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History & ideology collide in Cuba

| Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, 8:57 p.m.

WASHINGTON

The welcome extended to Pope Francis in Cuba last week may have presented an acceptable entrance of the pontiff to the communist state. But in truth, it was filled with historical discordance.

There was President Raul Castro, long the highly respected “jefe” of the Cuban armed forces, wearing a dark, American-style suit. There was a very small and apparently military band, which, in an island where the wind blows music through every soul and tree, blared out embarrassing shrills.

And, most stunning of all, when the pope unexpectedly met with Fidel the next day, the strongman who dreamed of changing the world was wearing a blue Adidas jogging suit.

The start-off, for sure, was odd. The Havana airport was all but empty, with only government men and women there. In a world where even second- and third-tier Asian cities have stunning skyscrapers, Havana is low and empty. It isn't as though Cuba were stopped in history; it is more that it just slowly ran out of gas about 30 years ago, along with the old American cars everywhere on the streets.

As for Pope Francis, he said nothing in public about the number (probably 90 to 100) of dissidents and critics of the regime who were arrested, knocked down and beaten up by police during the visit, and the only quotes in public that made The Associated Press wires were those criticizing ideology.

During his first Mass in Cuba, the pope called for a spirit of reconciliation and human service that “is never ideological.”

“What is the most important thing?” he asked. “The call to serve.” But “service is never ideological,” he went on, “for we do not serve ideas; we serve people.”

With a little historical background, one could enter into fascinating play over the ideologies that were crossing and recrossing themselves during those three days in Cuba.

Both Castro boys — Fidel and Raul, now in their 80s — were raised Roman Catholic by a rough father who made a fortune in farming. Both boys went to the Jesuit Colegio de Belen in eastern Cuba, but Fidel, especially, was an indifferent student.

In the 1980s, long after “los Castro” took power in 1959, I talked to Fidel's priest, Father Armando Llorente, in Miami and asked him if, during Fidel's years at the school, he ever saw the boy praying. He smiled a canny Jesuit smile and said, “I would see him alone, praying in the chapel. I knew what he was praying for — he was praying to win.”

As to Pope Francis, he emerged out of that same period. But as an Argentine boy from a happy Italian family who moved to Buenos Aires, he grew up and became a Jesuit priest during the time that virulently anti-communist military governments were ravaging the nation. In particular, the military was against the “liberation theology” of the Catholic Church.

These two countries of Latin America — Cuba and Argentina — have given us two very different visions of the development of the body and the soul. They crossed dramatically last week, but that is still only the beginning.

Doubtless, more drama is to come, and doubtless it will be just as compelling a story.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years (gigi_geyer@juno.com).

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