NASCAR's Felix Sabates threatens to withhold charity if pope goes to Cuba

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 23, 2012 

WASHINGTON — The outspoken part-owner of a NASCAR team that includes driver Juan Pablo Montoya wants Pope Benedict XVI to rethink his visit next week to the communist island of Cuba.

Felix Sabates, who fled Cuba 53 years ago and has become one of the United States' most successful sports entrepreneurs, is so concerned that the Castro regime is using the pope to legitimize its oppressive rule that, Sabates says, he's rethinking his philanthropy work for the Roman Catholic Church.

"If the leader is doing that, I'm not so sure that I need to support the church like I used to support it. And I'm serious about that. I am more than pissed off," said Sabates, who's 69. "As long as there is a Castro in power, whether it's Fidel or Raul, it's going to be the same thing."

Pope Benedict is traveling to Cuba for a three-day visit to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patron of Cuba.

Sabates, a minority owner of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in North Carolina and former investor of the NBA Charlotte Hornets and Bobcats, once received a special blessing in writing from the late Pope John Paul II.

Sabates has donated generously to Catholic causes. He won't say how much he's given, but a dining hall at Belmont Abbey College outside Charlotte, N.C., is named after him. He's donated to the Catholic high school where his children and grandchildren have attended. He continues to give annually to St. Vincent de Paul Church in Charlotte.

Sabates' concerns about the pope's visit align with those of many activists and Cuban exiles who think the pontiff's trip will promote communism and do little or nothing to improve human rights. Some 750 activists sent a letter to Pope Benedict this month warning that his visit "would be like sending a message to the oppressors that they can continue to do whatever they want, that the church will allow it."

The Catholic Church said the pope's mission wasn't political but to spread the gospel of salvation. David Hains, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, said Sabates had the right to use his money in the best way he chose.

The principal of Charlotte Catholic High School, Gerald Healy, said he understood Sabates' frustrations.

"You hope that the visit will break some of the tension there, but you just don't know," Healy said. "Or if that situation is being used for publicity by Cuba, or to promote whatever they're doing. Or, hopefully, they will use it to open up doors."

The same concerns were raised in 1998. The opposition to John Paul's visit was so great that it led to the cancellation of plans to sail a cruise ship full of Cuban-Americans to the island.

After Castro's more than 50 years in power, these concerns about the government gaining validity no longer make sense, said Louis Perez, a professor of history and an expert on Cuba at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

"The Vatican does not have the capacity to legitimize this government," Perez said. "This government is already there by its own internal logic, its own credibility or by force or by however one wants to define it. The Catholic Church has become a partner to the Cuban government. That's a fact."

The Cuban Catholic Church continues to suffer from a lack of priests, and Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been criticized for not taking a harder stance against the government.

But the church has gained more space in society since John Paul visited the island. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the church has stepped up its humanitarian aid, assisting vulnerable populations most affected from the loss of Soviet subsidies.

Since Raul Castro took over the government in 2006, the church has continued to gain prominence. It's built a new seminary and started an MBA program. In 2010, Ortega helped broker the release of 52 political prisoners.

The pope's visit shouldn't misinterpreted as any sign of endorsement, said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Arlington, Va., research center.

"Cuba and the Vatican have diplomatic relations," he said. "The fact they have diplomatic relations doesn't mean they approve of what each is doing any more than the United States approves of China and its form of government because we have an embassy there."

Sabates fled to the United States at the age of 16 with $25 in his pocket and two boxes of cigars.

A rebellious teenager, he'd taken up with the anti-Castro movement. His father sent him to live with family in the United States to protect him. The rest of his family followed a few years later. Sabates said the family thought Castro would last only a couple years.

Sabates first moved to Boston, but later went to North Carolina, where the Catholic Church had helped his mother, brothers and sisters relocate.

Sabates later got into sales and worked his way up by building a business empire that involved electronic equipment, yachts and sports teams.

From the 1980s until 2000, he was the owner of NASCAR's Team SABCO Racing, whose drivers included Kyle Petty. He's now a part owner of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. In addition to Montoya, Jamie McMurray drives for that team.

Sabates said this week that he understood the church's objectives in Cuba, but he criticized Pope Benedict for not responding to activists' requests to meet with political prisoners. And he questioned why more than a dozen political activists were arrested last Sunday, apparently at the request of the cardinal.

Sabates said the church could better serve the people's spiritual and humanitarian needs through the Catholic parishes that were spread across the country. The political ramifications are too great, he said.

"A picture of him with the pope, hugging the pope, would go a long way to convince a lot of the uneducated people who don't know any better to think that the pope is endorsing Castro," he said. "To me, that blows my mind. It's hard to comprehend."

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