Masters of the Game: Vatican Diplomacy in Cuba

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/06/2012 12:18:00 PM
By far one of the most underresearched areas in IPE I would argue is the role played by religious institutions as diplomatic actors. Not only were the imperial conquests of earlier European colonizers usually phrased in terms of enlightening the unwashed masses, but religion remains a very significant phenomenon even in today's world which is becoming secularized only in certain respects.
Imagine a nation whose diplomatic tradition stretches back centuries to when Saint Peter took up the mantle of leadership in spreading the Christian faith. Wait a minute...there is no need to imagine such a nation since it already exists. As heirs to Simon Peter--himself literally chosen by (the son of) God to establish the church in earthly realms--various popes have found it necessary to navigate shifting political currents for centuries on end. So, in terms of accumulating "tacit knowledge," perhaps the most experienced diplomatic corps extant do not receive the recognition they deserve.  I speak of the Vatican's, of course.

By necessity, the Roman Catholic Church has practiced the diplomatic arts uninterrupted for centuries on end. Continuity of mission has its advantages. While they've given sanction to quite frankly idiotic misadventures alike the crusades, they've since left that bit of holy war-style nonsense to, well, American neoconservatives. Today's modus operandi is subtlety and long-term vision--more Chinese than American. That is, while the Chinese see the passage of a few years as but drops in the oceans of time, Yanks cannot even see past the next election cycle. If the Communist Party is ultimately only responsible to itself, the Pope is ultimately only responsible to the man above.

So it was with great interest that I read a fine contribution in Foreign Affairs by National Catholic Register journalist Victor Gaetan about how the Holy See is approaching Cuba. Unlike the retrograde, sanction-loving Americans still stuck in a Cold War frame of mind, the Catholic Church has taken a more progressive approach. Hate the sin of godless Communism, not the sinners, indeed. It's an approach that's paid dividends in Eastern Europe, so what's to stop it from working in Cuba as the winds of change blow strange?
It is a controversial balance. Cubans in the exile community vigorously criticize the Church because they think Church leadership on the island should challenge the dictatorship. But the Vatican takes the long view. Rather than overtly push for change, the Church has come to pursue a strategy of "reconciliation." It has inserted itself as mediator between the regime and its most daring opponents, both those imprisoned and those out in the streets. The Church is present and persistent, but it is nonpartisan. The attitude harkens back to the ostpolitik it practiced during the Cold War -- in most communist countries, especially in those where Catholics were a minority, clergy hunkered down, ministered to the faithful, and survived. Today, in countries ranging from Albania and Montenegro to Romania and Ukraine, Catholic communities are thriving.
By not consciously offending the powers-that-be with freedom 'n' growth shtick in that usual American tradition, the faith has made a comeback after Fidel Castro's earlier purge of the religious orders:
In the years since, the Catholic Church in Cuba has been resurrected. It has nearly doubled the number of priests and nuns in the country, most of them moving in from abroad. Today, Havana regularly grants the Church permits and allows purchase of rationed construction materials to renovate churches. The Church provides everyday services such as daycare centers and care for the elderly. It teaches religion and computer skills, and screens foreign films for teenage groups. As long as the Church restricts its activities to its property, it gets relatively free reign. The Church even opened a new seminary a few miles south of Havana in November 2010, the first church constructed since the revolution. And alongside a large American Catholic delegation, President Raúl Castro attended the dedication.
And, of course, the Vatican isn't doing all this without keeping an eye on the prize of, well, saving souls:
Playing the role of holy reconciler has afforded the Vatican three advantages. The Church has gained physical and operational space to expand its presence on the island. Second, [Cuban Archbishop] Ortega has brokered conflict, which fulfills the Church's mission ("Blessed be the peacemakers," the Bible reads) and gives it a recognized role, both in the country and outside. And lastly, and perhaps most important, in taking the long view, the Vatican is laying the groundwork so that it helps facilitate a nonviolent post-Castro transition.
You can't be a mug while you're doing God's work. It just goes to show you how what many perceive to be an ideologically "inflexible" organization alike the Vatican actually runs rings around the United States as the latter takes up the white man's burden of various idiotic crusades. Fiascoes in Afghanistan, Iraq, soon probably Iran...the list goes on and on as the homeland of the Qur'an burners engages in all sorts of idiocy by painting the US as a for good in a fool's morality play. Some people never learn.

Given the contemporary state of the US diplomatic corps, you get the feeling that the world would be a much better place if it outsourced diplomacy to the masters of the game with over two millennia of experience dealing with haughty sorts, whether they be the brothers Castro or the BushBama destroyers of the American dream. Predating nation-states by tens of centuries, the Vatican was on the scene long before Pax Americana, and it will be there long after it.