When Pope Benedict XVI arrives today at Antonio Maceo Airport in Santiago de Cuba on Cuba's eastern edge, he will find a nation much in need of the "new evangelization" that is at the heart of his pontificate.
The Vatican and the Cuban Catholic Church have repeatedly stressed the pastoral, that is to say apolitical, purpose of the pope's visit. Though a majority of Cubans identify as Catholic, very few -- roughly 5% -- practice their faith. As one Cuba watcher put it to me, "Catholicism pervades Cuba, but the practice of Catholicism does not."
But Benedict's pilgrimage, the first papal visit to Cuba since John Paul II's 1998 trip, also provides an opportunity for the pope to speak up for and encourage the country's weary dissident community, many of whom criticize the Church for being overly conciliatory toward the Marxist regime.
On Friday, Benedict perhaps offered a preview of his message during the three-day visit. "Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality," Benedict told reporters accompanying him on his flight from Rome to Mexico, where he spent the weekend. "In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way."
Benedict added that the Church wants "to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society."
For its part, the Cuban government sees the pope's visit as a chance to bolster its withering credibility. A contact in Havana tells me there are signs and billboards across the city welcoming the pope. The state-run newspaper, Granma, has featured stories promoting the visit for weeks.
The relationship between the Church and the Cuban government hasn't been this strong since the early days of the regime. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, he announced that his revolution was informed by Christian principles.
This prompted the Franciscan journal La Quincena to praise the revolution as a "decisive and transcendental stage for Cuba" and to state that the "doctrine of the Fidelista revolution can be characterized as social-Christian." The archbishop of Santiago de Cuba even held a mass to celebrate the revolutionary triumph.
It was not long, though, before Castro had declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and Cuba a socialist state. He began closing Catholic schools, killing and expelling priests and other religious, and discriminating against Catholics seeking state and university employment.
The Castro regime barred Catholics from joining the Communist Party, the country's sole political party, and religious instruction was abolished in the new government-run schools as the Church was portrayed as an enemy of the poor. The Church was prohibited from printing independent newspapers, from establishing schools and hospitals and from training or importing priests and other religious.
After the Soviet Union's demise in the late 1980s, Cubans lost the massive oil and food subsidies they had received from their communist brethren. Desperate to rehabilitate its image, the regime began reaching out to the Catholic Church. Castro met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996 and invited him to visit Cuba.
Castro also began making concessions to Cuba's Catholics, lifting the ban on practicing Catholics joining the party and amending the constitution to turn a previously atheist Cuba into an officially secular one.
In 1998, John Paul II became the first pope to set foot in Cuba, prompting more concessions, including the release of more than 300 political prisoners.
Since then, the government has given the church greater freedom to do its pastoral work, import priests and renovate its churches. A new seminary was even opened, in 2010, the first since the revolution.
But Cuba has made no real progress in recognizing the basic human and political rights of its citizens. Cuba is still designated "not free" by Freedom House and is still among its "worst of the worst" countries and one of "the world's most repressive regimes." According to Human Rights Watch, sham trials, arbitrary arrests, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents' families are widespread.
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.
At the very least, Pope Benedict could continue to talk about the destructive nature of communism and call for more respect for human rights and democratic reforms.
Last week, former Polish President Lech Walesa wrote a letter to Benedict urging him to "take up the defense of those Cubans who are demanding freedom" during his visit. "I beg Your Holiness to intercede for those who are in prison because of their convictions," wrote Walesa, a former shipyard worker who led the Solidarity labor movement that helped displace Poland's communist government.
Walesa recounted how his friend Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to his native Poland "not only awakened in us, the Polish people, the hope of change but above all freed our will to take action."
The Church in a difficult position as it tries, as Pope Benedict put it on Friday, "to help bring about a just and fraternal society" in Cuba.
But as a letter to the Pope signed by 750 Cuban human rights activists warned, if Benedict doesn't address human rights issues, the visit could become "a message to the oppressors that they can continue to do whatever they want, [and] the church will allow it."
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