Thursday, March 29, 2012

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.

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