As the story has it, President Ronald Reagan was deeply and personally moved upon seeing images of Pope John Paul II’s first visit to communist Poland; it is at least known that he was deeply convinced that the Pontiff shared common cause with him in seeing the Soviet Empire come to an end. History would prove him right on this point, as devoutly Catholic Poland (John Paul’s homeland, to which he returned several times) became the epicenter of an anti-Soviet movement that took hold across Eastern Europe. The cooperation between Reagan and John Paul II would eventually include consultation on Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement, secret trips to the Vatican by CIA director William Casey, and even the sharing of American satellite images.
Recently, in one of the world’s last bastions of communism, the current pope touched down for a visit with far lower expectations for bringing about any changes that would benefit the American cause, and undoubtedly without prior conversations with American intelligence officials at any level. In fact, while Benedict XVI began his trip by explaining that “communism no longer corresponds to reality”, he ended it by criticizing the effects of the U.S. embargo on the island nation. One may be tempted to draw a number of conclusions from the comparison between the two popes and their respective visits: maybe the pope (or religion in general) matters less now, maybe Cuba falls too low on the list of American priorities at the moment to deserve much attention, maybe American and Vatican interests have diverged entirely.
Indeed, the contexts of the two popes’ visits are extraordinarily different: Benedict XVI is not the media darling that his predecessor was, nor does he share the same bond with (even devout) Cubans that John Paul II shared with the average Pole of his day. Neither is the world at large (including even the United States) as concerned with the current state of Cuba as it was with the Soviet Empire of the early 1980’s. But these are not the reasons that Benedict XVI’s visit is largely unimportant. These event lacks significance not simply because of personalities, politics, or scope, but for a far more profound and positive reason: the conflict of ideas represented by such visits to communist lands is already over.
As Benedict’s billion-strong flock continues to grow (despite no small amount of recent controversy), thousands of Cubans continue to risk their lives each year to flee the socialist paradise. It is widely accepted that communism there will not long outlive Fidel and Raul Castro and their inner circle. We can be sure of this because, to borrow a turn of phrase from Benedict XVI, communism in Cuba corresponds only to a reality in which old men cling desperately to their own power in the name of a failed ideology. While church attendance and religious observance numbers remain relatively low in Cuba, the pope still has one distinct advantage over the Cuban government: Benedict and his followers unquestionably believe in something; it is doubtful that the same can be said of the Castro brothers.
Kevin Duffy is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group.