There are plenty of people throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville who remember being frozen in front of their old Hallicrafters television sets, watching the scratchy black and white images of Fidel Castro and his army of revolutionaries flow into Havana.
Though he was the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, by the time he was a young adult, Castro had adopted the anti-imperalist politics of revolutionaries who were then percolating just beneath the cultural surface throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America.
The United States government was hoping — against all evidence — that once Castro and his fellow revolutionaries had taken complete control of Cuba, they might turn to their neighbor to the north for economic assistance and both cultural and military guidance.
There were people in U.S. intelligence agencies who knew that wasn’t going to happen — ever.
Those agents and diplomats knew that the U.S. had, for years, backed the wrong horse running the country that lay just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
That horse, of course, was Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, a prototypical crook and thug who ruled the nation with the help of the military. His role in the nation’s ubiquitous corruption was documented, if you can use that word when talking about a work of fiction, in Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather.
Batista was not only corrupt, he was ruthless in the way common to most dictators. He censored the press and held public executions. His actions led the Cuban people to view with enthusiasm the change offered by Castro — whether or not he was a Communist.
Once the Cuban revolution was over, once corrupt Batista had fled to exile in Portugal — with 300 million U.S. dollars according to several historians — the U.S. began its now-famous boycott and embargo of Cuban products and exports, and launched several attempts to kill Cuba’s new Communist leader. The Bay of Pigs fiasco is well known, of course. But what’s less known in the U.S. is the effect the nation’s blockade of trade with Cuba had on the smaller nation’s people.
It might seem quaint to see Cuba’s streets filled with mid- to early-fifties U.S. automobiles, many of them kept on the road by parts manufactured by self-taught mechanics and tool-and-die workers. What is more important, of course, is what has been happening to the Cuban people, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands who have made their way to the U.S. in boats, on rafts, on any device that will float.
For years the Catholic Church, in Rome, the U.S. and in Cuba, have called for the nations to change their relationship with Cuba. That’s why church leaders have reacted positively and with enthusiasm to President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that U.S. policy toward their neighbor to the south will, in fact, be changing.
Following the president’s December announcement that after 50 years, the U.S. and Cuba will be restoring diplomatic relations, Pope Francis was said, in a Catholic News Service story, to be “happy.”
“Today we are happy because we have seen how two peoples who were distanced for so many years took a step toward each other yesterday,” he told a group of ambassadors the day after the president’s announcement.
Speaking to the ambassadors, the pope said that the rapprochement between the long-estranged nations “was moved forward by ambassadors, by diplomacy,” he said. “Your work is noble, very noble.”
So was the work of the pope. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told CNS that the change in U.S.-Cuba relations was a result of the “pope’s culture of encounter,” and was a “decisive tipping point for the restored relations.”
In other words, dialogue works. Engagement produces success.
Fifty years of embargo — and the terrible performance of a communist government — made Cuban cigars scarce in the U.S., old cars the backbone of transportation in Cuba, and the people there poor by any measure.
The Catholic Church in both nations has worked long and hard to end the embargo. Now with the pope’s direct assistance, relations between the two countries will begin what may be a slow and tortured process toward normalcy.
It’s progress, and it’s the antithesis of war.
Pope Francis has proved that a common sense approach to international relations — still missing in many parts of the world — will work.