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Pope in Cuba: Trip shows how church playing balancing act (+video)

The pope did not meet with dissidents. But his trip was about building on gains the church has won in Cuba, says guest blogger Anya Landau French.

By Anya Landau FrenchGuest blogger / March 29, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate a mass at Revolution Square in Havana March 28. Pope Benedict, speaking from Cuba's biggest stage, urged Cubans on Wednesday to search for "authentic freedom" as their country changes and pressed the island's communist government to give the Catholic Church more liberties, including the right to teach religion in schools and run universities.

Osservatore Romano/REUTERS

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Whereas Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba nearly 15 years ago was in itself a historic moment – coming as it did at the end of a dark period for church-state relations in Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island this week was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society, and about gaining more such space.  Those who hoped this pope’s trip would have profound impact on the broader political and human rights context on the island were surely disappointed by the pope’s decision not to meet with Cuban dissidents who asked to see him. 

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To some extent, it’s hard to imagine what prominent figure really could sway Cuba’s leaders off of their course to rebuild the economy and leave the one-party political system in place. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I tend to think the Cuban people themselves will be the protagonists of that evolution, even if it takes much longer than some, or many, wish.

But given the ground the Cuban Catholic Church lost decades ago, the ground it has recovered in the past decade, and its priorities for the future near and far, creating more space for those goals must have been the driving factors in the pope’s trip. And perhaps that increased space in society – whether it is the Cuba Catholic Church’s publication of unvarnished criticisms of Raul Castro’s halting economic reforms, or the hoped-for reopening of private Catholic schools in Cuba one day, or Pope Benedict’s request to add Good Friday to the Cuban State’s official calendar – perhaps these advances, and reaches, by the Catholic Church and its offices and members in Cuban society at a crucial time of generational change may help usher in other social and political openings.

That is the road the church has chosen for itself in modern-day Cuba.  Rather than serve as a force for opposition, it looks for opportunities for constructive engagement with the government in ways that it feels can benefit the Cuban people. 

Many observers were aghast when, just before the pope’s visit, Cuban Catholic Church leaders requested that government authorities remove 13 dissidents who had been “occupying” a Havana church for several days. (Accounts differ about how peaceably they were evicted from the church.)  I’m certainly no expert in religious affairs, but many saw this action as the church siding with the oppressor and refusing sanctuary to these dissidents (as houses of worship often do, though usually in situations when someone is fleeing armed conflict). Considering the positive role Cuba’s Catholic Church has played specifically on human rights in Cuba in the past several years, I thought there might be more nuanced views of the cardinal’s decision than I’ve read so far. 

Whatever the Cuban Catholic Church’s failings, let’s remember that it was one of Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s letters to Raul Castro seeking an end to harassment of a peaceful protest group, the Ladies in White, that helped reinstate the group's weekly marches, which had been suspended by the government, and led to a face to face ongoing dialogue with Raul Castro, and the release of all of Cuba’s political prisoners in the following months.

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