Fidel Castro: The Pope, Religion and
the ‘Fall of Communism’
By María Julia Mayoral, Anett Ríos, José A. de la Osa,
Alexis Schlachter and Alberto Núñez
We fervently want the pope’s example to endure, confirmed President Fidel Castro during his special address in the International Conference Center to leaders of the Party, state, government and the UJC [Communist Youth Organization], representatives of the grassroots organizations and officers and combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior.
“It honors us,” he stated, “that he visited us; I was right,” he added, “when I said then that the pope did not entertain any notion of damaging our people. His sentiments towards the Cuban people were noble, and were clearly and paradigmatically summarized by him on leaving Cuba when he spoke out against the blockade, which he described as unjust and ethically unacceptable. This opinion of the Holy Father, commented Fidel, “should not be forgotten by the president of the United States when he takes part in the funeral ceremony in Rome.”
In the president’s view the death of the religious leader constitutes a tremendously significant event that has touched international public opinion and given rise to a week of mourning throughout the planet.
John Paul II lived during one of the most complex and crucial moments for humanity, in which the world has reached a veritable crossroads, unlike any other point in history. For the first time, the disappearance of our species is a real danger and not just because of war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons; humans are also running unprecedented risks because they are destroying nature, and polluting everything around them, remarked Fidel.
The leader of the Revolution characterized the fundamental features of conflicts of the contemporary era as a basis for understanding the importance of the pontificate of John Paul II, whom he described as an exceptional man, a determined fighter, untiring, whose virtues should not be ignored. “These are our opinions from a human and social focus, in the light of fundamental questions for humanity, although we respect different opinions,” he commented.
The pope was very critical of capitalism
“It is true,” he stated, “that the Supreme Pontiff had a critical attitude to issues which, from his religious standpoint, he believed were poorly accomplished in socialist countries. We should not forget that in Poland, his native country, the nation and the Catholic religion were born at the same time, indissolubly united, a fact that was underestimated by that socialist state, where many errors were committed including those related to respect for different beliefs.
Fidel examined the historical period into which the man who became the leader of the Catholic Church for 26 years was born and raised. He also analyzed the political evolution of Europe prior to World War II, and warned that communism has always frightened the world, including the Cuban people at that time. It was the level of culture achieved by the Revolution that allowed our people to overcome those prejudices.
The pope was not born or educated to destroy socialism. “Making him responsible for the fall of this system in Europe is to make a simplistic analysis of history,” he confirmed.
“Political culture in our country was born with the Revolution,” Fidel continued, “because the Empire, the oligarchy, the exploiters have made it their task to repeat throughout the world that communism is the most horrible thing to have existed. In the early years after the revolutionary triumph of 1959,” he indicated, “they began making outrageous claims, such as that we were going to deprive Cuban families of their of custody rights and send their children to Russia to be processed and turned into canned food.”
He declared that if Cuban socialism were to collapse one day, the blame would lie with no one but ourselves. He also emphasized that once the Cold War was over, the Pope was very critical of the capitalist system.
Respect for all beliefs
Fidel narrated his personal experience of religion, dating back to his childhood, and expressed his conviction that the religious sentiments and beliefs of each individual are strictly personal and deserve the utmost respect. “This attitude is the one that should accompany a revolutionary, a politician,” he said, and affirmed that we have always fought for dignity, freedom and the rights of all human beings.
He also expressed his gratitude for having had the opportunity in life to study and the usefulness of acquiring the teachings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in order to undertake the revolutionary leadership and understand the complex events of the world in which we live.
He assured that the Cuban Revolution will never be sectarian; it offers equality of rights, opportunities and support to all religions, with the maximum respect, but should always be on guard against expressions of extremism. As an example of the former, he highlighted the Cuban government’s gesture at the time of the pope’s visit of declaring that December 25—Christmas Day for Christians—would become a public holiday from that date.
An eagerly awaited and fruitful visit
The pope was received in Cuba in 1998, said Fidel, and in his sermon that was transmitted across the world, our people recognized the battle that the Supreme Pontiff was waging against underdevelopment, poverty, the external debt and the pillaging of countries, and for the globalization of solidarity, ideas with which the Revolution fully agrees.
He recalled that he had publicly stated those views of the Pope in December 1997 during the session of the National Assembly of People’s Power and later, during a television interview broadcast on January 16, 1998, shortly before the pope’s visit; thus demonstrating that the Revolution has not changed its opinions. Thus, these are points of view that have been sustained for many years and not opportunistic modifications of opinions following the recent death of John Paul II.
In the aforementioned conversation with Cuban television journalists in January 1998, referring to the impression the Pope left on him during their meeting in Rome, Fidel stated that it was very good; John Paul II was very amiable and respectful and once could almost say affectionate. “He was a man with a noble face, who genuinely inspired respect, and that impression was shared by all the comrades present at that dialogue.
He reaffirmed that the pope’s visit to our country took place at a difficult juncture for the Revolution due to the economic situation created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc. The empire was maintaining intense pressure that consisted on the one hand of blockading the nation in an attempt to bring it to its knees by hunger and, on the other, of opening its doors to any Cuban—including those committing crimes—by any means. “And we have had to endure those conditions up until now, when things have begun to radically change,” he stressed.
He recounted that after the collapse of the socialist camp and above all the Soviet Union, the empire intensified its policy of aggression against the Cuban Revolution. All the calculations indicated that the country could not survive, he noted. “But our people resisted, in spite of suddenly losing all their supplies of fuel, fertilizer and foodstuffs... Our oil production barely reached 700,000 tons per year. We had lost the 14 million tons of crude from the Soviet Union.
“In that context, within the empire and in other places, the pope’s visit came as something that would lead to the final collapse of socialism in Cuba. They believed that the Revolution would tumble down like the walls of Jericho before the sound of trumpets. But the pope did not bring trumpets, nor did he come with the intention of destroying the Revolution.”
He reiterated that at that point anti-communist propaganda had created the myth that much merit was due the pope for the collapse of the socialist camp and the USSR. “We tried to give him the reception that he merited, for which it was necessary to explain to many of our compatriots (as he did on television) the significance of that visit and to clarify John Paul II’s position to many people, and the historical and personal conditions that shaped his vision against socialism and communism.
The president went on to comment: “Now our enemies are once again disconcerted at the displays of consideration and affection expressed in Cuba after the death of John Paul II. They are once again disorientated on observing that Cardinal Jaime Ortega has another opportunity to speak to the people on television in relation to the demise of the leader of the Catholic Church in the world.
The only difficult moment during the pastoral visit, he added, was prompted by the words of the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba during the papal mass in that city. The content of that address created a difficult situation for the people and Santiago Party members invited to the mass. “We weren’t concerned at what he said, but at the reaction and malaise of the people. It was confirmed to me that neither the Pope or Cardinal Jaime Ortega knew of the content of the archbishop’s speech.”
Fidel also denounced the machinations of the empire and its lackeys, headed by Roger Noriega, at that time Senator Jesse Helms’ advisor, to spoil the Pope’s visit in 1998, made evident in Noriega’s meeting with the archbishop, the content of which the religious leader reported to the Party authorities.
“It was not us who politicized the visit; at no time did the Revolution attempt to seek material advantages or benefits for Cuba and its socialist process,” Fidel observed, moving on to make a rapid reading of what he said in January 1998.
The president of the Councils of State and Ministers listed some of the factors that did not favor the Pope’s presence in Cuba over a number of years, including tensions and differences with the leadership of the Catholic Church in our country during the early years of the Revolution, although the island did have the cooperation of the then representative in Cuba of the Holy See: a man who worked intensively to alleviate and eliminate difficulties.
Fidel also reflected on the recently deceased pope’s historical courage in publicly criticizing past errors of the Catholic Church such as the Inquisition or its refusal to accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
He detailed the facilities offered at all times by the Cuban government to different Catholic orders like that of St. Bridget, while clarifying that there neither is nor will be differences in respectful treatment in relation to the religions present in Cuba; on that point he gave as one example the inauguration of a Greek Orthodox Church and another Russian one in the future.
Bush’s visit to Rome is an outrage to the Pope’s memory
Fidel ratified that, from the beginning, the Cuban state and government had acknowledged and praised John Paul II for his stand against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for being a great standard-bearer in the fight against wars of aggression, territorial conquests, ethnic cleansing and the external debt. At the same time he was a fervent critic of neoliberal globalization and the consumerist nature of the capitalist societies and policies that accelerate environmental degradation. He recalled that the pope made those and other important condemnations in the United Nations.
For Fidel, the tribute that should be paid to the deceased religious leader is to put his humanist ideas into practice. He castigated the hypocrites who are ignorant of this legacy and are among those principally responsible for the evils humanity is suffering, including the president of the country that produces the largest volume of nuclear weapons and the mobile means to launch them any day, at any moment, on whatever corner of the planet.
He highlighted the hypocrisy of “mister chief of imperialism,” who is attending the funeral to weep over the body of a man who fervently opposed war, and the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s visit to Rome, he stated, is an outrage to the memory of John Paul II.
Referring to the constant U.S. government pressure on the Revolution, he noted that on repeated occasions the empire demanded as condition for the lifting of the blockade “to withdraw our internationalist aid to Angola, Ethiopia, to break off our relations with the Soviet Union and end our support for revolutionary movements in Latin America.” He recalled: “We never accepted that and that support only ceased to exist when those forces were extinguished by themselves.
He affirmed that the course of history, of so many struggles of the people against the oppressors, has been renewed with a tremendous and unstoppable force, particularly in the Our America dreamed of by Martí. One example of that rebirth is Venezuela, with its revolutionary Bolivarian process and Hugo Chávez.
In another part of his address, the president spoke of Hugo Chávez as a revolutionary of the ideas of Bolívar and Martí, with correct interpretations of Christianity, as his thinking takes into account the Christ who was always on the side of the poor. Fidel observed that Chávez has known how to evaluate the history and traditions of his people.
The humanism of the revolution
“Nothing can compare with the pages of humanism that our glorious people are writing,” Fidel affirmed, giving the example of the attention received by thousands of Ukrainian children and adolescents affected by the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and with the uncontestable reality that, as opposed to what occurred in other countries of our own region on the part of dictatorships installed by imperialism, not one person has been tortured, killed or disappeared in Cuba.
“That same empire wants to condemn us at the Human Rights Commission,” he stated. “Let them do what they like; I don’t give a toss and the people of Cuba don’t give a toss about the Geneva commission,” he added before going on to ask what the Europeans are going to do in the next few days when the vote is taken on the anti-Cuba resolution to be presented by the government of the United States.
“All of them, without exception,” he warned, “will come up against a blade that is constantly more honed; in other words, with a stronger Revolution whose humanistic work based on social justice is on the ascent.”
He noted that while the United States is trying to condemn Cuba for alleged human rights violations and demanding the release of mercenaries serving prison terms in our country due to their counterrevolutionary activities, it is maintaining five young Cuban anti-terrorist fighters incarcerated in its own jails.
—Granma, April 7, 2005