Occasionally, contemporary history turns into a bottleneck through which protagonists push through, who at first glance only seem to be connected by time. We have a communist who is considering rejoining the Catholic Church; a pope who criticizes capitalism and who is currently undertaking a visit, cheered by many, to the Caribbean islands governed by this very communist; and the president of the only superpower, who will welcome the pope to the White House on Wednesday for his onward journey and who will give a speech at the United Nations in New York next Monday, only a few hours before his Marxist counterpart and a few days after the Holy Father.
However, Pope Francis, Raúl Castro and Barack Obama have more than incidental points of contact. The Vatican mediated in the background when high-ranking officials from Washington and Havana met up in Canada for the first time in 50 years to normalize the relationship that had been on ice.
This was possible because the majority of people in Cuba, which is officially atheist, still consider themselves Catholic. In the U.S., around 20 percent of the people are Catholic. They constitute the biggest church, while the Protestants are split up in numerous separate denominations. Francis is especially popular among young U.S. Catholics, and this popularity is, at best, slightly subdued among the conservatives of the Church. They are less scandalized that the pope called unbridled capitalism the "dung of the devil.”
Castro at the United Nations
However, it is irritating that he tends to put issues such as contraception and abortion into the background. It will be interesting to see how Francis will alternately give the Democrats on the one side and the Republicans on the other cause for uninhibited applause and embarrassed silence during his speech in front of Congress.
The pope welcomed social-reformist Obama to the Vatican in March 2014. Already at Mandela’s obsequies in December 2013, Obama and Castro shook hands. In October 2014, diplomats from both countries used the Vatican for a conspiratorial meeting to negotiate details for the newly reopened embassies.
On the occasion of the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York, Raúl Castro will walk on U.S. soil again for the first time since 1959. In 1962, an attempt to station Soviet missiles on Cuba failed. That same year, Washington applied its embargo policies. This gradual rapprochement with Havana is a one of Obama’s rare successes in his foreign affairs.
He can also record a win on the nuclear compromise with Iran. His international agenda does not give much more. Whereas the deal with Iran is considered controversial in the U.S., the majority of the population thinks the normalization of the relationship with Havana is positive.
The development is already hailed in Cuba. Raúl Castro, 84, whose creation of niches in the private sector could not stop the national economy from going downhill, currently has to recognize the de facto bankruptcy of his last sponsor: Venezuela, solely focused on oil, is wobbling due to the massive drop in prices. Washington is the last hope for Castro, the head of state with the title of first secretary of the Communist Party, which seems anachronistic.
Castro definitely needs the U.S. president much more than the latter needs him; the American president will nonetheless also be grateful that at least Cuba seems to be keeping its promise of “change we can believe in” and of the confidence of being able to bring about this change, given the brutal chaos in Syria and Iraq and the confrontations with Russia.
On Saturday, Francis demanded more space for the mission in Havana. John Paul II and Benedict XVI also addressed similar pleas to the regime. The hope for real changes is bigger and is being expressed more loudly because of the regime’s empty treasuries.
Private Audience with the Pope
After a private audience with Francis in May, Castro said that if the pope “continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church.” The 84-year-old veteran of world revolution will be the last communist governing Havana. The new pope, however, bestowed an “Obama moment” on the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s labeling as the first non-European pope is at least as superficial as that of the president, who has a white mother and an African father, as the first black [man] in the White House. For the holy Saint Peter, the first pope was from Galilee in Israel. Over the last eight centuries, he was followed by nine other Holy Fathers who were born in Palestine, Libya, other areas of North Africa, Turkey or Syria (four of them).
Nonetheless, the election of the first pope from a developing country personifies a revolutionary change. The Argentine Jesuit has never visited the U.S. before. We do not know if he likes the country that still prefers freedom to social security. However, the United States and all of Pan-America is becoming more and more important for the Vatican. Forty percent of the world’s Catholics live in Central and South America.
US: Catholic Core Area
The U.S., with its more than 68 million Catholics, is the third biggest community worldwide after Brazil and Mexico, and it is only growing thanks to the immigration of Hispanics. This growing community is also more faithful to Rome, as the immigrants keep closer to scripture than to the social political reforms of the Kennedy Catholics. Europe, on the other hand, is shrinking, and the majority of the people who are currently pouring into the area are for the most part not Christians, but Muslims.
In the future, the Vatican’s compass will point more in the direction of the double continent. Thus Francis, Obama and Castro are three men in the same boat. The constellation that has brought together a reform-oriented pope, a communist forced into change, and the president of the last superpower seems more fateful than accidental.