Manila Bulletin – Wed, Mar 21, 2012
HAVANA, Cuba (DPA) - Pope Benedict XVI is to visit Cuba starting next
Monday, and while the Vatican stresses the "pastoral" character of the
three-day trip, it is also evident that the communist country has unique
relations with the Roman Catholic church.
The events of recent days have highlighted that. Church authorities
themselves ended an occupation of a Havana church by 13 dissidents last
week, peacefully evicting them. And on Sunday, scores of members of the
Cuban opposition group Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, were
arrested before and after mass in Havana's Santa Rita Church.
The Cuban Roman Catholic church asked recently that its houses of
worship not be turned into "political trenches." And while the Cuban
opposition has demanded for weeks that Benedict meet with its
representatives during his visit, the pope's spokesman Father Federico
Lombardi said there were "no plans" for such a meeting.
The reach of the Roman Catholic faith is much deeper in the rest of
Latin American society than in communist Cuba. However, in none of those
other countries is the Roman church as important a political and social
actor as it has been in the Caribbean island in recent years.
Particularly since Raul Castro took over power in Cuba in mid 2006, the
church hierarchy has had room to mediate change. Archbishop Jaime Ortega
of Havana brokered in the past two years the release of scores of jailed
The Cuban Roman Catholic church has publicly pushed its role in seeking
national "reconciliation," and it has managed to open up dialogue with
the numerous communities of Cuban exiles.
After decades of confrontation, the Catholic Church and the Cuban
government began forging better ties in the 1990s, and they consolidated
them during the historic far-reaching visit in 1998 of the late Pope
John Paul II.
"Let Cuba open up to the world and let the world open up to Cuba," John
Paul proclaimed in the symbolic Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana.
Fourteen years later, several sectors of Cuban society again hold great
expectations for the papal visit. However, things are now different on
the island, "after a change of head of state and with the evidence of
the exhaustion of the model of paternalistic socialism," in the words of
Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the archdiocese of Havana.
In a country with few forums for public opinion beyond state media,
publications that are close to the Roman Catholic church, such as
Palabra Nueva or Espacio Laical, often demand more room for political
participation on the island.
However, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has refused to become "a catalyst
for radical change" as some social actors have demanded.
Others should take on that role, church officials say.
The church denies, further, that its current role as a partner in
dialogue with the government may turn it into "a natural ally" of Cuban
authorities. Some dissident leaders have complained that the Roman
Catholic hierarchy is "sanctioning" government policy with its
disposition for dialogue.
Benedict is to head to Cuba Monday, from Mexico. He is to deliver four
public messages in little more than 48 hours on the island, to either
embrace or redefine the role of the Cuban church - in its relation to
both Cuban government and society, to dissidents within the country and
to the exile community.
The official occasion for the Pope's visit to Cuba is the 400th
anniversary of the discovery of an image of Our Lady of Charity, the
patroness of Cuba, who has devout followers both on the island and among
Cuban exiles elsewhere and also features in Afro-Cuban cults.
Benedict is to visit the virgin's sanctuary near Santiago, meet with
President Raul Castro, and say mass in public twice on the island, first
in an open-air ceremony in Santiago and then on the Plaza de la
Revolucion in Havana.
He is expected to address human rights issues. Vatican sources did not
rule out that he might meet with the retired leader Fidel Castro, who
still holds heavy sway on the Caribbean island. Although he has long
stepped down from power, the elderly revolutionary, a Marxist and an
atheist who was excommunicated exactly 50 years ago, regularly hosts