The Vatican announced earlier today that Pope Francis has added a pastoral visit to Cuba as part of his world tour this autumn. The pontiff will visit Cuba just prior to his visit to the US, no doubt motivated in part to remain a part of the rapprochement Francis helped facilitate between Havana and Washington. The Vatican released a statement from Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office earlier this morning:
I am able to confirm that the Holy Father Francis, having received and accepted the invitation from the civil authorities and bishops of Cuba, has decided to pay a visit to the island before his arrival in the United States for the trip announced some time ago.
Given the circumstances surrounding the relations between Cuba and the US, and especially Francis’ role in them, this isn’t terribly surprising. Rumors of the visit have been floating around for a while, perhaps waiting to see how the dialogue between the two countries developed. Even prior to his election as Pope, then-Cardinal Bergoglio had been an outspoken critic in Latin America of the US embargo on Cuba, and he undoubtedly wants to keep pressure on to bring it to an end.
Even apart from that, though, there’s ample precedent for a papal visit to the hardline Communist island. St. John Paul II went there first in 1998, two years after the Castro regime had normalized relations with the Vatican. (Interesting point at the link: the Clinton administration hailed the visit, but declined to end the embargo.) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI traveled to Havana almost exactly one year before Francis’ election.
The National Catholic Register reports that Francis will not meet with the Castros, although a former papal nuncio from Cuba has returned to deal with officials as preparation for the visit:
Although the details of the stop have not been released, it is expected that Pope Francis will meet with Cuban authorities. He is not expected to meet with Cuban president Raul Castro, according to a Vatican source.
Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, traveled to Cuba April 22, where he will stay until the 28th in celebration of the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Holy See.
Cardinal Stella served as papal nuncio to Cuba from 1993-1999, and helped pave the way and organize St. John Paul II’s visit in 1998, which marked the first-ever papal trip to the Caribbean Island.
The cardinal is set to meet with local clergy during his visit, and will celebrate three Masses. He will also encounter the top officials of the Cuban government and of the Communist Party.
His visit may represent a further fostering of the Holy See contribution in Cuba, and could be seen as a sign of the papal effort to help normalize relations between Cuba and the United States.
President Obama offered his support for the visit, through his national-security spokesman Ben Rhodes:
Pope Francis’ decision to go to Cuba later this year is winning praise from a prominent world leader: President Obama.
The president “is pleased that His Holiness Pope Francis will visit #Cuba on his way to the US later this year,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
It will be a good opportunity for Pope Francis to demand more liberty and autonomy for Cubans. Whether he decides to take advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen, and whether the media would cover it if he did also is an open question. As this video notes, Cuba makes the top ten of most oppressive nations when it comes to freedom of the press and access to information:
Given that, what did New York governor Andrew Cuomo mean by this?
Happening now: Andrew Cuomo has taken over the Jet Blue speaker on our flight home from Havana. Says he likes Cuba's approach to the press.
— Susanne Craig (@susannecraig) April 21, 2015
Pope Francis has nowhere to go but up after Cuomo’s display of testicular fortitude on behalf of freedom.