Miguel Díaz-Canel, the figurehead “president” the Castro family uses to represent the Cuban Communist Party abroad, held a meeting with Pope Francis on Tuesday as part of a greater tour of Europe including Italy, Serbia, and France.
The tour began with Díaz-Canel’s departure late on Sunday from Havana, where 92-year-old dictator Raúl Castro sent him off. Ties to European states are critical from the communist Castro regime, as Cuba is a top tourism destination for Europeans and Europe a top market for Cuban exports, particularly tobacco. The European Union – as a collective representing 27 states – is the single largest foreign investor in Cuba, beating out rogue states Russia and China, the Cuban Communist Party’s top geopolitical allies. The E.U. boasts that one out of three tourists in Cuba is a European.
Cuba’s economic dependence on Europe is set to continue into the future, as the top three fastest-growing export destinations for the communist regime – Belgium, Germany, and Greece – are all on the continent.
Díaz-Canel’s whirlwind Europe tour comes as pressure mounts from European conservatives for European Union leaders to shun the Communist Party given its extensive history of human rights atrocities in general and its increase in violent repression against pro-democracy dissidents in the past two years in particular. Following the nationwide anti-communist protests of July 2021, regime agents arrested hundreds, if not thousands, of suspected political dissidents in door-to-door raids. To address the surge in inmates at local jails, Cuban officials prosecuted civilians in mass trials, often involving as many as 30 people, including children and individuals with mental illness in the same trials as adults of sound mind. Protests persisted throughout 2022, leading repressive Castro regime agents to violently assault civilians in public. Cubans denounced multiple instances of police beating children in the street or forcing them into police interrogations.
Last week, members of the European Parliament representing the Spanish conservative party Vox called for E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to resign after a visit to Cuba in May in which Borrell urged expanded trade ties and investments in Cuba.
The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations did not indicate that Díaz-Canel would travel to Cuba to try to stem the tide of opposition to trade with Cuba. It noted in an announcement of the visit merely that it would include stops at Vatican City, Italy, Serbia, and France, featuring “meetings with the principal authorities of those countries, including a private audience with Pope Francis.”
The official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, Granma, described that audience – taking place on Tuesday morning local time – as friendly and warm.
“It was a frank conversation,” Díaz-Canel reportedly said after meeting the head of the Roman Catholic Church. “We confirmed wide agreements on pressing issues on the international agenda for humanity.”
The puppet president claimed Pope Francis agreed with his stance against “the severe impact on our population of the hardened economic blockade.”
The “blockade,” or “embargo,” is a term used for a small set of sanctions on the Cuban regime by the United States, which bans large corporations from enriching themselves through business with the Castros but does not prohibit Americans from offering food, medical, or other humanitarian aid to the island. Despite expansive trade ties, as mentioned above, with Europe and nearly every other region of the world, Cuban communists blame the alleged “embargo” for over half a century of severe poverty on the island, while ignoring the immense wealth accumulated by the already wealthy Castro family and its cronies during that time.
Abordamos la realidad cubana actual, en particular el severo impacto en nuestra población del bloqueo económico recrudecido.
Agradecí sus muestras de cercanía y aliento en favor de nuestro país.
— Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez (@DiazCanelB) June 20, 2023
Pope Francis’s tenure at the helm of the Church has been marked by friendly ties to the Castro regime. The pope visited Cuba in 2015, delighting Raúl Castro so much that the atheist leader joked he would return to the Catholic faith. Speaking to reporters, the pope denied having any information on political prisoners or abuse of dissidents on the island, despite a camera catching Cuban state security agents beating a dissident in front of Pope Francis for daring to shout the word “freedom” within earshot of the pope.
Later asked about human rights abuses in Cuba, Pope Francis told reporters, “There are some countries and also some European countries where you cannot make a sign of religion, for different reasons, and on other continents the same.”
Díaz-Canel’s presence in Italy triggered a large protest in Rome, where human rights advocates, many of them Cuban refugees, urged the Vatican to stand against abuse.
“The news of the visit, I think, was a pretty strong blow for the community of us free Cubans who look on with indignation as this gentleman is received with open arms,” Marcos Rodríguez Pellitero, the president of Cubans for Democracy, said of the visit.
Un grupo de cubanos protestó este martes en Roma, Italia contra el encuentro entre el papa Francisco y el presidente de Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Envueltos en la bandera de Cuba y al ritmo de la música del país los opositores al régimen comunista gritaron consignas en contra de… pic.twitter.com/LdNWJhVLQf
— NOTI21 (@Noti21_) June 20, 2023
Public pressure on European leaders to sever ties to the Cuban Communist Party has grown in light of Borrell’s visit to the island in May. Borrell, from Havana, demanded that the E.U. “strengthen economic ties” given the deteriorated state of Cuba’s national infrastructure, a result of 64 years of communist negligence and corruption.
“It is clear that we are much more important than other economic actors such as Russia or China,” Borrell boasted of the E.U.
The top diplomat agreed to send a “human rights envoy” on behalf of the E.U. to Cuba before the end of 2023, but insisted that envoy would do nothing.
“The European Union has neither the capacity nor the will to impose changes in Cuba, but we do want to maintain a framework that allows us to talk about everything that unites and divides us without taboos or prohibitions,” Borrell said, according to Reuters.
Following Borrell’s trip, leaders from the Spanish populist party Vox demanded his resignation on the grounds that he did not represent the values of the organization. In addition to disregarding critical comments, Vox leaders noted that Borrell, by visiting Cuba, had explicitly defied an E.U. Parliament resolution following the July 2021 protests demanding the review of cooperation agreements with Cuba.
In a speech on the Parliament floor last week, E.U. lawmaker Hermann Tertsch of Vox condemned Borrell for “rewarding” Cuba’s abuse of its citizens with business deals.
VOX denunció en Estrasburgo la complicidad de Borrell con la dictadura de Cuba.
“Señor Borrell, ha ido a Cuba a hacer otra vez de abogado de la dictadura. No se puede ser representante de 27 democracias y estar todo el día defendiendo a una dictadura. Dimita, señor Borrell”. pic.twitter.com/S66USU8Zvw
— Hermann Tertsch (@hermanntertsch) June 14, 2023
“Mr. Borrell … is saying there are reforms and modernizations. The reforms that have happened are that several minors have been sentenced to ten years in prison for shouting ‘freedom.’ That is the modernization that there has been in Cuba lately and for which we are rewarding it with money with millions of euros,” Tersch asserted, “that Mr. Borrell is bringing to them despite a resolution by this parliament that told him that he had to apply the democratic clause of the agreement and had to suspend payments and the agreement.”
“None of that has happened. On the contrary,” the lawmaker continued, “he has gone to Cuba to act again as an advocate for the Cuban dictatorship, asking for the lifting of the phantom embargo. This has made propaganda for the dictatorship.”
“That is why I say, you can’t be the representative of 27 democracies and spend all day defending a dictatorship,” he concluded. “Resign, Mr. Borrell, truly, or go to Cuba and defend the criminal dictatorship.”
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