Can Pope Francis change Cuba? Why star power isn't the only church tool.

The Catholic Church has been playing an increasing role in providing basic services to Cubans – giving it leverage to push the government to improve human rights.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Pope Francis is escorted to a chair by Cuba's President Raul Castro during his arrival ceremony at the airport in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. Pope Francis begins a 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States on Saturday, embarking on his first trip to the onetime Cold War foes after helping to nudge forward their historic rapprochement.

Posters welcoming Pope Francis hang in shops and in the rear windows of Cuba’s ubiquitous antique cars on the eve of the first Latin American pontiff’s visit.

And expectations are high that during his four-day visit, which begins Saturday, Pope Francis will encourage the government to speed up the economic and social reforms introduced by President Raul Castro in recent years. Many also hope to see him call for an end to the US embargo.

“People here want the pope to highlight that change is necessary. Because we need to change,” says Carlos Cespedes, sitting behind a table of small, used electronics he’s selling in the front room of his home.

But the pope's visit – Francis is the third in a row to make the trip – isn't just a high-profile moment in the church's long, ongoing campaign to effect change in Cuba. After decades of communist rule, the Catholic Church has gone from an institution non grata to one of the few independent organizations on the island. It has carved out a foothold in sectors long considered the domain of the state: from job training to the provision of food and social services.

In so doing, it has positioned itself to to gently press for improved human rights in a nation where citizens are still imprisoned for political reasons and thousands continue to take on the risky, 90-mile journey by raft and makeshift boats to Florida.

“The church is still seen as a religious institution” on the island, says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. “But, at the same time, its role in [international and national] dialogue and advocacy shows it’s clearly not just somewhere you go on Sunday. It’s trying to help shape the fabric of life in Cuba, or at least have a voice in it.”

Finding a role in Cuba

Religion was all but banned in the years following the Cuban Revolution, with the regime declaring Cuba an atheist state. Castro was largely intolerant of those who didn’t support his regime, eradicating freedom of the press and jailing or killing thousands of dissidents. Today, Cuba still ranks at the bottom of lists for transparency and economic and political freedoms.

But when the Soviet Union fell and Cuba lost its sole benefactor in 1989, a unique space opened up for the church, says William LeoGrande, an expert on Cuba at American University. The government began giving the church leeway in order to meet some of the needs the government could no longer serve. This has left a legacy of Catholic-run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other aid for the island’s poor. And while the church is not the only player in Cuba petitioning the government to improve human rights – others range from individuals like opposition blogger Yoani Sánchez to groups like the Ladies in White – none have the resources available to the Catholic Church.

“Churches around the world were channeling assistance through the Catholic Church in Cuba,” says Mr. LeoGrande, coauthor of the book “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”

“It was able to provide social services to the poor when the government couldn’t. And the government had to figure out how to come to terms with that.”

Despite its unique position as “by far the most important independent institution,” LeoGrande says, the church isn’t necessarily pushing its luck when it comes to pressuring the government for change.

“The church’s path is one of being careful, intentional, and moving slowly,” with promoting the need for political and social transformations in Cuba, says Ms. Gonzalez Maldonado.

Is it enough? Or too much?

Not all Cubans support the interactions between the church and the government.

“Some in the dissident community say any work engaging with the government legitimizes it,” says LeoGrande. “But that’s the position the church took in the 1960s and it didn’t lead anywhere,” he says, referring to a time when speaking out against the revolution meant religious schools were closed, Catholic publications were banned, and priests were exiled.

Others say the church isn’t doing enough.

A group of dissidents began a hunger strike on Wednesday in the lead-up to Pope Francis’s visit, calling the protest “Holy Father, we are Cuba, too” and asking for a chance to meet with the pontiff and express their “opposition of the totalitarian dictatorship of the Castro brothers” and defend human rights.

“I would argue that the church has a responsibility to tell the truth and not be afraid,” says Frank Calzon, Cuban-born executive director for the Center for a Free Cuba based in Washington. He says many Cubans on and off the island feel the church could be doing more – to press for worker’s rights, the recognition and release of remaining political prisoners, and an overhaul of Cuban society to better protect the poor.

“The way some of us look at this, [Cuban] Cardinal [Jaime Lucas Ortega] Ortega has basically spoken not on behalf of the Cuban people, but to advance the policies of the Castros,” Mr. Calzon says, noting a controversial comment the archbishop of Havana made last summer, implying there were no political prisoners left in Cuba.

Still, the church's efforts on the ground are valuable, he adds. “We have a problem with the church hierarchy in Cuba, but we don’t have a problem with the many courageous parish priests who do everything they can to help their people.”

The Monitor’s correspondent in Santiago de Cuba requested not to be named.

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