Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cuba to build golf courses, theme parks

Cuba to build golf courses, theme parks
Bloomberg March 31, 2012

Cuba's government plans to build 13 golf courses by 2020 as the
communist island looks to offer more than sun and sand to the 2.7
million people who visit each year, Deputy Tourism Minister Alexis
Trujillo said.

The country also intends to build several theme parks and add 25,000
hotel rooms as it looks to broaden its image, Trujillo said at a news
conference in Havana.

Tourism has become the island's main source of foreign currency since
the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s cut off economic subsidies
and triggered a recession. While the country is famous for the
dilapidated charm of Havana and its cars dating from the 1950s, most
tourists go straight to beach resorts on the Caribbean island.

Visitor numbers rose 7.3 per cent last year after U.S. President Barack
Obama eased travel restrictions and allowed people on religious and
cultural exchanges to visit the island. Almost 285,000 Cuban-Americans
and 21,000 U.S. citizens have travelled to Cuba since then, Trujillo said.

Canadians are by the far the most frequent visitors to the island with
more than 1 million travellers expected in 2012.

Cuba faces aging problem

Cuba faces aging problem
Updated: 2012-03-31 10:46

HAVANA - With more than 18 percent of Cubans now over 60 years old and a
shrinking number of those under 14 years old, the island nation faces an
aging problem, an official said Friday.

In just over a decade, the average age in Cuba will rise from 38 to 44,
while 26 percent of the population will be around 60 years old and there
will be a marked increase in age range over 80, Juan Carlos Alfonso
Fraga, director of Center for Population and Development of NSB told
delegates at an international meeting.

With a declining birth rate, "we will never reach the population of 12
million on the island," Fraga told the participants at the 8th National
Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics, including Director General of
the World Health Organization (WHO) Margaret Chan as well as
representatives from ten countries.

Cuban experts say that housing problems, low wages and lack of baby
products are among the major factors discouraging Cubans to have more
children. Increasing social independence has also enabled Cuban women to
have more power to decide on their pregnancy.

The NSB reported that the island's population stood at 11,241,161 at the
end of 2010, 1,467 less compared to the number in 2009.

Cuba is already one of the most rapidly aging countries in Latin America
along with Uruguay and Argentina, and is expected to lead that list in
the near future.

Cuba makes Good Friday a holiday after papal trip

Cuba makes Good Friday a holiday after papal trip

HAVANA (AP) – Cuba has honored an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI and
declared next week's Good Friday a holiday for the first time since the
early days following the island's 1959 Revolution, though a decision on
whether the move will be permanent will have to wait.

The Communist government said in a communique Saturday that the decision
was made in light of the success of Benedict's "transcendental visit" to
the country, which wrapped up Wednesday. It said the Council of
Ministers, Cuba's supreme governing body, will decide later whether to
make the holiday permanent.

Benedict's appeal was reminiscent of his predecessor John Paul II's 1998
request that Christmas be restored as a holiday. Religious holidays were
abolished in the 1960s after brothers Fidel and Raul Castro came to
power, ushering in a Marxist government.

Good Friday is the day Catholics commemorate the death of Christ, but it
is not a holiday in the United States, most of Europe or even Mexico,
the most Catholic of the world's Spanish-speaking countries.

Cuba removed references to atheism from its constitution in the 1990s,
and relations have warmed with the church. Still, less than 10% of
islanders are practicing Catholics.

Benedict was met by large, but not overwhelming, crowds during his
three-day tour. He dismissed Marxism as outmoded even before he arrived,
then sprinkled his homilies and speeches with calls for more freedom and
tolerance, often as senior members of the government watched from
front-row seats. The pope also spoke out against the 50-year U.S.
economic embargo, which the Vatican has long opposed.

The Vatican welcomed the decision, saying it hoped it would lead to
greater participation in Easter celebrations.

"The fact that the Cuban authorities quickly welcomed the Holy Father's
request to President Raul Castro, declaring next Good Friday a non-work
day, is certainly a very positive sign," said the Vatican spokesman, the
Rev. Federico Lombardi.

"The Holy See hopes that this will encourage participation in the
religious celebrations and joyous Easter festivities, and that following
the visit of the Holy Father will continue to bring the desired fruits
for the good of the church and all Cubans."

Cubans said they were thrilled, if slightly incredulous, to hear of the
day off.

"I'm happy I don't have to work, but really I don't understand any of
this," said Roberto Blanco, 38. "First they tell us we have to work
harder to get out of the economic crisis, and now they give us a day
off. The pope comes and we don't work? I don't get it."

Mirta Salgado, a 51-year-old office worker, acknowledged not being at
all religious, but said it was better not to over analyze these things.

"The things that happen in my country are incredible. After 50 years of
telling us the church is bad, now they say it is good, and we get Good
Friday off to boot," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I'm not
religious, not Catholic, not anything … But whatever, at least this
Friday I won't be working!"

Cuba dissident identifies papal Mass protester

Posted on Friday, 03.30.12

Cuba dissident identifies papal Mass protester
Associated Press

HAVANA -- A leading Cuban dissident has identified the mystery man who
yelled anti-government slogans just before a Mass celebrated by Pope
Benedict XVI this week before being hustled away by security agents.

Jose Daniel Ferrer told The Associated Press that the protester's name
is Andres Carrion Alvarez, and identified him as a 38-year-old resident
of the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Ferrer said the man was still
in custody Friday.

The protester shouted "Down with the Revolution! Down with the
dictatorship!" near journalists at the Mass at Santiago's crowded
Revolution Plaza on Monday. Video of the incident showed him being hit
by an apparent first-aid worker wearing a white T-shirt with a large red
cross, before they were separated. Security agents quickly took him away.

Ferrer is the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba opposition group in
Santiago. He says Carrion approached another member of the group in
recent weeks and expressed interest in their activism.

"We were able to identify him this morning," Ferrer said, adding that
two of his colleagues were trying to contact Carrion's family. Ferrer
said Carrion was being held at the Versalles police station in the city.
It was not clear if he had been charged with any crime.

The government has had no comment, but a spokesperson for Benedict said
the pontiff was aware of the incident and concerned about the man's welfare.

"There was contact made to be informed about the person and his
situation," the Rev. Federico Lombardi told journalists before the
pope's departure Wednesday. "The interest was there and was manifested."

Benedict met with Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel
during the three-day trip. He denounced the country's Marxist system as
outmoded ahead of his arrival, and used homilies and speeches to urge
greater freedom. He also criticized the 50-year-old U.S. economic
embargo, which he said had caused unnecessary suffering.

The Santiago protester's identity had been a mystery to leading members
of the island's small dissident community, with some taking to Twitter
to try to find out more about him.

Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors human rights on the island and acts as a
de facto spokesman for the opposition, said he had no idea who the man
was. Cuba considers all the dissidents to be mercenaries paid by
Washington to stir up trouble.

Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter:

Cuba diverts dissidents’ phone numbers in pope crackdown

Posted on Friday, 03.30.12


Cuba diverts dissidents' phone numbers in pope crackdown

A number for the Cuban Interior Ministry was used to block calls to
dissidents while Pope Benedict XVI was on the island.
By Juan O. Tamayo

Cuba's Interior Ministry doesn't have to be subtle when it represses
dissidents. In charge of the communist-ruled country's domestic
security, it can do just about anything it wants.

But its brazenness hit a high this week when one of its telephone
numbers was openly listed as being part of the crackdown that blocked
the cellphones of hundreds of dissidents during Pope Benedict XVI's
three-day visit.

Cellphones affected clearly showed that calls to the dissidents were
diverted to 204-1234, a Havana number listed to Unit 9456-3 of the
Interior Ministry, known as MININT, at the corner of 60th and 19th
Avenues in the western district of Playa.

United 9456-3 was listed as a branch of a MININT office building in
Linea and Paseo Avenues in the Vedado district, a block or two from the
main headquarters of the ministry's Intelligence Directorate, similar to
the Soviet Union's KGB.

Neighbors reported the Linea and Paseo building holds offices for
counterintelligence and state security agents — the political police,
according to Calixto Ramon Martínez, the independent journalist who
broke the story Friday.

Martinez and Roberto de Jesus Guerra, members of the independent
Hablemos Press news agency, said they had confirmed the diversion in
their own cellphones and those of 16 other dissidents whose service had
been restored as of Friday.

El Nuevo Herald confirmed the number 204-1234 is listed to Unit 9456-3
in a digital list of sensitive Cuban government telephone numbers that
was obtained by journalists and others last year. Repeated calls to that
number went unanswered.

Cuban authorities in the past have blocked the cellphones of individual
or groups of dissidents when important events took place, presumably to
keep the opposition activists' information from reaching supporters and
journalists abroad.

The cellphones of Reina Luisa Tamayo and several supporters, for
instance, were blocked after Cuban police beat and detained them in 2010
when they tried to pray at the grave of her son, former political
prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

With ETECSA, the government's telecommunications monopoly, in charge of
Cuba's entire telephone system, calls to the blocked cells resulted in
recorded messages that the line was busy or the cellphone was out of range.

And there was never any hard evidence of MININT's dark hand. Until Thursday.

That's when 27-year-old Reiniel Biset Morales noticed a strange little
arrow in the screen of the cellphone of his mother, Rosario Morales, a
member of the dissident Ladies in White.

Her phone, like those of several hundred other dissidents and
independent journalists and bloggers across the island, was blocked from
early Monday until late Thursday, unable to make or receive calls for
the three days that Pope Benedict XVI was in Cuba.

Calls to the blocked cells during last week were answered mostly with
recorded messages that the number did not exist.

"For the whole time the pope was here, every time we dialed, the phone
said 'call failed' " Biset, himself a dissident active in the Committee
for Racial Integration, told El Nuevo Herald. "Then I noticed this
little arrow that was not there before."

Looking in the phone's menu, he learned the arrow meant calls were being
diverted, and then saw that they were being sent to the 7-204-1234. The
number 7 is the code for Havana.

"Everything that went into that cellphone was diverted to that number"
Biset added.

MININT and the Ministry of the Armed forces, or MINFAR, are considered
the two most powerful government branches on the island because they are
in charge of protecting the nation from external and internal threats.

MININT runs the Directorates of Intelligence, which spies abroad, and
Counterintelligence, which protects the island from foreign spying. It
also has a branch that controls dissidents, sometimes known as the
"Confrontation Office" or the General Directorate for State Security.
Even the Fire Department comes under its control.

The MINFAR has its own intelligence and counterintelligence sections,
and the Communist Party of Cuba is believed to have its own intelligence
branch, though much reduced from the 1960s and '70s.

The list of sensitive Cuban telephones included several hundred numbers,
or about three pages' worth, for the building at Linea and Paseo,
according to Luis Dominguez, a Miami blogger who obtained the list last
year. Only some of those numbers were assigned to Unit 9456-3, Dominguez

Hablemos Press has published several important news stories, and
Dominguez has made public some of the numbers on the sensitive list,
like the home phones of Raúl Castro's daughter Mariela and Vice
President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Analysis: Springtime in Cuba?

Analysis: Springtime in Cuba?
Reuters By David Adams

HAVANA (Reuters) - This week's three-day visit to Cuba by Pope
Benedict marked another milestone in the Roman Catholic Church's
cautious efforts to expand its role in the communist-run island.

Havana's Cardinal Jaime Ortega called it a "Springtime of faith."

While it remains unclear if or how the visit will change anything in
Cuba, most analysts agree any notion of a 'Cuban spring' in terms of
political change is still a long way off.

Even so, the visit seems to have ensured a growing role for the Church
in Cuban society and politics, a potentially significant shift in the
balance of forces in a country where religious faith was once scorned.

"The Catholic Church in Cuba has taken on a larger role. For the first
time it is in a direct dialogue with the government, direct dialogue
having to do with domestic policies," said Philip Peters, a Cuba
expert and vice president at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based
think tank who attended Wednesday's Havana Mass. "The Church is
pushing more and deeper economic reforms. The Church is also pushing
for political openings."

The Church hopes primarily that the papal visit will help spark a
spiritual revival in Cuba, where religious faith was stigmatized for
decades after the 1959 revolution.

Despite that, a much diminished Church survived and remains the
largest and most socially influential institution outside of the
government, a fact that Cuban leaders now seem more willing than ever
to recognize - and perhaps reward.

Pope Benedict used the trip to deliver a shopping list of requests in
talks with Raul Castro on Tuesday, including official recognition of
Good Friday - barely a week away - as a national holiday, as well as
pressing for greater access to the media and the right to open
religious schools.

In fact, the Church has in recent years taken some baby steps in the
field of education by offering after-school programs at a handful of
churches, as well as university classes offered by a Spanish Catholic
order, the Escalapios.

Late last year the government even allowed the Church to open a
part-time Master's in Business Administration program at a Havana
seminary with the help of Catholic University professors from Spain.


Benedict's visit came 14 years after Pope John Paul's groundbreaking
trip in 1998, which many Cubans say was the beginning of the thaw in
church-state relations.

While Fidel Castro received the pope warmly in 1998, his brother and
current president, Raul Castro, was even more attentive on this latest
papal visit, attending the two Masses celebrated by Benedict, seated
in the front row.

Critics, especially the hard-line Cuban-American exiles in Miami, as
well as some human rights activists in Cuba, consider the
transformation in church-state relations an unholy marriage of
convenience, opening the Church up to accusations of not doing enough
to defend the human rights of the island's political dissidents, who
the Cuban government considers as mercenaries of the United States.

The Church argues that its engagement with the government is a
necessary acceptance of Cuba's political reality. "The church is not
going to dismiss a political system outright. The church will always
work within the constraints of a system to find ways to improve human
life and dignity," said Father Juan Molina, director for Latin America
affairs at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Nor has the Church given up on a democratic opening.

"While improved relations are in the interest of both the Catholic
Church and the Cuban government, it is also clear that the Church
would like to see political reform on the island," said Geoff Thale,
program director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a liberal
think tank in the U.S. capital.

"While we may not see immediate actions on human rights in Cuba," as a
result of the pope's visit, Thale said it had "strengthened the
Catholic Church's ability to open space for dialogue and debate ...
essential to building a climate that favors human rights."

In his public addresses in Cuba, the pope made repeated references to
the need for "authentic freedoms" essential to the building of a
"renewed and open society."


Raul Castro seemed to have no problem with that, noting in his final
remarks before the pope departed that there were many areas where the
Cuban government coincided with the views expressed by the pope,
"though it's natural that we don't think the same way on every issue."

For Cuba, the pope's visit offers much-need legitimacy in its quest
for international acceptance, all the more so given the health of
their main political and commercial ally, Hugo Chavez, president of
oil-rich Venezuela, who is battling cancer and faces a tough
re-election in October.

One key area where the Church and the Cuban government share common
ground is over the island's need for economic changes to raise living

Since taking over the reins from his ailing brother nearly six years
ago, Raul Castro has introduced tentative but ever-more-ambitious
economic reforms to overhaul Cuba's rickety Soviet-style economy,
including slashing a million government jobs and freeing up some
business sectors to small-scale private enterprise.

Recognizing that these reforms are a difficult adjustment for Cuba
after decades of tight economic and social control, Benedict used his
visit to offer the Church's "constructive" support "in a spirit of
dialogue to avoid traumas."

The pope's message of renewal and reconciliation resonates with Cubans
looking for change.

"The country needs economic reforms and physical reconstruction, but
there's also a huge job of moral reconstruction. Christianity can help
us," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a moderate voice within the island's
dissident movement jailed for "crimes against the state" in 2003
before being freed in 18 months on medical grounds.

Some Cubans remain skeptical about the Church's role.

"The Church does not need greater weight in society. I think society
as it is works well. We have healthcare and education," said retired
teacher Esperanza Gonzalez, 66, who attended the pope's Havana Mass.

"We are ready for reconciliation, but I don't think the exiles in
Miami want that," she added.

But the pope's message is earning currency among Cuban-American exiles
who, while wishing for a faster pace of change, also recognize the

"You don't change from a totalitarian society to an open society
without a lot of pain, without a lot of sacrifices," said Carlos
Saladrigas, a Cuban-American businessman from Miami who also traveled
to Cuba to attend the pope's masses.

"What the church is advising us is that we need to do what we can to
facilitate making change easier for all Cubans."

In the words of the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, who led a
group of several hundred Cuban-American on a special papal pilgrimage
to Cuba this week: "The interests of the Holy Father and the church
here in Cuba is that whatever transition comes, that it be a soft

(Additional reporting by Simon Gardner in Havana and Kevin Gray in
Miami; Editing by Philip Barbara);_ylt=AtnxpiScwF8dY9xMm0mX59L9SpZ4

Farm Land Distribution Process in Cuba Facing Delays, Limitations

Farm Land Distribution Process in Cuba Facing Delays, Limitations

HAVANA – Cuba's process of distributing farm land to individuals and
cooperatives, begun in 2008 with an eye toward rejuvenating the island's
food production, is suffering from delays and limitations for both
bureaucratic and practical reasons, an official said Thursday.

The head of the National Land Control Center, Pedro Olivera, said at a
press conference in Havana that the process has been "hindered and
limited" by problems such as delays in the approval of requests for land.

He also said that there are state-run entities that are not declaring
the full amount of excess and idle land under their administration.

Another difficulty is the "slowness and delay" in the exploitation of
the distributed lands due to a lack of "control and follow-up," the
scarcity of consumables with which to work the land and the lack of
experience and training among the new farmers, many of whom have little
or no experience in agriculture.

When the government of President Raul Castro decreed the land
distributions to jumpstart agriculture in 2008, about 51 percent of the
island's total arable land was idle or being inefficiently worked.

Olivera said that current calculations are that Cuba has more than 2
million hectares (nearly 5 million acres) "associated" with this process
and more than 1.4 million hectares have already been handed out.

To date, authorities have received more than 194,000 requests for land,
of which about 92 percent have been approved and the rest are under review.

There are estimated to be about 14,000 cases where the right to work
land has been later withdrawn.

Just over 26 percent of the new Cuban farmers are people under 25 with
little work experience and more than 70 percent of the total have no
experience in agriculture, Olivera said.

He added that the authorities are working to implement new laws that
allow an increase the amount of land the regime can distribute and the
amount of time for which it can assign a plot of land to a farmer.
Currently, plots are limited to 13 hectares and can be worked for 10
years by individuals.

Another aspect of the situation that is being considered is giving
authorization so that land recipients can build houses on the plots so
that "continuity and sustainability" can be provided for the measure.

In Cuba, the rejuvenation of agriculture to increase food production is
considered to be a matter of "national security."

The country spends more than $1.5 billion per year importing 80 percent
of the food its citizens consume. EFE.

Flotilla shoots off fireworks near Cuba

Posted on Wednesday, 03.28.12
Ocean protest

Flotilla shoots off fireworks near Cuba

Exiles aboard the flotilla stopped short of Cuban waters before setting
off the firewords during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba.
By Cammy Clark

OFFSHORE OF HAVANA -- As the bright orange sun set Tuesday, a Cuban
exile flotilla of three fishing boats called the Democracia, Muscle
Princess and Nilito's Toy II stopped in choppy, deep blue international
waters — 12 ½ nautical miles from Havana — to set off fireworks. They
symbolized "lights to liberty."

At first, just a few tall buildings could be seen in the distance. As it
got darker, the entire coastline lit up.

"I'm thinking I'm so close, yet so far away," said Rufina Velazquez, 23,
who came to Miami in 2009 on a political refugee visa. "This is the
closest I've been to my family for over three years and the closest I am
going to be in I don't know how many more years. The Cuban government is
keeping me not just from my family, but from my people and my country."

It's the closest most of the 30 or so Cuban exiles who took part in the
flotilla have been to their homeland in decades, since they fled the
Castro regime.

Exiles old and young made the more than 160-mile, 18-hour roundtrip boat
journey – in sea conditions that became increasingly dangerous
throughout the night – to show support for their countrymen who are
actively seeking their own freedom.

The trip, which left from the Key West Bight Marina, could not wait for
calmer seas – not when the world's eyes were focused on the island
nation for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

Despite winds gusting to 20 knots and waves up to 7 feet, the high seas
light show began. Visibility was good to see the fireworks that filled
the sky, first with colors of white and yellow to welcome the pope.

Cheers soon erupted on the 39-foot boat Democracia. Ramon Saul Sanchez,
leader of the Democracy Movement and organizer of the flotilla,
announced that he just learned from a Cuban blogger he reached via
satellite phone that the fireworks could indeed be seen from various
sights in Cuba.

The boat's radio operator also was receiving messages in Morse code that
confirmed the fireworks could be seen on the island. "The people who can
see them are getting goose bumps and are so happy," Saul Sanchez said.

The fireworks continued for more than an hour, with the colors getting
brighter and brighter. They were launched from the Muscle Princess, a
Marathon-based stone crab commercial vessel loaned to the effort by
Cuban exile Denny Valladares. He arrived in the United States in 1980
during the Mariel Boatlift and no longer has family living in Cuba. But
he still wants to live long enough to see a free Cuba.

"Cuba is like a big prison," Velazquez said. "The fireworks are
important to show the Cuban people that we do understand, we do care,
and we do support everything they are doing. We're blood. We're
brothers. Every Cuban in every part of the world cares about you. And
Cubans everywhere, in China, in Mexico, want a free Cuba."

Velazquez left Cuba by herself. Her entire family still lives in Cuba,
including her dad who was jailed Monday as he began to participate in a
march with the pope project. The last time she saw him he was in jail,
serving a three-year term for similar political dissident activity that
involved peaceful marching.

Older exiles with no family left on the island also want the same thing.

"My father was killed by Castro," said Nilo Hernandez, who loaned his
Nilito's Toy II fishing boat for the flotilla and organized the repairs
of the Democracia, a boat that had not sailed in five years.

Democracia was symbolically important because it was the boat that was
rammed by a Cuban gunboat in 1995 as it entered Cuban waters. The
incident brought international awareness to the cause. Roberto Rodriguez
Tajera, who hosts a Univision radio show called Prohibido Callarse, was
on the Democracia that day and said one Cuban gunboat blocked it from
moving while a second Cuban gunboat hit it on the side.

"It was scary," he recalled.

This time the closest the Democracia got to a Cuban gunpoint was miles
away. It was only spotted with binoculars. Flotilla participants joked
people on the gunboat were waving white flags.

The Democracia, with American and Cuban flags flapping in the wind, did
not leave international waters Tuesday. Three U.S. Coast Guard cutters
and a C-130 plane ensured the flotilla was safe and that it stayed legal.

The U.S. Coast Guard also inspected all the vessels for safety before
the trip. "We want good communication with them," Saul Sanchez said.

As the Democracia stopped just short of Cuban waters on Tuesday, the new
Scarabeo-9 deepwater oil drilling rig could be seen to the right at a
distance. Two Coast Guard cutters were positioned between the rig and
the flotilla.

"The Cuban government said we had plans to ram it," Saul Sanchez said,

But this flotilla, No. 26 organized by the Democracy Movement, was
strictly to continue its mission to let the Cuban people know they are
being supported.

During the fairly calm trip toward Cuba, the flotilla stopped about
halfway for a mini tribute. White roses were handed to everyone. They
sang the Cuban National Anthem.

The white roses were part of a tribute to the Ladies in White in Cuba
who are now protesting human rights violations and to those Cubans who
died in these waters trying to reach freedom in the United States on
creaky boats and makeshift rafts.

A second expedition had been planned to leave at 10 p.m. Tuesday evening
and arrive offshore of Havana for the 9 a.m. Wednesday mass by the Pope,
but it was cancelled due to the weather.

And the cancellation was wise. Sea conditions worsened as the flotilla
returned to Key West. Winds picked up to 23 knots and waves at times
were 10 feet high or more as rain showers appeared. Several waves
splashed over the entire Democracia, which was having an issue with its
fuel line and had to stop or slow down several times for repairs.

A Coast Guard cutter was never far away.

All passengers were requested to put on lifejackets for the return
journey, in which standing up on the boat was nearly impossible. Most of
the 19 onboard became sick as the boat was tossed from side to side in
the choppy seas. At about 7 a.m. Wednesday, just as the sun was rising,
the Democracia pulled back into the Key West Bight Marina with everyone
safe and free.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pope leaves Cuba with a call for freedom and shot at US embargo

Pope leaves Cuba with a call for freedom and shot at US embargo
Last Updated: 7:36 PM, March 28, 2012

HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday wrapped up a visit to Cuba with
a call for respect of "basic freedoms," pursuing his persistent prodding
of the island's Communist authorities to embrace change.

After an open-air Mass in Havana's Revolution Square and a meeting with
revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, the 84-year-old pontiff used a final
public appearance at the airport in the Cuban capital to convey his message.

With President Raul Castro looking on, the pope said he hoped the "light
of the Lord" would help Cubans build a "society of broad vision, renewed
and reconciled."
Pope Benedict XVI meets Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana.

"May no one feel excluded from taking up this exciting task because of
limitations of his or her basic freedoms," Benedict said.

He added that he hoped Cuba would one day be the home "for all Cubans,
where justice and freedom coexist in a climate of serene fraternity" --
perhaps a reference to Cuban exiles, many of whom live in the US.

Benedict also rounded on the half-century-old US economic embargo on
Cuba, saying such "restrictive economic measures imposed from outside
the country unfairly burden its people."

The pontiff, who was making the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years at
the end of a larger Latin American tour, was seeking to bolster the
Church's ties with authorities in Havana, and to encourage new and
renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.

But he was also trying to forward a subtle message for change -- even
though Vice President Marino Murillo insisted Tuesday there would be "no
political reforms."

"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is
in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing
reconciliation and fraternity," the pontiff told the crowd of some
500,000 people packed into Revolution Square, including the president.

Hailing the government's granting of freedom of religion since 1998,
Benedict said Cubans' quests for truth generally should also respect
"the inviolable dignity of the human person."

His comment seemed an oblique reference to dissidents pressing for
political opening in the Americas' only one-party, Communist country.
Dozens were rounded up and arrested during the pope's visit, dissident
sources said.

Human rights groups such as the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and
National Reconciliation have had their phone lines cut since Monday. The
cell phones of prominent activists were also unreachable, Amnesty
International said.

The pope scheduled no meeting with dissident leaders, a big
disappointment for them.

Shortly after celebrating Mass, Benedict -- leader of the world's 1.2
billion Roman Catholics -- met with 85-year-old Fidel Castro for about
30 minutes, a Vatican spokesman said.

The aging revolutionary leader, clad in a dark track suit and plaid
shirt, and with his physician son Antonio steadying him, asked the pope
about liturgical changes and papal responsibilities, the spokesman added.

"I am old, but I still can do my duty," Castro was quoted as joking.

At the airport in Havana, Cuba's president, Raul Castro, bid farewell to
the pope, saying the visit had been held "in an atmosphere of mutual

Catholics account for some 10 percent of Cuba's population of about 11
million. The country was officially atheist for almost four decades
until 1998.

Pope Disappoints Many in Visit to Cuba

Pope Disappoints Many in Visit to Cuba
March 28, 2012
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

"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

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

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.

Lousy International Contracts for Cuban Musicians

Lousy International Contracts for Cuban Musicians
March 28, 2012
Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

HAVANA TIMES, March 28 — The work is for no less than seven days a week,
with three 45-minute sets on each of those days. What's more, there are
no breaks between the songs, which come from a repertoire of 48
different tunes that have to be updated every week.

These are some of the basic conditions demanded by foreign
businesspeople of Cuban musicians before investing in their musical talent.

Despite the poor working conditions, succeeding at signing one of these
super-exploitative contracts is a big deal for any member of the
precarious community of Cuban musicians.

The energy and time it takes to secure work abroad is eventually
vindicated by any job offer – no matter how bad it might be. To get
sponsored by a foreign employer requires bleeding oneself dry on limited
and poor Internet access.

One needs timely contacts with other Cuban musicians abroad, though the
individual musician will still have to market themself day and night in
search of potential sponsors.

This might also mean having to ask a former co-worker to go out and sell
your art for a few bucks.

When you can attract the interest of an investor, then come the time
consuming negotiations with domestic firms and the Cuban Institute of Music.

It becomes totally necessary to make sure that culture officials are
"well treated" so that one can get their musical program approved.

These are issues that are not taught to musicians when they study at
conservatories, which is why they have to learn their most important
subjects after graduation.

The academic experience is nothing but a spiritual retreat where the
only thing important is achieving virtuosity in classical music.

On the street you have to become a jackal if you want your musical
knowledge to provide you with enough to support yourself and your family.

Some — very few — live with a "love for art," and these are often
musicians who have high-powered families that sponsor them.

Most of one's fellow students wind up being exploited just like any
other manual worker. They eventually find themselves trapped in the
monotonous cloning of preconceived and stereotypical musical formulas.

Consequently, it's not uncommon to find musicians who hate what they do.
They end up detesting Cuban popular music, nightclubs and everything
having to do with the music industry.

No wonder.

Analysis: Pope, Castros talked past each other

Analysis: Pope, Castros talked past each other
Associated Press
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 6:30 a.m.

The spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics and the brothers who
have carried Cuba along an increasingly solitary Communist path mixed
warm smiles with the hard language of their respective camps during Pope
Benedict XVI's three-day tour of Cuba.

Often, the polite octogenarians at the heart of this religio-political
drama appeared to be talking past each other, the pontiff using biblical
parables about cruel, long-dead kings, the Castros their customary
language of revolution and defiance to American dominance.

In his respectful send-off, President Raul Castro acknowledged in the
visit's greatest understatement: "We do not think alike on all matters."

The first indication of whether the sides heard each other could come as
early as next week, when Castro must decide whether to grant the pope's
unusual request to declare Good Friday a holiday, despite the fact it
does not have that status in the United States or much of Europe or even
Mexico, the most Catholic of the world's Spanish-speaking countries.

Progress on larger issues, such as the church's desire for greater
access to state-run airwaves, permission to run schools and hospitals,
and license to build new churches, will take longer to assess.
Certainly, no concessions were announced. And privately, insiders here
doubt the government will ever yield ground on education and health
care, which it considers the pillars of the revolution and core
responsibilities of the government.

Benedict pointedly criticized Cuba's Marxist system even before he
arrived, then followed up in homilies and speeches with repeated calls
for freedom, renewal and reconciliation, as well as references to
prisoners and those "deprived of freedom." One of Raul Castro's top
aides, economic czar Marino Murillo, wasted little time in responding:
"In Cuba, there will not be political reform."

While the president has begun an overhaul of Cuba's economy, he has been
much slower to make political changes and remains surrounded by a
coterie of confidantes who have been with him and his brother since
their rebel days. As recently as January, he took to the airwaves to
firmly defend the island's one-party Communist system, saying it is
necessary given U.S. hostility.

"We should not expect popes to be miracle workers," said the Rev. Thomas
Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and longtime Vatican
observer. "But Benedict's visit should keep Cuba on track moving
gradually toward greater freedom for both the church and society at large."

As with most sequels, the trip did not live up to the original: the
historic 1998 tour by Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II.

The crowds were smaller, the quotes somewhat derivative. The agenda was
also less ambitious, with large chunks of it behind closed doors. Even
the personalities paled in comparison: John Paul was one of the towering
figures of the 20th century, Fidel is among its most famous
revolutionaries and best-known atheists.

If they share anything in common, Raul and Benedict are both caretakers
of other men's legacies.

To longtime observers, the reactions seemed predictable as well.

In South Florida, local media focused on the harassment of the island's
small dissident community and the brusque removal of a protester
shouting anti-government slogans at the Mass in Santiago. While some
members of a troupe of mostly Cuban-American pilgrims said their
experience made them question long-held preconceptions, hard-liners said
the pontiff's visit only demonstrated how little on the island has changed.

"The pope's visit helped show that there is no political space and no
political liberty in Cuba," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a staunchly
pro-embargo Florida Republican, told The Associated Press.

Indeed, while the government repeatedly said it would listen to the pope
respectfully, it also used his visit to hammer home oft-repeated talking

Castro used his welcoming speech for Benedict at the airport in the
eastern city of Santiago to rail against the 50-year-old U.S. economic
embargo, criticize capitalist decadence and warn of a nuclear holocaust
presumably wrought at American hands, while talking up Cuban
achievements in health care and education.

The next evening, Fidel Castro recalled the Bay of Pigs invasion of
1961, warned of a global scarcity of resources and took a shot at U.S.
President Barack Obama in an opinion piece in which he announced that
his much-anticipated meeting with Benedict was on for Wednesday.

When they did meet, Fidel and Benedict joked about their advanced years,
and the retired Cuban leader quizzed the pontiff on the ins and outs of
his job. Benedict, in his final comments, sprinkled references to the
Vatican's long-standing opposition of the U.S. embargo in with calls for
more freedom.

Ordinary Cubans had heard these lines before, and many said they were
taking a wait-and-see approach.

Many remembered John Paul's visit, which cemented warmer state ties with
the church and resulted in headlines like Christmas being declared a

"John Paul II was a pope who undid the latch," said Jose Luis Lavin, a
35-year-old government food worker who witnessed Benedict's Wednesday
morning Mass in Revolution Plaza. "Now, we'll see with this one what
agreement there was, whether there will be more freedom."


Paul Haven has been The Associated Press' bureau chief in Havana since 2009.

S. Fla. Temple Honors American Man Held In Cuba

S. Fla. Temple Honors American Man Held In Cuba
March 28, 2012 6:35 PM

MIAMI BEACH (CBSMiami) — At Friday services at Temple Menorah on Miami
Beach, one chair is always reserved for Alan Gross. At the temple, the
American contractor jailed in Cuba is considered a victim of politics.

"This is a classic example of a heinous crime perpetuated against a
person who was on a civil rights mission," said Rabbi Eliot Pearlson
from Temple Menorah.

Alan Gross, 62, has been imprisoned in the island nation since December
2009 when he was arrested for trying to help members of the island's
small Jewish community with Internet access. He was formally sentenced
to 15 years in prison earlier this year for crimes against the state and
"disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba."

At the time he was arrested Gross was working as a subcontractor for the
U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency that
provides humanitarian assistance but also funds democracy-building
programs. The Cuban statement said Gross never told people he contacted
in the Communist nation that he was working for a U.S. government program.

Family members in Maryland have been pleading for the Cuban government
to release Gross. They say his imprisonment has taken a heavy toll.

"Alan was always a bit of a hefty guy to begin with and always had a
smile on his face. Now when you see him, he looks emaciated," said his
wife Judith Gross, who lives in the Washington D.C. area.

There's been speculation of a possible prisoner swap, in which Gross
would be sent home, in return for five Cuban spies serving time in U.S.

Gross' loved ones have asked that he be released temporarily to visit
his elderly mother.

"I can't be without him any longer," his mother Evelyn said in a
videotaped statement released to the public in hopes of getting public
support for his release.

"She's a real trooper but she's scared to death she might not see him
ever again," Judith Gross said.

At Temple Menorah, where half the congregation is Cuban-American, there
is also concern about Gross' future.

"Everybody is trying to do their best to get him out of jail because
Cuba is one of those places where you don't know what is happening in
jail," said Marta Olchyk, a Jewish Cuban American member of Temple
Menorah's congregation.

As the leader of the Temple Menorah congregation prays and calls for
action, there's hope the leader of one billion Catholics worldwide can
do the same for Alan Gross.

"The fact that they're welcoming in Cuba is a statement that they
appreciate his presence and he's an important person that does have a
voice even with the Cuban government," Rabbi Pearlson said.

The Obama administration said Wednesday it had asked Pope Benedict XVI
to raise with Cuban officials the case of American contractor Alan Gross..

The State Department said the request was made directly to the Vatican
and through the papal nuncio in Washington before the Pope arrived in
Cuba this week.

"We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on
all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would
be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this
opportunity to release Alan Gross," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"We would be obviously very grateful were the Pope to raise this issue,"
she told reporters.

A Vatican spokesman said earlier Wednesday that the pontiff had made
"requests of a humanitarian nature" to the Cuban government but did not
know if individual cases were discussed.

In Cuba, Pope Pleas for 'Those Deprived of Freedom'

Updated March 28, 2012, 11:08 a.m. ET

In Cuba, Pope Pleas for 'Those Deprived of Freedom'

SANTIAGO, Cuba—Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday paid homage to Our Lady of
Charity, a statue of Mary said to be discovered by Cuban fisherman some
four centuries ago. His prayers at the island's holiest site included a
plea for "those deprived of freedom."

While the pontiff's message was vague, the Cuban government quickly
responded that while some economic changes were afoot on the island, the
Communist closed political system would remain firmly in place.

Catholic Pope Benedict XVI meets with Cuban leader Raul Castro during
his visit to Havana. (Video: Reuters/Photo: AP)

"In Cuba, there will not be political reform," Marino Murillo, vice
president of Cuba's Council of Ministers, told reporters on Tuesday in
Havana, according to the Associated Press. "What we are talking about is
an updating of our Cuban economic model, which makes our own form of
socialism more sustainable."

Cuban President Raúl Castro, since taking power officially from his
ailing brother in 2008, has adopted a series of economic reforms meant
to breathe new life into the island's moribund economy, including
allowing people to open small businesses and slashing up to a million
jobs from a bloated government bureaucracy.

But at the same time, there has been no sign of political reforms on the
island. Mr. Castro has said repeatedly that any kind of political
opening would be used by Cuban exile groups in Miami as a way to control
the island.

And while the government has freed some political prisoners, partly
through the offices of the Catholic Church, it regularly detains
dissidents for brief periods. In recent weeks, groups of dissidents have
been arrested several times and warned not to interfere with the pope's

One incident at the start of the papal visit left little doubt as to the
state of political freedom in Cuba. Before an outdoor mass in Cuba's
second city of Santiago, an unidentified man yelled anti-government
slogans before being bundled off by security agents.

Video of the incident showed him being escorted out from the crowd and
accosted by an apparent first aid worker wearing a white T-shirt with a
large red cross.

The Vatican confirmed the incident, but said it had no further information.

Cuban dissident groups expressed concern for the young man's safety and
urged the government to release him unharmed. "Until now, we've been
unable to locate the whereabouts of this man who protested peacefully
and was assaulted … and beat violently," said a statement by Elizardo
Sánchez, who leads a group that tracks detentions.

On his way to Mexico last week, the pope bluntly criticized Cuba's
official orthodoxy, saying Marxism "no longer corresponds to reality."
But on the island itself, the pope's message has focused heavily on
spiritual matters, and his potential criticisms of Cuba's regime have
been oblique and open to interpretation.

During his speech on arrival on Monday, for instance, he said that he
carried in his heart the aspirations of all Cubans, a reference that was
seen by some to include Cuban exiles in Miami or dissidents at home. At
an outdoor Mass, he urged Cubans to build an "open society"—another
possibly veiled reference to freedom.

Some analysts said that even those comments may be seen as too much by
the Cuban authorities, who have tentatively given the church a greater
role in Cuban society in the past few years, including allowing the
church to open a business-type school to train Cubans to take advantage
of the legal changes allowing some to open businesses.

"One of the consequences of this visit could be to distance the Church
more from Raúl, because he may have believed that this would only be a
pastoral visit, but the pope has made his criticisms, even in the
abstract language of priests," said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a
Miami-based political analyst and author.

Later in the day, Pope Benedict was due to meet Mr. Castro in person for
closed-door talks.

—José de Córdoba contributed to this article.

US asks Pope to help in Alan Gross case

Posted on Wednesday, 03.28.12

US asks Pope to help in Alan Gross case
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration said Wednesday it had asked Pope
Benedict XVI to raise with Cuban officials the case of American
contractor Alan Gross, jailed on suspicion of espionage.

The State Department said the request was made directly to the Vatican
and through the papal nuncio in Washington before the Pope arrived in
Cuba this week.

"We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on
all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would
be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this
opportunity to release Alan Gross," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"We would be obviously very grateful were the the pope to raise this
issue," she told reporters.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said late Tuesday that the
pontiff had made "requests of a humanitarian nature" to the Cuban
government but did not know if individual cases were discussed. He had
no comment when asked about Alan Gross on Wednesday.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence stemming from his work
importing satellite and other communications equipment onto the island
under a USAID-funded democracy-building program. Cuba considers such
programs to be attempts against its sovereignty, and he was convicted of
crimes against the state.

Gross maintains that he was only trying to help Cuban Jews improve their
Internet capability.

Everybody won — and lost — in Pope’s trip to Cuba

Posted on Wednesday, 03.28.12
In My Opinion

Everybody won — and lost — in Pope's trip to Cuba
By Andres Oppenheimer

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba will not produce much change, but
everybody — the Pope, the Cuban military regime, dissidents and Cuban
exiles — can claim a semblance of victory from the high-profile event.
The key question is who won the most.

Gen. Raúl Castro, the Cuban leader, and his brother Fidel Castro were
able to portray the image, domestically and abroad, that they are not
international pariahs who are shunned by many world leaders for running
a police state that has not allowed a free election, political parties
or independent media for more than five decades.

By receiving Benedict and giving him a welcome speech that was broadcast
live at home and abroad, Raúl Castro got a unique opportunity to lash
out at the United States and stress the alleged achievements of his
regime in front of a global audience. The sole smiling picture of him
and the pope together, as well as the pope's meeting with Fidel Castro,
helped give legitimacy to the Cuban regime in the eyes of many.

At the same time, Raúl Castro's attendance at the pope's Mass at
Revolutionary Square on Wednesday helped the Cuban regime portray the
impression that it is opening up.

Cuba's octogenarian leaders are eager to convince the world that Cuba is
changing. They are worried that Venezuela may stop sending up to $10
billion a year in subsidies to the island if Venezuelan President Húgo
Chavez loses his battle against cancer, or if the Venezuelan opposition
wins October's presidential elections. They need an appearance of
greater openness in order to attract foreign investments.

Benedict, in turn, most likely accomplished his goal of expanding the
reach of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church. He not only raised the Church's
profile in Cuban government media — the only ones allowed on the island
— by having his ceremonies broadcast on state television, but got a
chance to publicly urge the government to allow the church greater
religious freedoms, including the right to open religious schools.

And while his message that "Cuba and the world need change" echoed John
Paul II's speech in Cuba 14 years ago, in which he prayed that "may Cuba
open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba,"
Pope Benedict also showed some spine.

He stated shortly before the visit that Marxist ideology "no longer
corresponds to reality" — something obvious to most of us, but a bold
statement in Cuba — and repeatedly called for truth, liberty and
reconciliation during his Mass on Wednesday in Havana.

Cuba's peaceful dissidents, such as the Ladies in White, who are
pleading for the release of all political prisoners and had asked for a
one-minute meeting with the pope — at the time of this writing Wednesday
evening appeared not to have been granted their request — but they won
by default anyway: the whole world could see the repressive nature of
the Cuban dictatorship during the pope's visit.

At least 210 peaceful dissidents were arrested shortly before the pope's
arrival to prevent them from showing up at his public meetings,
according to human rights groups. And one dissident who shouted "down
with communism" during the pope's Mass in Santiago de Cuba was beaten
and arrested in front of the cameras.

Cuban exiles, in turn, showed their countrymen on the island that a big
portion of the Cuban exile community seeks a peaceful national
reconciliation, and are not part of a sinister "terrorist mafia" bent on
revenge that the Cuban regime portrays them to be. About 800 Cuban
exiles went to the island with a pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese
of Miami.

My opinion: Unless we learn in coming days that the pope did meet with
the Ladies in White, the Vatican would have made a big mistake by not
giving them at least the one-minute they were seeking. The Vatican has
said that the pope is very much aware of their plight, but that there
was not time in his agenda. Yet, the Vatican found time for the pope to
hold an unscheduled 30 minute meeting Wednesday with Fidel Castro, who
officially is no longer Cuba's ruler, and was not scheduled to see him.

In the end, everybody won something with the pope's visit. We'll have to
call it a technical tie, although it would have been nice if the pope
had matched his words with actions, and had met with all sectors of
Cuba's society — not just with its rulers.

Pope urges greater openings in vast Cuban Mass

Posted on Wednesday, 03.28.12

Pope urges greater openings in vast Cuban Mass
Associated Press

HAVANA -- Pope Benedict XVI demanded more freedom for the Catholic
Church in communist-run Cuba and preached against "fanaticism" in an
unusually political sermon Wednesday before hundreds of thousands at
Revolution Plaza, with President Raul Castro in the front row.

Before the pope's departure, he met with the president's brother,
revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Castro grilled the pontiff on changes
in church liturgy and his role as spiritual leader of the world's
Catholics, a Vatican spokesman said.

Benedict's homily was a not-so-subtle jab at the island's leadership
before a vast crowd of Cubans, both in the sprawling plaza and watching
on television. But he also clearly urged an end to Cuba's isolation, a
reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11
American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.

"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is
in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing
reconciliation and fraternity," Benedict said. The remark built upon the
famed call of his predecessor, John Paul II, who said in his
groundbreaking 1998 visit that Cuba should "open itself up to the world,
and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict
referred to the biblical account of how youths persecuted by the
Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray
their conscience and their faith."

He said all people share a desire for "authentic freedom," without which
the truth that Christianity offers cannot be found.

"On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for
the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close
themselves up in 'their truth' and try to impose it on others," he said
from the altar, backed by an image of Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto
"Che" Guevara.

Still, it was unclear how much the pope's message resonated with
ordinary Cubans.

Many in the crowd had trouble hearing him over the loudspeakers, and
others said it was hard to understand the dense biblical message
delivered by the pope in a soft voice.

"I don't understand this Mass at all. I don't have an education in these
things and I know nothing about religion," said Mario Mendez, a
19-year-old communications student. "On top of that, I can't hear anything."

Benedict's comments were an unmistakable criticism of the Cuban reality
even if the pope didn't mention the government by name, said the Rev.
Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict's. As his U.S. publisher,
Fessio knows well the pope's message and how he transmits it,
particularly the watchwords of his pontificate: truth and freedom.

"Does anyone in Cuba not know how the words themselves condemn the
reality there?" Fessio said in an email.

Benedict's trip was aimed largely at building a greater place for his
church in the least Catholic nation in Latin America. In his homily, he
urged authorities to let the church more freely preach its message and
educate its young in the faith in schools and universities. Religious
schools were closed after the Castros came to power a half-century ago.

He praised openings for religion made since the early 1990s, when the
government abandoned official atheism and slowly warmed to the church, a
pattern that accelerated with the visit of Pope John Paul II.

"It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable
the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith
openly and publicly," Benedict said. "Nonetheless this must continue
forward" for the good of Cuban society.

Follow AP reporters covering the pope:

Human Rights Group Says Cuba Arrests, Harasses Activists During Papal Visit

Human Rights Group Says Cuba Arrests, Harasses Activists During Papal Visit
By Eyder Peralta   

Amnesty International says the Cuban government has increased its harassment of opposition activists.

According to the human rights organization, the government has detained more 150 opponents and in other situations has surrounded some of the activists' homes to prevent them from "denouncing abuses during Pope Benedict's tour."

Amnesty adds that some human rights organizations and prominent activists have had their phones cut off.

"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 Zúñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

As we reported, during his tour of the island Pope Benedict XVI has delivered pointed criticisms of the regime.

Yoani Sánchez, perhaps the country's best known opposition bloggers, said she was at the papal mass this morning. She sent out dispatches on Twitter, saying that as the pope said goodbye some of her friends were released from detention.

"I'm sorry to say it," she said on Twitter, "the pope's mantle did protect all of us."

The Miami Herald reports that the Vatican confirmed the pontiff is meeting with former Cuban President Fidel Castro, today. The pope met with Castro's brother and Cuba's current president Raúl Castro, yesterday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Message of the Cuban Regime to the Resistance

"As soon as the PapaCuba leaves, we are going to disappear all of you"
Message of the Cuban Regime to the Resistance
Guest Column Assembly of the Cuban Resistance Tuesday, March 27, 2012
(Partial List below of human rights defenders taken to prison cells and
under house arrest)
MIAMI, March 27, 2012. Assembly of the Cuban Resistance. The Information
and Support Center denounces that communications with the island have
been mostly cut and almost impossible to establish throughout this 27th
of March. Members of the resistance's cell phones have been
disconnected, and upon dialing the number, an operator informs the
caller that the number does not exist.
The Assembly of the Cuban Resistance calls attention to the extremely
dangerous situation to his physical integrity faced by the Cuban citizen
–whose identity remains unknown- who during the Pope's Mass celebrated
yesterday in Santiago de Cuba cried out that the Cuban people were not
free, down with communism and that there was no freedom in Cuba, and was
repeatedly beaten and violently removed from the site by state security
agents, led by one that wore a pullover with the Red Cross emblem, as
per visual images captured in video by the international news media.
The Assembly of the Cuban Resistance has been able to establish contact
with some of the members of the Resistance and the Ladies in White, all
of whom have manifested that they will go to the Mass in Havana, in
spite of the difficulties they may encounter.
"The Ladies in White are very discouraged with the repressive wave
unleashed by the regime throughout the island. We are aware that there
are opposition members detained; we know that there are many Ladies in
White detained and that individuals such as beggars and mentally
handicapped have been incarcerated in order to remove them from the
streets (…) as a Lady in White we are here to see how many of us can
participate in Havana's Mass", stated from Cuba's capital one of the
group's members and founders, Alejandrina García.
At the same time, former political prisoner Iván Hernández Carrillo
alerted about text messages he received through which state security
agents and the regime's political police threaten members of the
resistance with their disappearance once the Pope's visit comes to an end.
Ciro Díaz, member of the "Porno para Ricardo" a musical punk group, sent
a tweet denouncing the detention of several of its members. He stated
that Williams, bass player, has disappeared. "He left at 9 in the
morning from his house to the clinic and has not returned as yet, with
more than ample time to have been able to do so. This occurs in addition
to this morning's disappearance of Ismael de Diego and Danilo's
disappearance yesterday", he added.
The Assembly of the Cuban Resistance raises its voice before the
international community to denounce the violent climate of repression
unleashed by the Castro brothers' dictatorship which evidences, one more
time, the regime's totalitarian nature.
As of this moment, March 27, 2012 at 2:30 PM, we have been able to
confirm that the following members of the Resistance have been detained:
Pinar del Rio:
Yaser Reinoso Ramos
La Habana:
Sara Marta Fonseca Quevedo,
Julio León Fonseca
Julio Aleaga Pesant (detenido en Santiago de Cuba)
William (bajista de grupo Porno para Ricardo)
Danilo (grupo Porno para Ricardo)
Ismael de Diego (grupo Porno para Ricardo)
Francisco Chaviano González
Enrique Losada
Julio Vega Santiesteban
Roberto Tapia Ferrer
Rubén Sanchez Vega
Leidi Coca Quesada
Omaida Padrón Ascuit
Jennifer Fonseca Padrón
Karen de Jesús
Belkis Felicia Jorrín Morfa
Lázara Mitjans Cruz
Blanca Hernández Moya
Naiyibis Corrales Jiménez
Laura Elena Capote Loret de Mola
Katia Sonia Martín Veliz
Ricardo Salabarría
Odalis Caridad Valdés Suárez
Raúl Ramírez Puig
Gerardo Páez Díaz
Ulises Cintra Suárez
Jerry Curbelo Aguilera
Manuel Cuesta Morúa
Alberto Méndez
Leticia Ramos Herrería,
Emilio Bringas Evora
Mercedes de la Caridad De la Guardia
José Morejón Morejón
José Hernández López
Lázaro Díaz Sánchez
Juan de Dios Medina Vazquez.
Santa Clara:
Rolando Ferrer Espinosa,
Maria del Carmen Martinez Lopez,
Natividad Blanco Carrero,
Virgilio Mantilla Arango,
Elicardo Freire Jiménez
Osmani Leonardo Fernández.
Frank Adán de la Rosa
Rudel Montes de Oca Quesada
Las Tunas
Ramón Velázquez Toranzo
Ismelis Quiñones Ortega
Luis Felipe Rojas Rosabal,
Delmides Fidalgo López,
Mariblanca Ávila Esposito,
Anni Sarrión Romero,
Juan Carlos Vázquez Osorio,
Jorge Luis Freeman Palermo,
Jorge Luis Claro Velazquez,
Juan Oriol Verdecia,
Rafael Meneses Pupo, Alexander Cruz,
Maritza Cardoso,
Caridad Caballero Batista,
Marta Díaz Rondón,
Milagros Leiva Ramírez.
Anyer Antonio Blanco Rodríguez
Eliécer Aranda Matos
Yeri Curbelo Aguilera
Eliécer Palma Pupo
Antonio Caballero Pupo
Bernardo Torres Roldán
Maira Guerrero Silva
Bertha Guerrero Segura
Marco Antonio Lima Dalmao
Adis Nidia Cruz Sebré
Isabel Peña Torres
Judith Ferrer Segura
Yosvany Anzarda
Emiliano González Olivera
Yaquelin García Hans
Santiago de Cuba:
Misael Valdés Díaz,
Jorge Cervantes García
Guillermo Cobas Reyes
Liudmila Rodriguez Palomo,
Angel Verdecia Díaz
Andry Verdecia Osorio
Ramón Bolaños Martínez
Sergio Lescay Despaigne
Maikel Osorio Martínez
Rulisán Ramírez Rodríguez
Rolando Humberto González Rodríguez
Yelena Garcés Nápoles
Eduardo Pérez Martínez
Armando Sánchez La O
Angel Lino Isaac Luna
Karina Quintana Hernández
Yannai Ferrer Santos
Ana Celia Rodriguez Torres
José Batista Falcón
Miguel Rafael Cabrera Montoya
José Enrique Martínez Ferrer
Bismark Mustelier Galán
Dani López de Moya
Luis Ernrique Losada Igarza
Mercedes Fernández Fonseca
Adriana Figueredo Fernández
Yaima Bejerano Díaz
Doraisa Correoso Pozo
Adriana Núñez Pascual
Madelaine Santos Grillo
Agustín Ferrer
Ovidia Martín Catellanos
Yoselin Ferrera Espinosa
Jesús Priman Salermo
Annia Alegre Pécora, Yarisel Figueredo Valdés
Omaidis González Leiva
Tania Montoya Vázquez
Yanelis Elégica Despaigne
Vivian Peña Hernández
Yunieski Domínguez González
Roberto González Feria
Ángel Mir Espinosa,
Alexis Yanchoi Kuán Jerez
Anyer Antonio Blanco
Eliécer Martínez Ferrer
Ovidio Martí Calderín
Yoselín Ferrera Espinosa
Adriana Rodríguez Fernández
Rafael Alvarez Rodríguez
Rubén Torres Saínz
Yaquelín Baín García
Aliana Isaac Lemus
Juana Irena Parada
Ernesto Roberto Riverit
Andrés Pérez Suárez
Reinaldo Castillo Martínez
Tatiana López Blanco
Yesica Casternao Jorrín
Francisco Luis Manzanet Ortiz
Roberto González Pelegrín,
Rodolfo Bartelemy Cobas,
Isael Poveda Silva,
Reinier Cubas,
Randy Caballero Suárez,
Roneidi Leiva Salas
Yordis Sofía Rodríguez
Raúl Durán Montero
Roberto Quiñones Lores
Enyor Díaz Allen
Oscar Savón Pantoja
Ramón Olivares Abello
Rogelio Laborde Rivero
Yordis García Fournier
Eldri Abello Batista
Under house arrest:
Pinar del Río
Yoel Reinoso,
Víctor Rodríguez Morejón,
Raquel Rodríguez Riverón,
Dianelis Rodríguez Suárez,
Yoangel Palacios Hernández,
Luis Enrique Milián,
Jose Rolando Caceres Soto,
Adalberto Abascal Quintana,
Roberto Blanco Gil,
Raquel Rodriguez Suarez
Eduardo Diaz Fleitas.
La Habana
Jorge Castor Veliz Díaz, René Rouco Machín
Eriberto Liranza Romero
Villa Clara
Yris Pérez Aguilera
Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez"
Idania Yánez Contreras
Yanisbel Valido Perez,
Alcides Rivera Rodríguez
Santiago de Cuba:
José Daniel Ferrer García
Yoandri Fuertes Hernández
Wildo Izaguirre Fuentes
Belkis Cantillo Ramírez
Aymeé Garcés Leiva
Marta Beatriz Ferrer Cantillo (menor de edad)
Daniela Valcárcel Garcés (menor de edad)
Yusmel Acosta Aguilera, Caimanera,
Jorge Corrales Ceballos
Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina

Assembly of the Cuban Resistance
(305) 220-2713

Cuba rejects pope’s appeal for political change

Cuba rejects pope's appeal for political change
Associated Press Wednesday March 28, 2012 7:11 AM

HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and renewal "for the
greater good of all Cubans" before the nation's patron saint yesterday,
but the island's communist leaders quickly rejected the Roman Catholic
leader's appeal for political change after five decades of one-party rule.

The exchange came hours ahead of a private meeting with President Raul
Castro on the pontiff's second day on the island. Brief video feeds
showed Castro greeting Benedict at the Presidential Palace and then
later seeing him off.

There was no visit to see Fidel Castro, although a Vatican spokesman
would not rule out the possibility of a meeting before the pope is to
depart this afternoon.

During a quiet moment at the shrine of the Virgin of Charity, Benedict
also prayed for more Cubans to embrace the faith in a country that is
the least Catholic in Latin America. Although most Cubans are nominally
Catholic, fewer than 10 percent practice the faith.

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski gets standing ovation for sermon at Havana Cathedral

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski gets standing ovation for sermon at
Havana Cathedral
By Associated Press, Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 7:03 AM

HAVANA — In a sermon at the Cathedral in Havana, Miami Archbishop Thomas
Wenski called for Cuba to move away from the "spent ideology" of Marxism
without embracing the materialism of the West.

Wenski spoke Tuesday to a packed audience of more than 300 mostly
Cuban-American pilgrims, and they gave him a sustained standing ovation.
Many in the audience left Cuba as young children or are the sons and
daughters of exiles. The Mass was part of a special service in honor of
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the island.

Delivering his sermon in Spanish, Wenski called for "soft landing" from
Marxism and said the pope and the Roman Catholic Church desire a
political evolution that provides dignity to all Cubans, who have been
ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

"However, as Cuba transitions, the Pope and the Church want a transition
that is worthy of the Cuban's aspirations, a transition worthy of man,"
Wenski said. "To go from the ideological materialism of Marxism to a
practical materialism such as that of many Western societies would not
be worthy of man."

His call for a "soft landing" from Marxism is something he has said
before, but those in attendance said it reverberated more strongly being
said inside Cuba.

"I don't think he said anything today we haven't heard before," said
Carlos Saldrigas, head of the Cuba Study Group, a business-led nonprofit
that encourages political and economic change in Cuba as well as more

"I think the difference is he put it all together in one overriding
speech, and he did that in Havana and spoke in Spanish for all the
world's press," added Saldrigas.

Wenski, who has had a close relationship with Catholic Church leaders on
the island since the mid-1990s and has worked to help Cuba recover from
damaging hurricanes, spoke in favor of human rights, while also warning
against the excesses of capitalism.

Andy Gomez, a senior political fellow at the University of Miami's
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, was among those in the

"He's got courage," Gomez said. "He talked about human rights, which the
pope did not yesterday."

The Mass was open, and a number of people wandered in toward the end of
the service.

Leaflets titled "Cubans Here and There: Pilgrims for Freedom," printed
by a Cuban dissident group, were passed out with a message welcoming the

"This is your country from where you are exiled as (are) hundreds (of)
thousands of Cubans," it read in imperfect English. "We fight, maybe
alone, but we fight for every Cuban's rights and the respect of their

"We are all one, and a single people!" it added.

Full text of Archbishop Thomas Wenski's homily critical of Marxism

Posted on Wednesday, 03.28.12

Full text of Archbishop Thomas Wenski's homily critical of Marxism

We are, like Pope Benedict XVI, pilgrims of charity here in Cuba. We
come from Miami and the United States - in our group we have people born
here, the children of people born here and people of other national
heritages. We are united in one common faith. As the theme of the
jubilee of the 400th anniversary of the discovery and presence of Our
Lady of Charity states so well: A Jesus por Maria, la caridad nos une
(To Jesus through Mary, charity makes us one). Our presence here today
in this historic cathedral is also another witness to this unity that is
ours in the Body of Christ which is the Church.

On behalf of all of us, I wish to express our gratitude to His Eminence,
Cardinal Ortega, for making it possible for us to celebrate Mass in this
the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Habana. The stones of this
cathedral have witnessed over the centuries the unfolding of much of the
history of Cuba - with all its lights and shadows. And these stones will
witness in years to come the further unfolding of the history of Cuba
and its people. We come here as pilgrims to pray that - as Pope John
Paul II said in his visit 14 years ago - that the Cuban people will be
the protagonists of that history; and that inspired by the Word of God
and the values of the Christian heritage that has shaped Cuban identity
for more than 400 years the Cuba people will build for themselves and
their prosterity a future of hope.

In the Psalm today we prayed: O Lord, hear my prayer and let my cry come
to you.The psalmist prays: "Let this be written for the generations to
come and let his future creatures praise the Lord. 'The Lord looked down
from his holy height; from the heavens he beheld the earth. To hear the
groaning of the prisoners, to release those doomed to die.'"

Those doomed to die, Jesus tells us in the gospel today, are those who
die in their sins because they have refused to recognize him as the "I
am" of human history. In yesterday's feast of the Annunciation when the
Word was made flesh Jesus is revealed both as the human face of God and
the divine face of man. As Pope Benedict said yesterday in Santiago: God
has created us as the fruit of his infinite love; hence, to live in
accordance with his will is the way to encounter our genuine identity,
the truth of our being, while apart from God we are alienated from
ourselves and are hurled into the void. The obedience of faith is true
liberty, authentic redemption which allows us to united ourselves to the
Love of Jesus in his determination to conform himself to the will of the
Father." Again as the Pope said yesterday: "...when God is put aside,
the world becomes an inhospitable place for man, and frustrates
creation's true vocation to be a space for the covenant, for the 'Yes'
to the love between God and humanity."

Jesus Christ fulfills the desire of the longing of our hearts that the
world may become a home worthy of humanity. For the world to become a
home worthy of humanity it cannot close itself to transcendence, it
cannot shut itself off to God and to our vocation as men and women to
live with God, not only in this present moment but for all eternity.

Ideological materialism, represented in this country and in those
countries of what was the Eastern bloc, denied man's transcendence, it
denied that that human person was created for more than just to die one
day. As the Pope observed on his flight to Mexico, Marxism is a spent
ideology. This caused a bit of a furor among the press corps; however,
as Archbishop Dionisio Garcia observed, "the Pope's comments about
Marxism didn't tell us anything we, in Cuba, didn't already know."
However, as Cuba transitions, the Pope and the Church want a transition
that is worthy of the Cuban's aspirations, a transition worthy of man.
To go from the ideological materialism of Marxism to a practical
materialism such as that of many Western societies would not be worthy
of man. The Church certainly wants a "soft landing" but a landing that
is open to a future of hope. As the Holy Father wrote in Spe Salvi, a
world without God is a world without hope, a world without a future. To
people intoxicated with the love of power, the Church witnesses to hope
by sharing with the world - and with the Cuban people, the power of love.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski Archbishop of Miami

Pope wraps Cuba visit with Mass, Fidel meeting

Posted on Wednesday, 03.28.12

Pope wraps Cuba visit with Mass, Fidel meeting
Associated Press

HAVANA, Cuba -- Pope Benedict XVI wraps up his visit to Cuba on
Wednesday with an open-air Mass in the shrine of the Cuban revolution,
hoping to revive the Catholic faith in this communist-run country. His
other appointment promises a far more tantalizing climax: a meeting with
Fidel Castro.

The former Cuban leader announced late Tuesday that he would happily
meet with Benedict, saying he was asking for just a "few minutes of his
very busy time" in Havana.

The Vatican had already said Benedict was available, so the confirmation
from Castro was all that was needed to seal the appointment and end
weeks of speculation as to whether Castro would repeat the meeting he
held with Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 visit.

"I will happily greet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI as I did John
Paul II, a man for whom contact with children and the humble raised
feelings of affection," Castro wrote. "That's why I decided to ask for a
few minutes of his very busy time when I heard from the mouth of our
foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, that he would be agreeable."

The audience and Benedict's Mass in Revolution Plaza come 14 years after
John Paul preached on the same spot before hundreds of thousands of
people, Fidel among them. Then, an image of Jesus Christ was displayed
opposite the plaza's iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che"
Guevara, a remarkable development for a country that had been officially
atheist until 1992.

This time around, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of
Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the
plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's
three-day visit, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the
appearance of the diminutive statue.

Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of
Santiago on Tuesday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and
renewal for all Cubans - another gentle nudge to the government to
continue opening itself up to greater reforms.

"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country,
advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of
all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the
needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those
who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of

It wasn't long before a top official in Havana responded: "In Cuba,
there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo, Cuba's
economic czar and a vice president.

Benedict had begun his trip to Mexico and Cuba by asserting that Marxism
as it was originally conceived is irrelevant for today's reality. Upon
arriving on Cuban soil, however, he softened the message that clearly
irritated his hosts, pressing gently instead for the Roman Catholic
Church to play a greater role in Cuban life and for Cuba's people to
enjoy greater freedoms.

The Vatican spokesman said the Holy See didn't take Murillo's comments
as a rebuff to Benedict's call, noting that the pope isn't a political
leader who can change laws or political systems. But he said Benedict
does have some concrete hopes for the visit.

During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Cuban President Raul
Castro - twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state
- Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday,
when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.

The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to
Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John
Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years.

"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be
a sign of a positive step - as was the case of Christmas after John
Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

The government didn't give an immediate response, but Lombardi said it
was only natural for Cuba to take time to consider it. The government,
which frequently declares holidays at the last minute, could make a
quick gesture in honor of Benedict given that Good Friday this year
falls in less than two weeks, on April 6.

Benedict also raised "humanitarian" issues with Raul Castro, an apparent
reference to political prisoners. Lombardi said he didn't know if
individual cases were discussed.

Primarily, though, Benedict came to Cuba to try to win a greater place
in society for the Catholic Church, which has been marginalized in the
six decades of Castro family rule.

The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it
expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro came to
power in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government
removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of
all faiths join the Communist Party.

John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations. But despite years of
lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or
television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been
granted permission to build new places of worship. Only about 10 percent
of Cubans are practicing Catholics.

"Naturally a papal visit hopes to be an impulse for further steps, be it
for the life of the church or for the good of society in its entirety,"
Lombardi told reporters, citing media, education and health care as
areas where the church wants a greater say.

But in a country that once preached atheism and still is dominated by
Marxist thought, that's not just a hard sell for the government, but for
ordinary Cubans alike.

Ana Blanco, a 47-year-old Havana resident, complained that people were
being told to attend Wednesday's Mass, saying the pressure seemed odd in
a country that in her early years taught her religion was wrong.

"Now there's this visit by the pope, and I don't agree with giving it so
much importance or making anyone go to the Mass or other activities,"
the office worker said. "Before it was bad, now it's good. That creates


Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia
and Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.

Pope Benedict meets with Raul Castro in Havana

Posted on Tuesday, 03.27.12

Pope Benedict meets with Raul Castro in Havana
McClatchy Newspapers

HAVANA -- Pope Benedict XVI's whirlwind trip to Cuba neared its Wednesday climax - a papal Mass in Havana's massive Revolution Square - after a day of largely private events Tuesday that were remarkable as much for their symbolism and irony as for their substance.

The day began with the pope kneeling in the sanctuary of Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, in the mining town of El Cobre, where he prayed, in what might have been a gentle jab at Cuba's authoritarian government, that "nothing or no one take away the inner joy so characteristic of the Cuban soul."

The day ended 500 miles away with a private meeting with Raul Castro, Cuba's Marxist president, who gave the pope a replica of that same patron saint as a gift. The pope gave the atheist Castro a 15th century atlas from the Vatican library.

The public events, too, offered scenes at least unexpected, if not jarring.

In Havana's 300-year-old Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, the archbishop of Miami, a city whose population is largely made up of refugees from the rule of the Castro brothers, celebrated a special Mass in which he referred to Marxism as "a spent ideology." When he finished, Archbishop Thomas Wenski received a standing ovation that lasted at least two minutes.

Even the crowds that lined streets to glimpse the pope seemed other than what was expected - they were overwhelmingly young, a welcome break, Vatican officials said, from the scene in Europe, where religion seems mostly a refuge for the old.

"For us who come from Europe, it is a different world," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Holy See's chief spokesman, told McClatchy Newspapers. Among the European faithful, Lombardi, 69, joked, "I am a youngster."

What the pope and Raul Castro spoke about during their 40-minute talk was private, Vatican officials said. The two spoke through interpreters, which lengthened the meeting. Raul's older brother, Fidel, did not make an appearance, the Vatican said, though a meeting with the longtime dictator who turned power over to Raul in 2006 was still possible.

"The pope will be here until tomorrow in the afternoon. So the possibility still exists. He's still open and available for a meeting," Lombardi said.

Elsewhere in Havana, enthusiasm seemed to be building toward Wednesday's open-air Mass, though how many Cubans would be able to make it through the tough security procedures was an open question.

Residents said security was noticeably tighter throughout Havana, with the number of police on street corners much higher than usual. Access to Revolution Square is expected to be limited and several roads around the plaza will be closed for hours leading up to the event.

"It's almost like God is visiting the country," said Yasser, a 27-year-old bartender in downtown Havana who declined to give his full name. "There are countries where the pope has never visited."

Benedict spent Monday night in the former mining town of El Cobre, about 20 minutes west of Santiago, the first stop on his Cuban odyssey, where on Monday he celebrated an outdoor Mass for tens of thousands of enthusiastic Cubans.

The crowds were just as welcoming Tuesday morning when Benedict arrived in a black sedan at the door of the Sanctuary of the Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, where the stairs were crowded with people jockeying for a view.

"You saw how the people received the pope here," said Fermin Carbonel, a lifelong Roman Catholic. "His visit is a good thing for all of Cuba, especially good for the children."

Kneeling to pray at the altar, Benedict gazed affectionately at the 15-inch-tall statue of Our Lady of Charity. Then, moving slowly, the 84-year-old pope lit a large candle in front of it.

Despite the early hour - the sun had risen only recently - Cubans packed the winding road to the hilltop sanctuary. They sang and chanted the pope's name, and after his televised prayer in the sanctuary, Benedict emerged to bless the throng outside. As he raised his arms, the crowd waved back enthusiastically.

The papal visit had been timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary tossed on the waves of a raging storm on the Bay of Nipe. The plank she rode on read, "I am the Virgin of Charity," and from then forward, Catholics have revered her as Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. She became Cuba's patron saint in 1916.

While the pope's conversation with Raul Castro was private, Cuban church officials were expected to push for expanded freedoms, including religious education. During the Cold War years, when Cuba was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, religion was a roadblock to advancement up Communist Party ranks.

Today, Cubans can express their religion openly. But the school system, a source of pride for the Castro brothers, has traditionally been secular, whereas across Latin America the Catholic Church runs thousands of schools.

The pope also made an effort to reach out to the largely Afro-Cuban population of the island, who make up much of the dissident movement. Benedict on Tuesday gave the papal equivalent of a shout-out, spotlighting "Cubans who are the descendants of those who arrived here from Africa and the nearby people of Haiti."

One of them was Zaimi Rodriguez, 15, who attended Monday's Mass and said her interest in the Catholic faith has been piqued.

"I'm still not baptized, but I'm learning about the church," she said, adding that she began attending Mass regularly four months ago. "I feel it's something that suits me."

Her teenage friend Yelianis Tamayo Padello piped in, "There's peace and tranquility when you go to church. I like the feeling. When you go to church, they show movies about the life of Jesus and I find them very interesting."

That young Cubans are embracing faith - while the developed world has been losing the faithful - thrills Vatican leaders.

There's also a tremendous political consequence in attracting young Cubans, whom the pontiff cited in prayers at El Cobre and during Mass in Santiago.

Since Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998, the church has gained importance in the eyes of Cubans, most of whom have grown up knowing only a single-party political system and a state that for 30 years was officially atheist.

"It has helped a lot of needy people," said Ariel, a farmer in central Cuba who is not a practicing Catholic but who welcomed the church's growing role in helping the elderly and others in need.

The church is also positioning itself as an important voice in helping the island adjust to change when the Castro brothers - Fidel is 85 and Raul, 80 - pass in what can't be too many years.

The church doesn't say this directly, instead referencing the need for improved dialogue and reconciliation.

"This word reconciliation in his speech is very important for all Cubans," insisted Lombardi.

In his remarks upon arrival in Cuba on Monday, Benedict tweaked his hosts by noting that relations between the church and the state have improved, but "greater progress can and ought to be made."

Cuba officially became a secular state in 1992.

"What's remarkable today is that, while tensions between church and state haven't entirely disappeared, religious groups are playing an increasingly important role in shaping the future of Cuban society," Geoff Thale, a Cuba expert for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights watchdog group, said in an analysis of the papal visit.

(Whitefield, of The Miami Herald, reported from El Cobre; Hall, from Santiago; and Ordonez, from Havana.)