By Isaac Risco
HAVANA TIMES, March 20 (dpa) — Pope Benedict XVI is to visit Cuba starting next Monday, and while the Vatican stresses the “pastoral” character of the three-day trip, it is also evident that the communist country has unique relations with the Roman Catholic church.
The events of recent days have highlighted that Church authorities themselves ended an occupation of a Havana church by 13 dissidents last week, peacefully evicting them. And on Sunday, scores of members of the Cuban opposition group Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, were arrested before and after mass in Havana’s Santa Rita Church.
The Cuban Roman Catholic church asked recently that its houses of worship not be turned into “political trenches.” And while the Cuban opposition has demanded for weeks that Benedict meet with its representatives during his visit, the pope’s spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said there were “no plans” for such a meeting.
The reach of the Roman Catholic faith is much deeper in the rest of Latin American society than in communist Cuba. However, in none of those other countries is the Roman church as important a political and social actor as it has been in the Caribbean island in recent years.
Particularly since Raul Castro took over power in Cuba in mid 2006, the church hierarchy has had room to mediate change. Archbishop Jaime Ortega of Havana brokered in the past two years the release of scores of jailed dissidents.
The Cuban Roman Catholic church has publicly pushed its role in seeking national “reconciliation,” and it has managed to open up dialogue with the numerous communities of Cuban exiles.
After decades of confrontation, the Catholic Church and the Cuban government began forging better ties in the 1990s, and they consolidated them during the historic far-reaching visit in 1998 of the late pope John Paul II.
“Let Cuba open up to the world and let the world open up to Cuba,”John Paul proclaimed in the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana.
Fourteen years later, several sectors of Cuban society again hold great expectations for the papal visit. However, things are now different on the island, “after a change of head of state and with the evidence of the exhaustion of the model of paternalistic socialism,” in the words of Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the archdiocese of Havana.
In a country with few forums for public opinion beyond state media, publications that are close to the Roman Catholic church, such as Palabra Nueva or Espacio Laical, often demand more room for political participation on the island.
However, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has refused to become “a catalyst for radical change” as some social actors have demanded.
Others should take on that role, church officials say.
The church denies, further, that its current role as a partner in dialogue with the government may turn it into “a natural ally” of Cuban authorities. Some dissident leaders have complained that the Roman Catholic hierarchy is “sanctioning” government policy with its disposition for dialogue.
Benedict is to head to Cuba Monday, from Mexico. He is to deliver four public messages in little more than 48 hours on the island, to either embrace or redefine the role of the Cuban church – in its relation to both Cuban government and society, to dissidents within the country and to the exile community.
The official occasion for the pope’s visit to Cuba is the 400th anniversary of the discovery of an image of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, who has devout followers both on the island and among Cuban exiles elsewhere and also features in Afro-Cuban cults.
Benedict is to visit the virgin’s sanctuary near Santiago, meet with President Raul Castro and say mass in public twice on the island, first in an open-air ceremony in Santiago and then on the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana.
He is expected to address human rights issues. Vatican sources did not rule out that he might meet with the retired leader Fidel Castro, who still holds heavy sway on the Caribbean island. Although he has long stepped down from power, the elderly revolutionary, a Marxist and an atheist who was excommunicated exactly 50 years ago, regularly hosts foreign guests.
“It could happen, it is possible,” Lombardi said.