GOP’s double rejection: Obama heads to Havana, Pope calls Trump’s wall un-Christian

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It hasn't been the best couple of days for the GOP. First up was the White House's announcement that President Obama would be on his way down to Havana next month for a meeting with Raul Castro. When Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio got the news, they flipped out.

And if this latest step in Obama's turnaround of U.S.-Cuba relations wasn't bad enough, the Republican presidential slate took another hit on Thursday. For a gang that is always eager to trot out their religious credentials in order to shuffle Evangelicals along to the polls, it had to be a disappointment when no less an authority than Pope Francis himself called their frontrunner Donald Trump un-Christian for his proposal to build an anti-immigrant wall along the border with Mexico.

Turning the page on blockade and isolation

Obama's announcement that he will be making the trip to Cuba is the latest in a series of moves aimed at normalizing a relationship that has been fraught with tension for more than a half-century. Since their historic handshake at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in December 2013, Presidents Obama and Castro have been setting a brisk pace in turning the page on decades of tension between the two countries.

The past two years have seen the freeing of the remaining Cuban Five prisoners, the announcement that diplomatic relations would resume, the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the opening of embassies in each other's capitals, and the continuing easing of travel restrictions.

While the trade blockade imposed since 1960 remains in place, and Republican lawmakers vow not to lift it, the arrival of Obama in Havana will stand as the most important marker so far in rebuilding links between the Cuban and American people. Campaigns are underway to pressure lawmakers to take the last big step in ending the unnecessary confrontation between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

In a last-ditch effort to put the brakes on Obama's trip, at the GOP South Carolina town hall, Marco Rubio resorted to tired old talking points, saying Obama shouldn't go because "it's not a free Cuba." The other Cuban-American in the race, Ted Cruz, repeated similarly worn-out rhetoric, claiming that if he is elected, he would never visit Cuba "as long as the Castros are in power."

With the Cold War long over though, public opinion in the U.S. now supports ending the embargo by a wide majority and both Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are on record calling for its removal. Try as they might, the GOP may be unable to reverse the process of the U.S.-Cuba thaw, as even a majority of Republican voters nationwide now also support lifting the blockade. Furthermore, a majority of the Cuban-American community, which has historically been the group most opposed to normalization, now also say the embargo is bad policy. Republicans seem to have few allies still onside.

The International Committee for Peace, Justice, and Dignity (formerly the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5) has issued a joint call along with IFCO/Pastors for Peace, the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Network on Cuba, and other solidarity organizations for a series of public events aimed at ending the blockade. They will be coordinating "Days of Action Against the Blockade," to take place in Washington, D.C. from April 18-22, 2016. The main goal of the mobilization is to put the pressure on Congress to act.

Building bridges, not walls

Tag-teaming with Obama in slapping down the ultra-right this week was Pope Francis, who said that Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico were - despite the latter's recent professions of faith - un-Christian.

In a mid-air press conference aboard the papal plane as he was flying out of Mexico, the Pope told reporters that, "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."

The Pope was clear that he was not telling American Catholics how they should be voting, but his stances against racism, income inequality, and in favor of labor rights have garnered him the admiration of religious voters in the past. He said he would not get involved in the U.S. election, but referring to Trump's ideas about sealing borders and registering Muslims, the pontiff remarked, "I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that."

His statements carried even greater resonance coming, as they did, immediately following his delivery of a message condemning injustice on the banks of the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border before an audience of 200,000. Blessing a makeshift memorial to the thousands who have died trying to cross the river, the Pope said, "Being faced with so many legal vacuums, [migrants] get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest."

Trump, of course, fired back. Speaking before a packed crowd at a golf resort, the real estate mogul offered the weak response that Francis was a just a pawn of the Mexican government. His remarks flew in the face of reality, however, given the Pope's widely recognized record of speaking out for workers and the oppressed.

Engagement and compassion

Taken together, the actions of President Obama and Pope Francis amount to a resounding rejection of both the foreign and domestic policy agendas being put forward by Republican leaders in this election.

They are more than just a rebuke of the hatred and division being sown by the GOP's top candidates though, and the importance of the examples they are setting goes beyond November 2016.

They show the kind of progress that is possible when engagement is valued over confrontation and compassion takes precedence over fear.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP