Pope Seeks More Sway in Cuba Trip Amid Calls to Back Dissidents

Havana, Cuba - Pope Benedict XVI arrives today in Cuba on a mission to revive faith in what pollsters call Latin America’s least devout nation as it moves away from a half- century of state economic control. Politics will dominate the visit as much as religion.

While the Roman Catholic Church has steadily gained influence in Cuba since Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit, the results of its campaign for greater economic, political and spiritual freedom have been mixed. After securing the release of dozens of political prisoners in recent years, it stood by as President Raul Castro’s government rounded up dissidents last week and helped evict protesters seeking refuge in a church.

The communist government is touting the 48-hour papal visit, which begins with the celebration of Mass today in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, as a sign of shared values. Its opponents, including the U.S. State Department, are urging the 84-year-old Benedict to speak out against the western hemisphere’s sole dictatorship.

“It will be impossible to please all groups,” Father Thomas Reese, the author of several books on Vatican politics who teaches at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, said in a phone interview from Washington. “When it’s all done, I don’t think the regime will be happy, and I don’t think Cuban organizations will be happy.”

Even before arriving in Cuba, Benedict waded into the debate over Cuba’s future that accelerated last year when the government began slashing state payrolls and allowed the buying and selling of property for the first time since the 1959 revolution.

On a March 23 flight to Mexico, the first stop of the two- nation Latin American tour, he said that it is “evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality” and urged Cubans to patiently “find new models.”

Cuban Reaction

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez dismissed the comments, while saying the Cuban government respects all opinions and looks forward to exchanging ideas with the pope. He invoked the words of Benedict’s popular predecessor, whose 1998 visit led Fidel Castro to make Christmas a holiday in the once officially atheist nation, to criticize a U.S. trade embargo.

“Cuba has a half century of history fighting what the venerable Pope John Paul II characterized as unfair and ethically unacceptable economic measures imposed from abroad,” Rodriguez said March 23 to a group of 100 foreign journalists who flew into Havana to cover the visit. “It seems to us that the Cuban social project is solid.”

Revolution Square

After a service to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a relic of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the pope will travel tomorrow to Havana. In the capital he’ll meet with the 80-year-old Raul Castro and on March 28 hold an open-air Mass in Revolution Square, where Fidel used to lead anti-American rallies.

Since John Paul’s groundbreaking visit, the church has gained influence with Cuba’s government that’s normally reserved for allies like Venezuela and Brazil. Cubans have also started returning to the pews, though only half of the nation’s 11.2 million people identify themselves as Catholics compared with 85 percent in Mexico, according to a 2011 study by the Washington- based Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Most of the church’s work has been behind the scenes, bridging the gulf that separates dissidents from the government and large segments of Cuban society, said Robert Pastor, who was U.S. national security adviser for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter.

Pastor said that role has become more important since Fidel started to relinquish power in 2006 to his brother, who then began easing state control of the economy to allow Cubans to seek self-employment as taxi drivers, janitors and other basic professions.

Cuba’s Economy

The overhaul comes amid a decline in the price of nickel, the country’s biggest export, and a slowdown in tourism as Europe’s debt crisis dampens global economic growth. Cuba’s gross domestic product expanded 2.5 percent last year, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, compared with 4.3 percent growth for the region.

“The changes may not be fast enough for some,” Pastor, now a professor at American University in Washington, said in a phone interview. “But when you realize that the regime hasn’t essentially changed in over 50 years, you have to feel encouraged to see even modest progress.”

Opposition Pressure

Joel Fernandez, a math teacher whose 250 Cuban pesos ($10) salary a month isn’t enough to afford a honeymoon with his newlywed wife, says he hopes the pope’s visit will be a catalyst for greater freedom.

“I’m hoping the visit speeds up change,” said the 43- year-old Fernandez at a bar in Old Havana, surrounded by crumbling colonial-styled homes that have become one of the island’s biggest tourist draws in the past decade. “We want him to talk with the government.”

Pressure has been building on the Vatican to speak out against repression by the Castro government.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said March 19 that the U.S. would like to see the pope call on the Cuban government to release political prisoners. She said the detention of 70 activists from the Ladies in White a week before the pope’s arrival was “reprehensible.” About 30 members of the group, made up of wives and relatives of jailed dissidents, attended Mass yesterday in Havana, reiterating their request for a one-minute audience with Benedict.

On March 13, a separate group of 13 activists occupied a church in Havana to demand an audience with Benedict only to be evicted two days later with the archdiocese’s support.

Politics as Spectacle

Roberto Veiga, editor of Espacio Laical, a Havana-based magazine published by the church in Cuba, said such protests aren’t constructive because they fail to foster dialogue with the Castro regime.

“Many of Cuba’s dissidents have converted politics into a spectacle,” he said in an interview at the archdiocese’s headquarters in Havana.

Any condemnation of the Castro government is unlikely and the church will play its “assigned role” and not alienate the regime during the pope’s visit, said Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

“Many want Benedict to meet with dissidents, but that’s not going to happen,” Smith, who was chief of mission at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, said in a phone interview. In contrast, a meeting with 85-year-old Fidel, while not on the pope’s agenda, is likely, he said.

Benedict’s Legacy

While the pope’s visit is likely to rekindle religious enthusiasm in Cuba, where the “gods of socialism have proved insufficient,” Benedict will have a tougher time matching the legacy left by John Paul’s visit, said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York.

For John Paul’s homily in Revolution Square, a giant billboard of Jesus was placed next to a wrought-iron monument to guerrilla-hero Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Only a yellow stage is set up for Benedict.

“John Paul was like rain on a desert, he came at a time when Cubans needed to hear him,” said Henken, who specializes in Cuban culture and history. “Pope Benedict’s message has been one of ‘let’s move back to orthodoxy’ and warning of the threats from modern life, which has no real relevancy in Cuba today.”