Why the pope tried to halt the Rolling Stones concert in Cuba

Pope Francis is helping to open Cuba to the outside world, but that could change the influence of the Catholic Church in the long-isolated island nation.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters/File
Tourists pass by a poster with a photograph of Pope Francis with the message in Spanish that reads "Welcome to Cuba", Havana, Feb. 10. The pope is helping to open Cuba to the outside world, but that could change the influence of the Catholic Church in the long-isolated island nation.

At Cuba's first major rock-n-roll concert Friday night, the Rolling Stones played to an estimated 500,000 Cubans, many of whom were lifelong fans.

Some of these Cubans once risked re-education on a work brigade for secretly listening to pirated vinyls when the Communist government banned such music.

"To me, this is a consecration," Juan Carlos Leon, age 57, told Reuters. "I've waited my whole life for this. The Stones are the greatest."

One major institution in Cuba expressed reticence about the performance, however. The Vatican contacted the band directly and asked them not to play on Good Friday, suggesting a midnight start time instead, Britain's Mirror newspaper reported. The Rolling Stones appreciated the the personal letter but respectfully replied that other global events were occurring on the holy day.

The Catholic Church is certainly not asking Cuba to continue its isolationist policies – Pope Francis hosted Cuban and US officials last year to pave the way for a historic visit by President Obama this week – but it does want to maintain its influence within the island nation.

"I think we’ll see continuity on the church's role in human rights, and also its important charity work as well," says R. Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and scholar of Latin American history.

Unless the regime's politics begin to change more substantively than Raul Castro has indicated thus far, the church's political role will remain significant. 

“Outside the government, the [Roman Catholic] Church is the most important institution in Cuba,” Javier Figueroa, a retired Cuban history professor at the University of Puerto Rico, told the Atlantic. 

While the Communist government's repression severely weakened its influence, Catholic leaders in Cuba gradually created a space for the church inside the once-"atheist" country by offering social and economic services the government desperately needed and moderating its politics, Jason Berry wrote for the Atlantic.

Initially banned by Fidel Castro, the Catholic Church became one of the few institutions to gain a foothold in the Communist state after the Soviet Union fell in 1989, wrote Whitney Eulich for The Christian Science Monitor. From its position as the gateway to needed social services, the Catholic Church could lobby the government from within. It was a strategy church leadership preferred over open hostility to the Communist revolution, which had resulted in the government closing religious schools, exiling priests, and banning Catholic literature.

Now that its multi-lateral strategy for moving Cuba back into the world circle is bearing fruit in the form of a US presidential visit and rock gigs, the Catholic Church may shift its tactics and perhaps its focus. It is a shift for which outspoken Catholic dissidents have been calling for years.

The Ladies in White, a mostly Catholic women's group that has protested since 2003 on behalf of political prisoners were arrested for protests about the pope's Cuba visit in September. Although Catholic leaders had helped them pressure the government to free many political prisoners, the Ladies in White and others like them criticized the church for a too-close relationship with a repressive government. 

"I wouldn't be surprised if the leadership, particularly Cardinal Ortega, doesn't become a bit bolder," Dr. Chesnut says.

Such difficulties are nothing new for the Catholic Church in Latin America, as Catholic leaders – including Argentine Pope Francis – are accustomed to spending a little time on the wrong side of the region's ever-shifting regimes and revolutions. The church's bigger challenge is to rebuild its former strength – only 8 to 9 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics – in time to stop Cuba from going the same route as much of Latin America, where Catholic strongholds are losing membership to enthusiastic evangelism from other Christians and rising secularity.

"I predict that that’s the reason we have our first Latin American pope is to stop that hemorrhaging," Chesnut says. "I think when we actually do see political opening and liberalization [in Cuba], it actually won’t bode well for the Catholic Church because it will be competition."

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