By Isaac Risco
HAVANA TIMES, March 28 (dpa) – The three-day visit to communist Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI had been much-anticipated, but it failed to deliver what many had hoped for: a clear stance from the pontiff regarding human rights on the island.
With words shrouded in diplomatic and religious discourse, Benedict spoke of truth and “authentic freedom,” called for “a renewed and open society” in Cuba and prayed for “those who are deprived of freedom.”
But his lukewarm assertion that “Cuba and the world need change” left many just plain cold.
At the airport, just before he left the country, Benedict spoke more vigorously of the need “to build a fraternal society in which no one feels excluded,” but made no reference to the repression of dissent that accompanied his own trip or to the broader constraints on human rights in Cuba.
“I now conclude my pilgrimage, but I will continue praying fervently that you will go forward and that Cuba will be the home of all and for all Cubans, where justice and freedom coexist in a climate of serene fraternity,” the pope said.
Scores of dissidents were detained to prevent them from attending the pope’s crowded open-air masses in Santiago on Monday and in Havana on Wednesday.
“The square is full, so are the cells,” award-winning Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted during the papal mass in Havana.
The German-born Benedict had no room on his agenda to meet with dissident groups, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
Neither did the pontiff grant an audience to the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of dissident women that gets together for mass every Sunday and scores of whose members have been detained in recent days.
And yet he did find time for a meeting with historic Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church fifty years ago.
“While (the pope) is delivering his homily, @DamasdBlanco are missing,” the Ladies in White tweeted.
While dissidents were cautious about attacking the pontiff directly, their disappointment was obvious. And the London-based Amnesty International did not even wait for the pope to leave the island to criticize his position.
“In view of this situation, which contradicts his appeal for a ‘more open society’ in Cuba, the pope should take a stand and lend his voice to those that have been left voiceless due to the ongoing repression and condemn the lack of freedoms in Cuba,” Javier Zuniga, a special advisor at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Benedict himself had fueled hopes for a more determined stance on his flight to Latin America Friday.
“Today is a time when Marxist ideology … no longer responds to reality and if it is not possible to build a certain type of society, then there is the need to find new models, patiently and constructively,” Benedict said on the plane that brought him to Mexico.
At the time, the pope stressed that “the church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.”
The Cuban government stood its ground, although it expressed “respect” for Benedict’s “opinions.” Once the pope arrived on the island, he did not speak in anywhere near as clear terms.
Benedict’s predecessor, the late pope John Paul II, made a historic, groundbreaking visit to Cuba in 1998.
“Let Cuba open up to the world, and let the world open up to Cuba,” John Paul proclaimed in the same Havana square where Benedict celebrated mass Wednesday.
Relations between the church and Havana improved under John Paul, who called for greater freedom for both the Church and political dissidents 14 years ago.
After his 1998 visit, the Cuban state again allowed public religious celebrations, which had been banned since the early 1960s, and it established Christmas as the communist island’s only religious public holiday. The church hierarchy was also granted crucial access to Cuban state media, which it has maintained to this day.
“Church-government relations in Cuba are today at a qualitatively higher level,” Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana, wrote ahead of Benedict’s visit.
Marquez stressed that “it is not the ideal level,” but he pointed out that the church does not in any case “aspire to an ideal and idyllic level of relations that does not happen with any political system.”
Over the past two years, the Cuban Roman Catholic Church brokered the release of scores of imprisoned dissidents, most of whom were forced into exile in Spain.
Some dissidents have slammed the church for its closeness to the government.
“It is true that rosaries are no longer persecuted, but opinions are still being harassed. Now, having a painting with the Sacred Heart of Jesus does not cost anyone his job, but believing that a free Cuba is possible will make him suffer stigmatization and calvary.”
“We can now pray aloud, but criticizing the government remains a sin, a blasphemy,” Sanchez wrote in her blog, Generacion Y, ahead of the pope’s arrival.
On Twitter, as the pope addressed her country in Havana, she paraphrased John Paul.
“Today we need Cuba to open up to Cuba,” Sanchez wrote.