The recent visit to Cuba of Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, has sparked controversy. The arrival of the Cardinal on the island occurs just two months after the massive protests that occurred in Cuba on July 11 and 12. From sectors of the Catholic laity, the political opposition, civil society, and the exile of Miami, it is claimed that it is an "operation" of "washing face" to the Cuban government – with the help of the local Catholic hierarchy – after the events of last July, which threw hundreds of prisoners, especially young people. However, transcending this reductionist first reading, it could be a more complex event.
Cardinal O'Malley is a very important player within the U.S. Catholic Church, and a close advisor and collaborator of Pope Francis, who was involved in the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States under the Obama Administration. The visit, which took place between September 7 and 9, had two dimensions: a religious one – which involved meetings with prelates and Catholic laity – and a diplomatic one – with an agenda of meetings with Cuban authorities at the highest level. The visit occurred as part of an invitation by Monsignor Dionisio García Ibañez, archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, to celebrate together the feast of the Virgin of Charity, Patroness of Cuba, at the national shrine of El Cobre.
The Cardinal officiated Masses in El Cobre, and also before the tomb of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, in the Cathedral of Havana. He also visited the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, in the capital, which is developing the "Abdala" vaccine against Covid-19. During his agenda of meetings with the authorities, whose zenith was a meeting with President Miguel Díaz-Canel at the Palace of the Revolution, he was accompanied all the time by Monsignor Giampiero Gloder, Apostolic Nuncio of His Holiness in Cuba.
What is known about the contents of the conversations between the Cardinal and the Cuban government? Days after his return to the United States, O'Malley himself shared on his personal blog part of his exchanges with the authorities of the Island: he asked for a pardon for the hundreds of people imprisoned as a result of the demonstrations of July 11 and 12 – as long as they have not participated in acts of violence, affirmed-; requested that Caritas-Cuba be able to play an active role as a vehicle for the entry and distribution of humanitarian aid on the island, especially as a counterpart to Catholic Relief Services (United States) and Caritas Internationalis (Holy See); announced the active collaboration between Cuba and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in relation to vaccines developed by Cubans against COVID-19; called for an expansion of the dialogue between the Cuban Bishops and the government – an important element if the Bishops decided to be involved in facilitating processes of internal dialogue and intermediation; I have made public the concerns of the Cuban government about the impossibility of arriving remittances to the island as a result of the sanctions adopted by the Trump Administration, and maintained until the present.
Days after O'Malley's visit, the Bishop of Matanzas, Monsignor Manuel Hilario de Céspedes, was able to visit in prison the opposition Félix Navarro, who was on hunger strike since his arrest following the protests. From Santiago de Cuba, the government released a video of the opposition José Daniel Ferrer, also detained; and the image of the popular Virgin Mambisa, from the parish of Santo Tomás, was able to travel by car through the neighborhoods of Santiago de Cuba on the occasion of its festivity – an interesting element if we take into account the critical epidemiological situation of the country. In those days, the website of Caritas-Cuba showed images of trucks transporting food to the soup kitchens of the elderly in different parts of the island. Although it is impossible to assure that the fact is linked to the visit of the Cardinal, it is curious that this information saw the light precisely in that context. On the other hand, Thais Mailén and Yuisán Cancio, two young people who had participated in a protest on Obispo Street, in the capital, five months ago, were released.
A first element that emerges from this visit is that the centrality of the Catholic Church as a facilitator of dialogue processes in Cuban scenarios does not disappear, or is "shrinking". It remained to be seen what the role of the Church in Cuba would look like once Cardinal Jaime Ortega, architect and executor of a strategy that conceived the Church as an intermediary and facilitator of dialogues between the government, the international community, and Cuban civil society, physically disappeared. With its ups and downs, this ecclesial role headed by Ortega obtained receptivity from the Cuban government, and achieved concrete political results: it raised the level of internal political dialogue of the Church; facilitated the release of political prisoners from the "Black Spring" of 2003; consolidated ecclesial initiatives dedicated to dialogue and reconciliation among Cubans; involved the Church in the process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, etc. It remains to be seen whether a new leadership emanates from the local episcopate that will continue to give life to this political line or, failing that, it will be exclusively an initiative of the Holy See, the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the American bishops.
In any case, an active role of the Pontificate of Francis and Vatican diplomacy in the creation of channels of dialogue and détention between the Cuban and U.S. governments is foreseeable, with the active participation of some U.S. bishops. The Catholic Church is an important actor in the world's relations with Cuba, not only because of its institutional weight inside and outside the island, but also because of the relevance that the Cuban government gives it. Let us remember how effective the intermediation of the powerful Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, who was a personal friend of John Paul II and Fidel Castro, was in the past. O'Connor facilitated the release of the thousands of political prisoners left in Cuba for their participation in the civil conflict of the 60s. In addition, he managed to transfer him to the United States, along with his relatives. Of great weight and importance was also the work carried out by Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, who helped consolidate relations between the Caritas of Cuba and the United States. Cardinal O'Malley's recent visit to Cuba is clearly part of this political and diplomatic tradition, which clearly has the approval of the Pontificate, the U.S. Church, the Secretariat of State, and the Cuban government.
A second element to highlight, and that is less clear, is the role that the Cuban Church, and its local hierarchy, would play in the creation of conditions and in the potential facilitation of a process of dialogue between the government and civil society on the Island, just after the protests of July 11. In recent times we have witnessed the end of episcopal and lay hyperleadership within the Cuban Church and, failing that, we have seen the spontaneous actions of priests, laity, men and women religious in the recent events that occurred in Cuba. There are demands from Catholic sectors and civil society for the Church to assume and develop this role of intermediation and facilitation of a national dialogue, which includes the release of political prisoners and the democratization of the country. Regardless of whether realistic or not, any initiative by the Church in favor of facilitating dialogues and understandings between Cubans, between the governments of Cuba and the United States, and in favor of the release of those imprisoned on July 11, should be seen as urgent and positive.
A third important element is that it reaffirms the centrality of Caritas' role as an independent institution with the capacity to serve vulnerable sectors within Cuba. This represents something important for the governments of Cuba and the United States, insofar as it resolves two issues at the same time: humanitarian aid can reach Cubans through a serious, professional and reliable institution; but, at the same time, independent of the government.
Cardinal O'Malley's visit indicates the delicate actions of various diplomatic machines that seek to create conditions to resolve issues of vital importance for Cubans, and for Cuba and the United States. Far from a "face-washing operation", we could be facing the political possibility of redirecting processes from conflict zones to areas of dialogue, pact, and cooperation. Let us not deceive ourselves, these processes are usually not easy for anyone: each party will have to give in and rearrange positions to achieve its objectives. Hopefully initiatives like those of Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley will multiply, and come to fruition. It is the kind of action that, with a very low profile, but effectively, could help facilitate (and enhance) the urgent economic, social and political changes that are needed within Cuba; and, at the same time, take relations between Cuba and the United States to a new level.
Lenier González is a Special Project Associate in the Office of the President at the Inter-American Dialogue. He was vice editor of the socio-political analysis magazine Espacio Laical (2005-2014) and co-founder of Cuba Posible (2015-2019), an independent think-tank that sought to influence the processes of change in Cuba by making proposals in the areas of economics, politics and international relations. González is a recognized political analyst with 15 years of work experience in non-profit organizations in Cuba, with a focus on research, analysis, and publishing. He is a published author with relevant experience conducting and managing social and political advocacy projects in Cuba, with extensive experience in editorial management and drafting public policy proposals.
González has a degree in Social Communication from the University of Havana (Cuba), and a master’s degree in Social Development from the Catholic University of Murcia (Spain).