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Papal visit highlights debate on Church role in Cuba

Catholic World News - March 26, 2012

As Cuba awaits the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI, who begins a pastoral visit there on March 26, a lively debate is taking place about the political implications of the papal visit.

Opponents of the Castro regime fear that the government will convert the Pope’s visit into a propaganda victory. Cuban bishops counter that the strategy of pressing quietly for change, rather than issuing outright condemnations, has proved productive in winning new freedoms for Cubans, and the Pope’s arrival will further that strategy.

The Catholic Church has undoubtedly won operating space since 1998, when Pope John Paul II visited the island nation and exhorted Cuban leaders to “open to the world.” Church services are now readily available in what was once an officially atheistic country, and the government has allowed construction of new churches and expansion of seminary training.

Led by Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, Catholic bishops have been successful in negotiating for the release of many political prisoners as well. But some opponents of the Castro government are unhappy with that mediation, pointing out that the released prisoners were sent into exile in Spain rather than freed to promote democratic reform in Cuba itself. Critics of the Church complain that the hierarchy has softened its criticism of the government in exchange for favorable treatment.

Pope Benedict showed no sympathy for the Castro regime when, during an exchange with reporters on his flight to the Western hemisphere, he said that Marxism has proven a failure in Cuba. But Cuban government officials downplayed the impact of that statement. “We consider the exchange of ideas useful,” foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez told reporters. And Archbishop Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez of Santiago de Cub observed that the Pope’s statement was not new. “The Cuban government and the Holy See know each other well,” he said, and the papal statement would not surprise the Castro regime. “The Church can be a facilitator for resolving contentious problems,” the bishop said, indicating the approach to which the Cuban hierarchy, at least, is committed.

During the Pope’s stay in Cuba, reporters will be watching carefully for one personal exchange. It is widely expected that the Pope will meet privately with the longtime dictator, Fidel Castro. Although no such meeting is officially entered on the Pope’s schedule, informed sources admit that it is anticipated, and some commentators hint that the ailing Cuban leader would like to be reconciled with the Church.

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