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The papal visit that changed Cuba

September 21, 2015
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ANN ARBOR—As Pope Francis visited Cuba, Silvia Pedraza recalled witnessing the first papal tour of the communist island 17 years ago.

The professor of American culture at the University of Michigan remembered how the people trickled in to see Pope John Paul II’s mass in her hometown, the central city of Santa Clara. After years of being discouraged from—and often punished for—attending church, they were unsure of how to feel, she said.  

“People were looking around, hesitant, a little afraid,” said Pedraza, who was born in Cuba and fled with her parents when she was 12.

During that speech, Pedraza recalls vividly, the pope told those present that the family was the root institution, the most important institution of the society. That’s a message they had never heard before.

“They had lived in a society that had told them they should put their allegiance to the Communist Party above the allegiance of their family, a society where children would inform on their parents,” she said. “That was very important for Cubans to hear.”

Later, in the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, the pope crowned Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre—an important symbol of the island and Cuban identity. A song written in Miami was sung in the background.

“Even those that weren’t Catholic were visibly moved,” Pedraza said.

As John Paul II approached Havana, people weren’t hesitant anymore.

“People were flocking to the mass, running there to be there early, to save a spot,” Pedraza said. More than 300,000 attended the mass.

Pedraza said John Paul II used the opportunity to deliver two key messages: Cuba should open itself to the world, and the world should open itself up to Cuba. And that people in Cuba should take their future in their own hands and should not be afraid.

“People in Cuba began to speak very freely after that visit,” said Pedraza, who has continued to visit the island regularly. “Up to that point, people had spoken freely to me when there was no one around, when there was no possibility of anyone hearing us.”

She added, “I think that stayed, that’s still there. That ability of people to be less afraid to speak more forthrightly, to be able to be critical, that has stayed with the Cuban people.”

While John Paul II lay down the groundwork for Cubans and the rest of the world to open up to each other, it was Pope Francis’ mediating role that gave the final push for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

“He sees his own contribution to the process of development in Cuba as building on those blocks that were left behind in the visit of John Paul II,” she said, adding that this could also be seen in the pope’s recent visit to Latin America.

“In South America, he told people, ‘You are the generation of sorrow. You are the generation that lived during the years of the dictatorship. You are the memory of this country.’ Because, of course, he lived it, too.

“He knows that right-wing dictatorships and left-wing dictatorships resemble each other an awful lot,” she said. “And they do the same things to people: They make them afraid.”

 

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