result is, as the diplomats would put it, less than encouraging. Just when Cuba was losing its last and most recent enabler, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Mr. Obama threw the Castro brothers a lifeline. The Castros get survival, and the Cuban people get more Marxist dogma. Persecution of critics of the regime continues, civil liberties are still abused as they have been for more than half a century. At the very time American and Cuban officials were sipping champagne and trading toasts and compliments, Raul Castro, making a point, was throwing more political opponents in his dungeons.

Pope Francis, whose mission as pontiff includes restoring Catholic numbers in Latin America as millions depart to Protestant, Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, has now joined the movement to lift the last of the restrictions of the trade embargo. Francis is said to believe the embargo is the crucial barrier to improving the Cuban economy. This is a reflection of the Castro brothers’ doctrine that it’s the embargo and not the Soviet-style economics that collapsed an economy that once produced the highest per capita income in Latin America.

The embargo is now largely a fiction. Cuban-Americans cash remittances to relatives totaled $2.6 billion in 2012. In addition, Cuban Americans send home $700 annually in medicine, medical devices, agricultural products and consumer goods, from TV sets and computers to toilet paper and T-shirts. Nearly 100,000 Americans visited the island annually through a variety of visa programs.

Raul Castro is 84, and older brother Fidel is approaching 90, and soon they will answer to the court from which there is no appeal for their manifold sins against human decency. Their successors are likely to emerge from the military establishment, which has been carefully constructed by Raul.

Pope Francis has a deserved reputation for caring for the poor, the hungry and the oppressed. But lifting the trade embargo now, without major steps toward liberalization of the regime, would not improve the lives of any Cubans. Cuba has been open to Canadian and European trade and investment throughout the embargo, and the economy has nonetheless steadily deteriorated. American-Cuban trade would be dependent on American credits, which would line the pockets of the Castro brothers and their friends. Very little would improve the lives of the Cuban people, who would have to be satisfied with more Marxist excuses. The pope should think again.

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