Pope Benedict left Cuba yesterday and nothing changed. The state is still run by a communist gerontocracy; it remains an officially atheist state; Good Friday is still not a public holiday; hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail or under close surveillance; there is still no respect for civil society, no trade unions, no independent newspapers, no recognition of property rights, no independent political parties; and the most basic of human rights are still not respected.
So was Benedict's visit a failure?
That depends on your expectations for his visit. Many people—including this writer—had hoped that Benedict's visit would finally tear open the small vents in the regime's dark curtain, first opened by John Paul II in '98, and let the breeze of freedom flow over that stifled island. Many Christians on the island would have settled for considerably less. They would have been content with a chance to meet the leader of their church, or the chance to attend a mass led by the Holy Father.
None of these things happened. The loyal opposition on the island, including Nobel Peace prize nominee Oswaldo Paya and the courageous ladies in white were prevented from even attending the open air mass in Cuba's Revolutionary square. They remained at their homes, guarded by state authorities. In their stead went people from the state universities and those "encouraged" to go by the regime itself.
The itinerary for the trip seemed to play into the regime's hands and, from the perspective of those seeking justice—here and now—the visit might be considered a failure. Instead of visiting the poor and oppressed, the pope visited with the rich oppressor. Could it get any worse?
That depends, in turn, on your religious outlook. It was certainly disappointing for anyone expecting real or even symbolic signs of change on the island and in the regime. But seen through Augustinian lenses—the type of lenses worn by many of the Christians on the island, and worn even by the pope himself—the trip was a success even if it was disappointing.
From a strictly practical perspective, there is very little the pope can do to coerce or cajole the Cuban government into doing anything; even something as simple as changing his itinerary. To borrow a devil's phrase, Benedict has no divisions.
But the pope does wield considerable force—directive force. His sermons and speeches prior to and during his visit showed considerable strength, compassion, and a confidence that one side—the side he represents—would win. Why? Because, as he said in his statement prior to entering Cuba, "the Marxist ideology no longer corresponds with reality."
His homily at the Plaza de la Revolución, was even more powerful. Evoking the Israelite exile and persecution in Babylon, he encouraged the faithful to remember that "truly, God never abandons his children, he never forgets them. He is above us and is able to save us by his power."
As those other persecuted followers of God in Babylon discovered, and as the Castros will discover, morally bankrupt regimes are bound to fall. It happened to Nebuchadnezzar, it happened to Caesar, and it will happen to Castro. Reminding people of this reality sets our eyes on greater expectations.