Pope's spiritual journey to Cuba a delicate balancing act
The pope pursues a mission of faith, but political realities can't help
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
SANTIAGO, Cuba -- Pope Benedict XVI arrives Monday in this eastern Cuban
city, where spring flowers have just started to bloom, on a mission of
charity and reconciliation.
But the church's efforts to focus the trip on ushering in a
"springtime'' of faith are colliding with political tensions.
As the Cuban church has gained space to operate more freely since the
visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, critics say it is acting too timidly
in defense of dissidents and political change on the island.
However, during his flight from the Vatican to Mexico on Friday for the
first leg of his two-nation tour, Benedict was unusually direct when he
told reporters that "it is evident that Marxist ideology, as it was
conceived, no longer responds to reality.''
Asked about the pope's remarks at a news conference on Saturday,
Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez said, "First of all, Cuba and
the Vatican already know this.'' The Marxist model, he said, needs
renovation "not only in Cuba but in other countries, too."
Cubans, Benedict told reporters on the flight, should "with patience and
in a constructive fashion find new models.''
The Cuban government, which sees the papal visit as a way to demonstrate
to the world that it is tolerant and open to religious expression, was
diplomatic about the pontiff's remarks. "We consider the exchange of
ideas to be useful,'' said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. "Our people
have deep convictions developed over the course of our history.''
At a time when Catholicism in Cuba could use some shoring up — only a
small percentage of baptized Catholics practice the faith regularly and
Afro-Cuban religions are widespread on the island — the church
appreciates the additional freedom it has to run its social programs,
train priests, address the nation via state-controlled media and last
year win the release of more than 100 long-term political prisoners.
But it is also in a position of defending itself from charges that it
has become too friendly with the Cuban government and hasn't come out
strongly enough in defense of human rights.
Much of the criticism has centered on Cardinal Jaime Ortega, especially
after his recent request for police assistance to remove a group of 13
dissidents who had occupied part of Our Lady of Charity Church in
Havana. The dissidents, who weren't well-known among traditional
human-rights defenders on the island, had a list of political demands.
Human-rights monitors say the number of detentions of dissidents in the
Santiago area has accelerated in recent days, and the government itself
has raised the possibility of protests during the pope's trip.
A full-page story last week in the Communist Party daily Granma accused
dissidents funded by the United States of plotting to disrupt Benedict's
visit with "provocations and disrespectful actions.'' That has meant
that some Florida church officials have found themselves defending
Ortega to exile parishioners unhappy with what happened at Our Lady of
But Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine said he doesn't believe they
have a full picture of the events in Cuba. "Everything is very mixed [in
Cuba],'' said Estevez, who will be traveling to the island Monday with a
group of more than 300 pilgrims on a trip organized by the Archdiocese
"There is a real complexity in the situation,'' he said. "Some Catholics
might understand the bishop's decisions; some faithful would prefer he
act in a different way. But we do not understand everything that is
going on. I cannot explain what is going on.''
Benedict would be an unlikely champion for any action that seems overtly
political. When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was an ardent foe
of liberation theology, the Marxist-tinged doctrine that has led some
priests and nuns to advocate social or political activism to meet the
needs of the poor and oppressed.
Rather, he sees the church's role as one of giving the Cuban people hope
to forge their own future.
When it comes to the church's role in the release of the political
prisoners, García Ibáñez said the church was chosen as a "facilitator,
not to resolve certain problems'' and it doesn't want to lead the charge
for change. "These changes need to be carried out by civil society,'' he
Asked during the news conference if the pope would ask for the release
of more political prisoners, García Ibáñez said freedom and better
conditions for political prisoners is a "constant theme'' of the Cuban
church. Whether the pope touches on the topic of political prisoners or
not, he said, the church would continue to seek their freedom.
García Ibáñez also said he didn't know whether the pope would ask for
the release of Alan Gross, a jailed American subcontractor who recently
requested a two-week reprieve to visit his mother, who is dying of
cancer in the United States. The archbishop wouldn't say whether the
pope would respond positively to requests by dissidents and defenders of
human rights to meet.
The Vatican has said that Benedict would be open to meeting with former
Cuban leader Fidel Castro if he asks. The pope also plans meetings with
Raúl Castro and the Council of Ministers.
The Ladies in White, a group of wives and relatives of political
prisoners rounded up during the so-called Black Spring of 2003, are
among those who asked for a meeting.
In a statement, the group said: "We recognize the right of his holiness
to express his desire to meet with Fidel Castro in spite of his [the
pope's] very tight schedule. By the same token, we think that
marginalized Cubans, victims of repression, should equally have the
possibility of meeting with the maximum representative of the church,
even if just for a minute, because we believe in the concept of a
'Church for everyone.' ''
Security was tight Saturday around areas in Santiago where the pope will
visit. A large open area around Antonio Maceo Plaza — Benedict
celebrates Mass there on Monday — was cordoned off. But in the small
shops on San Basilio Street near the plaza, the mood was more festive.
Several women who planned to attend the Mass said they were getting
their nails and hair done in preparation.
Benedict's visit coincides with the 400th anniversary year of the
discovery of a small wooden statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre
floating in the water off the shores of Eastern Cuba. García Ibáñez said
the celebration of that discovery is the fundamental point of the pope's
"She has turned into a symbol of our nationality — for Catholics and
non-Catholics, believers and nonbelievers,'' he said. Our Lady of
Charity of El Cobre is Cuba's patron saint.
In El Cobre, the small mining town where the pope will sleep Monday
night after delivering the homily at a Mass in Santiago, there was
excitement about Benedict's visit.
"This is a blessing for this town — that he is coming here and even
better that he is sleeping here,'' said Odalys Rodriguez, one of the
attendants at the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's most revered
A steady stream of visitors arrived at the hilltop shrine Saturday and
piles of floral bouquets and bunches of bright sunflowers lined the two
side altars of the church.
Egor Cobos, who runs a small stand along the road to El Cobre, was busy
painting the stall.
"I don't know whether having the pope passing in front of my stand will
help business or hurt business, but I'm prepared for anything,'' he
said, pointing to posters of Benedict that read "Welcome to Cuba
Benedict XVI, pilgrim of charity'' and a Cuban flag that adorned his
Ana Veciana-Suarez contributed to this story from Miami.