Editorial Board

What Cubans Can Gain From Francis's Visit

Papal diplomacy can spur bottom-up change in the country.

Francis and Raul in high spirits.

Photographer: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis's critics are right: This weekend's papal visit will not bring an end, or even much of a pause, to the paranoid repression that marks the Castro regime. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, however -- far from it.

Over the last few decades, the Catholic Church has become one of the most respected institutions in Cuba. Emerging from the shadows of state repression, it now provides meals and care for the poor, education, training for entrepreneurs, and libraries with access to foreign books and magazines. Catholic lay organizations have opened a space for a cautious political dialogue, and church leaders have played a key role in getting some dissidents released. President Barack Obama's diplomatic opening would not have succeeded without the involvement of Francis and his advisers.

Yet for all that, Cuba remains a country where the state brooks little dissent and routinely does bad things to good people. Last year, for instance, Cuba subjected nearly 8,900 people to short-term, and often violent, detentions to prevent independent political activity or free assembly -- up from about 6,400 such instances in 2013. A ridiculous "potential dangerousness" law allows up to a four-year detention of individuals before they commit a crime. The government controls the press. It restricts freedom of movement, not to mention routine economic transactions. Such continuing abuses and restrictions have cast the pope's outreach to Cuba in a darker light in the eyes of some dissidents, who warn that the church is in danger of colluding with the regime.

It's worth noting then that the church's mission is to spread the gospel, not topple despots. Sometimes, of course, the one leads to the other. Indeed, it will ultimately be the rising aspirations and expectations of ordinary Cubans that set their country free.

U.S.-Cuba Reboot

The task before those who want to promote freedom in Cuba is to encourage that bottom-up process, which is already forcing change visible in the growing freedoms Cubans have to run businesses or travel abroad. In that regard, Friday's announcement by the Obama administration that the U.S. will ease restrictions on travel, telecommunications and remittances is a huge step in the right direction.

Cuba is not China or Vietnam -- to name two communist countries that have used their size and location to blunt calls for political and social reform. It is a tiny island 90 miles off the coast of the world's superpower, with a creaky economy and a population of 11 million. By normalizing ties and loosening restrictions, the U.S. has already weakened the Castros' claim to revolutionary legitimacy while strengthening its own hand. And the U.S. is not the only power with leverage: Cuba is engaged in its first human rights dialogues with the European Union as well as the U.S. Unburdened by the weight of historical and economic grievances, a few European nations are providing quiet, critical support for some of Cuba's most effective reformers. That's a division of labor that both partners should seek to strengthen. It's also one very much in keeping with the pope's mission to Cuba this weekend.