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  September 21, 2015

Pope Visits Cuba to Seize The Moral Conscience of Latin America

James Early says the papal visit to Cuba before coming to Washington has a certain significance, since he has taken up a role of an interlocutor between the two nations
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James Early is the former director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Prior to his work with the Smithsonian, Mr. Early was an administrator at the National Endowment for Humanities in Washington. He was host of Ten Minutes Left, a weekly radio segment of cultural, educational, and political interviews and commentary at Howard University's radio station. He is a former member of the board of TransAfrica, and currently on the board of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange. He is also a board member at the Institute for Policy Studies and also at The Real News Network.


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The Argentinian-born Pope Francis on a four-day visit to Cuba held mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion in [inaud.] Cuba, where Fidel and Raúl Castro grew up as young boys. Speaking in Spanish, here's what he had to say.

[Audio of Pope Francis speaking]

PERIES: Now joining me to address the significance of this visit to Cuba is James Early. James has been to Cuba on various cultural, political, and academic exchanges. He is the former director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. And James is also a board member of the Real News Network. James, good to have you with us.

JAMES EARLY: Good to be with you.

PERIES: So James, the papal visit to Cuba is very significant, particularly at this moment on the dawn of reestablishing relations with the United States, particularly because the pope himself has been pushing for reestablishing relations between the two countries.

EARLY: This is indeed a most significant visit on the part of this particular pope. And I underscore this particular pope because of his social worldview in the context of his religious perspectives and the kinds of social equity, topical issues, that he has taken up. Of course, he has been an interlocutor between the United States, the Obama administration, and the Cuban administration of President Raúl Castro in helping to move forward the establishment of diplomatic relations and the agenda to look at normalization. So his being there is a validation of this process. It is an added factor to move into this next stage, where the bilateral commission between Cuba and the United States has been established between the two State Departments, setting forth an agenda of the issues that they will now engage, which will give content or substance to normalization.

So the pope going to Cuba first and then coming to the U.S. is quite significant, and really supporting the internal dynamics of Cuba and supporting the bilateral relationships between Cuba and the U.S.

PERIES: Now, James, what is in this for Cuba and Cubans, and the Cuban government? Now, I understand that the party, by that I mean the Communist Party of Cuba has urged everyone to come out and be present, especially at the open mass that the pope had. So what is significant for the state of Cuba and the party to be so welcoming and receptive of the pope's visit, given that it's no longer really a Catholic nation?

EARLY: Well, Cuba was never, by way of comparison to other Latin American nations, a particularly strong Catholic nation. So Catholicism has never held the kinds of sway among the Cuban citizenry as have the Afro-syncretic religions mixed with Catholicism, and which the Communist Party acknowledged 20-25 years ago that the most pervasive religious practices among the Cuban population is really these Afrocentric relations that have some ties to Catholicism.

This is an accumulation of the Catholic church. The Catholic church is a major [statal] player. It's not only one who deals with the soul and the meta dimensions of humankind, but it has historically been involved in the negotiation of power. And so the Catholic church, with this particular pope, builds upon the previous pope having gone there, it builds upon the fact that it was the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the United States of America who first escorted Fidel Castro back to a church service so many years now, over a decade or so or more that no one really gives a lot of recognition to.

But it is a reflection that the pope is, and the papal institution, represents a validating ethical, moral, and political force within the world. And that this particular Pope Francis has really cast his lot in saying that the United States should join the community of nations in recognizing Cuba, as has all of Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe, and the rest of the world long before Western Europe came along.

So that's really the significance. The exchanges between the two are very interesting in that Raúl Castro made a replica of Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, where--they incidentally were born in [inaud.] but the pope is not going to [inaud.] because of the birth of either of the Castro brothers. It's because the Caridad del Cobre floated out of the sea some centuries ago and was embraced as the patron saint of Cuba. Many, many years later the Castro brothers were born there. So this is a reflection on the part of the Communist Party of Cuba, as a part of the elected government of Cuba, not one and the same, to indicate that they endorse people's spiritual strivings, their freedom to do that. It's not an endorsement of the intervention of the role of religion into the democratic process of citizens determining what their state wants. Fidel Castro is giving the pope a book, Fidel and Religion, which was written by the radical Catholic Brazilian priest Frei Betto.

So there have been many steps in Cuba's engagement moving away from the dogmatism of the Communist Party and the state at the outset of the revolution in which they did not avow religious faith. People were not admitted to the Communist Party who were religious folk. But when they recognized that they had many socialist patriots who died on battlegrounds, in Southern Africa for example, and when opening their [collars] to see these African religious, or Catholic religious, beads and necklaces and the like, it was a maturation on the part of the Cuban Communist Party and the Cuban state to drop those dogmatic rules and to recognize that one could be a good patriot at the national patriot level, or a good socialist in the context of the Cuban Communist Party, as well as practice one's individual faith.

So it's a maturation in the thinking of the Communist Party and the state in response to the proactivity of citizens with regard to their interest in the pursuit of religion.

PERIES: Now, it's obvious that the Vatican has played a role in terms of mediating, moderating, negotiating on behalf of the Cuban state, particularly with this pope. But what else is in it for the Vatican? I should say, to be engaged at this level with the Cubans.

EARLY: That's a highly speculative, I think to try to think about what may be, but here are some of the issues that I think the viewing audience should consider and their proactive engagement, not just standing on the sidelines observing this from afar, but figuring out what it has to do with respect to their nations and their representatives, obviously here in the United States but whoever will be watching the Real News Network program around the world.

This pope is from Latin America. This pope has lived through Condor, the fascist dictatorship organized by the imperial power of the U.S. State Department and military along with fascist dictators during that period in Latin America, where there were many disappeared people, butchered people, babies taken from progressives and leftists who were arguing for alternatives and given to other families and raised. Those inquiries are still unfolding in Brazil today under Dilma Rousseff, the president there, unfolding in Argentina and in Chile.

This pope lived through that and is aware of the sentiments in Latin America. He is also particularly sensitive to the sentiments in Latin America, that Latin America has petitioned the UN for year-in and year-out with other countries around the world for the readmission of Cuba as a full member of the nation-state protocols here in the Americas. And so he brings both his religious perspective of reconciliation between humankind, his presentation at the mass [inaud.] on Matthew, the moneylender collecting taxes from the Jews. And that the gaze of Jesus was so powerful it moved him to a transformative state, to become a person of lesser greed and oppression, and to think about his fellow human beings and what he could contribute to that.

So the pope is playing a very conscious role through these religious frameworks as a part of the conciliation process in Latin America, the new integration of Latin America and the Caribbean, that includes all of the states. And of course, and the new normalization, the establishment of diplomatic relations and the process of normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He's playing a social role, he's playing a religious role, of consolidating the flock of the Catholic religion in Latin America. Keeping in mind that not only progressive and left governments, which have stepped in to look at questions of equity and the betterment of people and the collaboration with citizens to empower themselves, where religion has looked to the world after this. This pope has also faced in the broader context of Latin America by the rapid flow of Protestantism, of fundamental Protestantism in places like Brazil.

Cuba really is the seat of the moral conscience of independence in Latin America and the Caribbean. That's not a question of whether all populations or all countries will agree with Cuba's socialist path. But they do respect Cuba for having stood forth to be self-determined in the face of the big behemoth, the United States, to its north. And so no question in my mind that the pope is negotiating all of those dimensions, both religious, his role as a citizen coming out of Latin America, and looking at how to establish a more peaceful protocol to negotiate differences.

PERIES: James, I thank you so much for joining us today and giving us some insights into your mind. Thank you.

EARLY: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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