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The pope, Cuba and Venezuela

The pope, Cuba and
Left-wing regimes pose a moral challenge for Pope Francis
Sep 12th 2015, 15:26 BY ERASMUS

THE SENTENCING of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Leopoldo López, to
nearly 14 years in , on top of the 18 months he has already spent
in mostly-solitary confinement, triggered a range of different
reactions. Amnesty International, a global human-rights lobby, said of
the verdict: “The charges against [him] were never adequately
substantiated and the prison sentence against him is clearly politically
motivated. His only ‘crime’ was being leader of an opposition party in
Venezuela.” Watch, another international watch-dog, spoke
of “egregious violations” of due process. Mr López himself sent a
hand-written note from jail saying that he had been fully aware of the
consequences when he defied pressure from the regime to leave the
country. “My soul, my ideals and my love for you are flying high in the
skies above our beautiful Venezuela,” he wrote to his wife and two children.

What about the Vatican? Considering that this is an overwhelmingly
Catholic country where the Holy See has strong connections (its
secretary of state Pietro Parolin was serving there till 2013) and that
Mr López himself is Catholic, people might have expected Pope Francis or
at least a senior Vatican spokesman to issue an instant condemnation of
the verdict. But for better or worse, that is not the current papacy’s
way; it prefers to make its feelings known more discreetly, and to leave
things to local bishops.

The Vatican and its representatives have certainly been watching
Venezuela in recent days. Archbishop Roberto Luckert León, one of the
country’s most outspoken hierarchs, has roundly condemned
Nicolás Maduro for expelling thousands of Colombians from the country.
The pope, on a more emollient note and in keeping with his habit of
delegating to local prelates, welcomed the fact that bishops from the
two countries were conferring on how to mitigate a looming humanitarian

Francis does have some moral influence over Mr Maduro, as became clear
in June when the president abruptly called off a meeting with the pope
at the last moment, pleading illness but apparently in fear of a
dressing-down over human rights. Archbishop Luckert said the pope would
not visit Venezuela unless human rights improve. Early last year, as the
country was shaken by violent protests, the church offered its services
as a mediator, and defenders of the Vatican’s discreet approach say that
quiet ecclesiastical diplomacy has helped at several critical moments to
fend off the spectre of civil war.

But religious leaders, like political ones, have to make hard choices
between keeping relationships and channels of dialogue open, and openly
telling hard truths. Exactly that dilemma will face Pope Francis when he
heads for Cuba on September 19th, en route to the United States: one of
the trickiest itineraries of his papacy.

This week Cuba announced that it would mark the visit by releasing more
than 3,500 prisoners. This sounded like a rather dramatic gesture to
defang critics and sweeten the atmosphere of the papal sojourn. But
there may be less to it than meets the eye; it apparently includes those
who were in any case due to be freed next year, and some foreigners, but
not those whom the government considers guilty of threatening “state
security”, a formula which could allow for political prisoners to remain

Papal diplomacy played a vital role in paving the way for last
December’s diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States.
Jimmy Burns, author of a newly published biography of the pope, sees
this as clearly the greatest diplomatic achievement of the papacy. And
true to Francis’s style, the Vatican has followed the advice of Cuban
bishops (who are perforce more cautious than their Venezuelan
counterparts) and encouraged a gradual sort of change on the
communist-run island.

But for some critics, the Holy See has paid for its cordial relations
with Havana by treating the regime with undeserved leniency. Cuba’s
Cardinal Jaime Ortega said in June that there were no political
prisoners in the country: this was rejected as “betrayal” by some
recently released inmates who insist that some prisoners of conscience
remain inside. The “Ladies in White” movement of Cuban dissidents has
asked for a meeting with the pope but recently they have found little
sympathy from the Vatican.

In the course of his travels the pontiff, who has shown real eloquence
in condemning the excesses of the capitalist north, can still expect
some hard questions about his attitude to excesses of another kind. Will
he denounce left-wing authoritarianism as much as he has denounced the
right-wing variety?

In an Orwellian touch, Mr López was deemed responsible for
“subliminally” fomenting even though he spoke only of peaceful
protest. On the lips of clerics, however, the use of “subliminal”
language is generally more acceptable; people half-expect clerics to
speak in enigmatic terms as their faith’s founder sometimes did. So if
there are diplomatic reasons why certain human-rights abuses can’t be
condemned openly, people hope that the pope will at least condemn them

Source: The pope, Cuba and Venezuela: Left-wing regimes pose a moral
challenge for Pope Francis | The Economist –

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