As Pope Draws Crowds in Cuba, NYT Suddenly Remembers Big Crowds Are Product of 'Intimidation,' 'Orchestration' and Coercion

The New York Times coverage of the Pope's trip to the dictatorship of Cuba has a strange, cheap-shot emphasis on how the Cuban people are coerced to attend such rallies, an authoritarian power play, but one the paper rarely if ever bothers to address during Cuban May Day rallies held in celebration of communism. A search suggests the Times has never previously used the words "orchestrated" or "intimidation" to describe the Cuban government coercing people to attend May Day parades.

So why use that explanation for the crowds surrounding the Pope, but leave that obvious explanation off when talking about crowds listening to dictator Fidel Castro's latest multi-hour-drone-a-thon of a speech?

Rachel Donadio and Victoria Burnett reported from Santiago De Cuba on Tuesday for Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in Cuba: "Raul Castro Greets Pope at Start of Closely Watched Cuba Visit," and dismissed the crowds as unethusiastic and coerced.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday, declaring himself a “pilgrim of charity” and urging the island to move toward greater openness, freedom and religious devotion.


Many worshipers at a festive Mass here on Monday had been pressured to attend by their employer or a local chapter of the Communist Party, and dissidents had been pressured not to attend, according to a Cuban priest who is among the clerics most critical of the government. A man who started shouting criticism of the government was quickly removed by security.

Benedict’s visit comes 14 years after the historic first papal trip to Cuba by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, a visit that yielded an era of greater religious expression. In his speech at the airport, Benedict called John Paul’s visit “a gentle breath of fresh air which gave new strength to the church in Cuba.”


As an estimated 200,000 people gathered for Mass in Santiago de Cuba, including several groups of pilgrims from Miami, bands playing music and stands selling pizza and soft drinks evoked the atmosphere of a pop concert -- one whose audience has been well orchestrated by the authorities. Placards indicated that groups had been shepherded by their place of work, their school or their local chapter of the Communist Party, much in the same way the government mobilizes crowds for the huge May Day parade each year.

Yet the Times has consistently failed to make the point in its Cuba coverage that May Day parade crowds are coerced. Why bring it up when the Pope is in town?

Reporter Randal Archibold made a similar point in his preliminary story from Havana on Monday: "Church Deals With a Diminished Role in Cuban Life."

At an evangelical church booming with pounding drums, crashing cymbals and a throaty bass, members of an overflow crowd danced in the aisles, sang over a soaring trumpet and swept their arms in prayer. One woman shook violently, her hand aloft as if to say enough, or perhaps more.

A vigorous papal welcome? Hardly.


Since most restrictions on worship were lifted in the early 1990s, it has been Pentecostal and evangelical churches like Pastor Ortega’s, which is said to be among the largest churches now in Cuba, that have watched their membership rolls explode while the Catholic Church lags.

This may partly explain the noticeable lack of excitement in the air around the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI, the second pope to visit here after the historic and well-remembered trip 14 years ago by John Paul II, the first a pope ever made here.

Other than a handful of billboards, a few freshly paved streets and some colored banners hanging from lampposts, a visitor would probably not know a pope is on his way.

There is little doubt that large crowds will greet him, as Cuba does large outpourings well. High turnout reliably comes through incentives like work holidays or, some Cubans say privately, intimidation, or curiosity and devotion to the cause at hand.

Wouldn't attendance at May Day rallies be far more dependent on "intimidation" that faithful Cuban Catholics flocking to see the Pope?