Editor’s note: Nat Hentoff collaborated with his son, Nick Hentoff, on this week’s column, which is the second of a two-part series.
In my last column, I reported on the suffering of Cuba’s dissidents and political prisoners, which has only increased since President Obama normalized relations.
The reconciliation between Cuba and the United States was facilitated by Pope Francis and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Cuba. On Oct. 1, 2014, I wrote a column titled “Pope Francis’ Admirable War on Poverty.”
It is with regret that I must now write that by abandoning Cuba’s political prisoners, Pope Francis bears some responsibility for their increased suffering.
The PanAm Post, an online magazine covering the Americas, reported that prior to the Pope’s visit to Cuba, a list of political prisoners was sent to the Vatican by Nelis Rojas de Morales – secretary of the International Coordinator of Former Cuban Political Prisoners. Cuban human rights groups were therefore stunned when Cardinal Ortega, the architect of the pope’s visit, denied the very existence of political prisoners in Cuba during two interviews with Spanish language media.
In an interview held in Rome and published on March 30 in the Spanish language Catholic magazine Nueva Vida (New Life), Cardinal Ortega denied that there were any political prisoners in Cuba. Two months later, on June 5, Cardinal Ortega told Spain’s Cadena Ser radio that “there are no political prisoners on the island; just common criminals.”
“The dissidents, those that are called dissidents, are more present in the foreign press, in south Florida, and in blogs,” he said.
Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), contested Ortega’s claim that there were no political prisoners left in Cuba. According to the PanAm Post, the CCDHRN identified at least two dozen prisoners serving long sentences for peaceful political activities, 13 of whom were members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Cuba’s largest dissident organization.
The Catholic Register reported that Jose Daniel Ferrer – general coordinator of Cuba’s Patriotic Union (UNPACU) – “wrote an open letter to Pope Francis Sept. 3 asking him to ‘intercede and take up the defense of the rights of the oppressed in Cuba.'”
Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”) leader Berta Soler told Reuters that she would like to “discuss with the pope the need to stop police violence against those who exercise their freedom to demonstrate in public.”
Earlier this summer, she reiterated to the PanAm Post that “the Catholic Church … should protect and shelter every suffering, defenseless person.”
Although the Cuban government released over 3,000 prison inmates prior to the pope’s arrival, none of them was a political prisoner. Reuters reported that in August, the month before the pope’s visit, Cuban police detained 768 dissidents for peaceful political activity, the highest monthly total in 2015. The arbitrary detentions continued during the pope’s visit. Berta Soler was prevented from attending the pope’s appearances, while three members of UNPACU were dragged off, detained and have since disappeared after they tried to approach the Pope.
The closest Pope Francis ever came to acknowledging the existence of political prisoners in Cuba was an oblique reference – during his welcoming ceremony in Havana – that he “would like my greeting to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet.” The pope’s greeting resonated with the impact of a tree falling in an empty forest with no one left to hear it.
Defenders of both Pope Francis and Cardinal Ortega have likened their non-confrontational approach to the Castro regime with the spirit of reconciliation exemplified by the ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet the stubborn denial that there are no political prisoners suffering in Cuba’s jails – and equating the defense of human rights with a partisan political agenda – seems a far cry from the ministry of Jesus.
The Bible gives an account of Jesus appearing in “the Temple courts” and advocating on behalf of a woman accused of adultery brought before him by “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees” (New International Version, John 8:1-11). Jesus stood between the woman and the stone throwers and challenged the unjust law that required her to be stoned to death.
Even atheists like me can acknowledge that the historical Jesus became the world’s most famous political prisoner through his detention, his public humiliation and his suffering. As Christians, Pope Francis and Cardinal Ortega might well remember – in their future dealings with the Castro regime – that Jesus welcomed the righteous into heaven with the greeting: “I was in prison and you came to visit me … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-46).