Even a small gesture by the Pope would embolden Cuba’s dissidents.
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According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were more than 600 detentions in February alone.
Two weeks ago, dozens of members of the Ladies in White, a group of mothers, wives, and other female relatives of political prisoners who make silent weekly protests in Havana, were arrested and briefly detained by state police.
The Church rarely denounces these abuses, preferring to avoid direct political confrontation with the regime. The Church has made it clear that it will not play the role it did in, say, Poland during the Cold War, when it became the powerful spiritual voice for the political opposition.
Both the Vatican and Cuban Church see their role as that of mediator between the regime and its opponents. That role worked fairly well in 2010 when the Church helped broker the release to exile of some 115 Cuban political prisoners.
But the Cuban church, and in particular the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, has been criticized for being too conciliatory toward Raul Castro, who became president in 2008.
Dr. Andy Gomez of the Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says many Cubans and Cuban Americans are frustrated with Ortega for ignoring the dissidents.
As an example, he cited an incident two weeks ago in which 13 dissidents occupied a Havana church and refused to leave until they had been guaranteed an audience to talk about human rights with the pope. Ortega called in the state police to evict them.
“Historically, the church has always been a sanctuary for the oppressed,” Gomez complained to me about the incident. “To actually ask the government to come in and get them out… it’s a little troublesome.”
Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at the Heritage Foundation, described the relationship between the Church and Cuba’s dissident community as “weary.” He explained that the Church sees itself as a lynchpin in Cuban society, and that, as it looks ahead to a time when the Castro brothers disappear, it “doesn’t want to jeopardize that centrality.”
Benedict’s three-day pilgrimage to Cuba commemorates the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Our Lady of Charity, a miraculous statue of Mary cradling Jesus found floating in a Cuban bay near Santiago de Cuba.
The pope is scheduled to meet twice with Raul Castro, and the Vatican has informed Fidel that Benedict will be “available” should he wish to meet him. Fidel, his daughter told an Italian newspaper, has recently “come closer to religion and to God,” and there are rumors that he wants to rejoin the church.
The pope is expected to press the government to allow the Church to open religious schools and build and refurbish some of its churches and seminaries.
But even a small gesture toward Cuba’s dissident community could have a strong impact. A meeting with a human rights leader, such as Oswaldo Paya Sardinas or Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, or group, such as the Ladies in White, would embolden the opposition and send a strong message to the government. The Ladies in White had requested a visit, but Ortega’s office told them the pope’s schedule would be too tight.
Benedict could call for better conditions in Cuba’s notoriously decrepit prisons. Cuba is one of the only countries in the world that refuses to allow the Red Cross, United Nations, or any other independent organizations to inspect its prisons.
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