Why the pope wants stronger ties with Mexico and Cuba
While the Catholic church is bolstering the faithful in Mexico and Cuba, it is also seeking closer ties with national governments during Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to these countries.
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"It is a win for the government and a win for the Vatican," says Brenda Carranza, a religious studies expert at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Campinas in Brazil. "The Cuban government needs to create bridges to the international world," she says, and the Catholic Church is helping pave the way.Skip to next paragraph
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Cuba could gain more legitimacy and attract European investment through the church. Similarly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba lost subsidies that had long buoyed the economy, Fidel Castro invited Pope John Paul II to visit the island in what was considered a landmark move.
In return, Ms. Carranza says, the church can push for access to media, religious education, and physical spaces lost after the Cuban revolution, when many priests were exiled, and Cuba considered itself an atheist state.
But the new relations have not been without controversy. Cuban exiles have criticized the church for not taking a harder line against the Castro government on human rights. In Mexico, some have criticized the timing of the pope's visit to a pro-PAN state, which comes just as the presidential campaign officially launches. The Archdiocese of Leon in Guanajuato dismisses that criticism, as do residents. "This is a visit for all of Mexico," says Father Juan Rodriguez, the priest of the basilica in Guanajuato.
"The church is still a force to be reckoned with in Latin America," says Manuel Vasquez, an expert on Catholicism in Latin America at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But, he adds, it is increasingly losing ground to other religions.
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Seventy-three percent of Latin America is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and John Paul II visited Mexico five times in the 20th century. But in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, for example, Protestants represent more than 35 percent of the population. Even in countries with smaller Protestant populations, it is often the "evangelical vote" that is more influential in politics.
Meanwhile, many of the leftist presidents in office today in Latin America share histories with the left-leaning liberation theology, which caused a divide with the Vatican in the 1980s, says Mr. Masferrer. Liberation theology focuses on social justice, but was accused of promoting Marxist politics.
Even in Mexico the pope might have trouble drawing masses, as many urban Latin Americans feel disconnected from church leaders over questions of abortion, gay marriage, and divorce. But not in Guanajuato. "In Guanajuato, they can guarantee that the faithful will mobilize," says Ramos Cortes. "That sends a message that the institution still has the capacity to mobilize."
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