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Pope in Cuba

Print edition : May 04, 2012 T+T-
IN THIS PICTURE made available by the Vatican newspaper "L'Osservatore Romano", Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana on March 28.-AP/OSSERVATORE ROMANO

IN THIS PICTURE made available by the Vatican newspaper "L'Osservatore Romano", Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana on March 28.-AP/OSSERVATORE ROMANO

The Vatican seems keen to influence the politics of the country in the fond hope that it is on the cusp of radical change.

THERE was a great deal of pomp and fanfare during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba in late March. Both countries have a long history of being staunchly secular and keeping the Church out of the ambit of state activities. For the last eight years, Mexico has been ruled by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), which has strong ties with the Catholic Church. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for almost a century before that, had a strong anti-cleric bias. However, although the PRI is poised to come back to power, the party has made its peace with the Church, which has become much more visible in the daily life of the country. Mexico is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Cuba was officially an atheist nation until 1998. It made its peace with the Church after the historic visit in 1998 of Pope John Paul II. Since then, Cuba and the Vatican have enjoyed relations based on mutual respect.

A handful of dissidents spearheaded by a group called Ladies in White tried to hijack the Pope's visit to Cuba to further their cause. Cuba considers the small group of dissidents who are active on the island mercenaries in the pay of the government of the United States. Washington subsidises its activities. An American, Alan Gross, was arrested for supplying the dissidents with laptops. Ladies in White has been staging protest marches regularly after Sunday mass. The group had the tacit support of sections of the Catholic Church, but the Vatican was evidently warned that the Pope's trip would be jeopardised if he chose to encourage dissident groups openly on Cuban soil. The Pope announced beforehand that he had no intention of meeting political dissidents. The Vatican had said that the Pope would remain focussed on religious activities, which included the holding of open-air masses in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

Two weeks before the scheduled visit, a group of 13 anti-government activists occupied the famous Church of Charity of Cobre in central Havana and demanded an audience with the Pope during his visit to discuss human rights issues and the release of political prisoners. The Cuban government had freed the last group of political prisoners last year after talks with the Catholic Church, when 75 anti-government activists, arrested in 2003, were allowed to go to Spain with their families. Most of those released are the husbands of members of Ladies in White. In December last year, President Raul Castro pardoned 2,900 prisoners who were jailed for petty crimes. The release of political prisoners and the pardoning of other prisoners were indirectly connected to the Pope's visit.

Other dissident groups and the Church authorities were quick to condemn the move of dissidents to barricade themselves inside the famous church. The Church spokesman in Havana said that the protests were disrespectful not only to the Pope but also to ordinary Catholics who would have liked to pray peacefully in the church. Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches, he said. Nobody has the right to disturb the celebratory spirit of faithful Cubans and many other citizens who look with jubilation and hope towards the visit of the Holy Father to Cuba. A few other churches were also occupied by dissidents demanding an audience with the Pope. Finally, it was the Church and not the Cuban authorities that evicted the protesters before the arrival of the Pope.

The papal visit was meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of Our Lady of Cobre (Charity), the patron saint of the island. True to the Vatican's word, the Pope did not meet dissidents despite Berta Soler, the leader of Ladies in White, requesting one minute with him. During his three-day visit, the Pope also scrupulously avoided making statements that could be construed as critical by the government. The focus of his trip was to strengthen the Catholic Church and reconnect with his flock, the majority of them lapsed Christians.

The only solace the dissident groups in the island got was a quote from the Pope that questioned the relevance of Marxism. The Pope, who is a well-read man and has authored around 20 books on theology, in response to a question on board the papal plane heading for Mexico, said: Marxist ideology, as it was conceived, no longer responds to reality. In this fashion, it can no longer respond to the construction of a new society.

Critics of the Cuban government interpreted the statement as a direct criticism of its policies. Most Cubans, however, preferred to view the Pope's remarks in a constructive light. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before becoming the Pope, was known for his conservative world view and his criticism of liberation theology, which had most of its adherents in Latin America. He was said to be behind the expulsion of priests sympathetic to the goals of liberation theology. Proponents of liberation theology describe Jesus Christ's teachings as being compatible with the goals of Marxism-Leninism.

Cuba is witnessing dramatic changes in its political life as the government seeks to reinvigorate its socialist model of society. In this process, which requires patience but also decisiveness, we wish to help in a spirit of dialogue, to avoid traumas and to help achieve a fraternal and just society, the Pope told a journalist who had asked him about the relevance of socialism.

Like his predecessor John Paul, Pope Benedict, while in Cuba, was critical of the U.S.' economic blockade of the country. Such restrictive measures imposed from outside the country unfairly burden its people, he said in his last speech before leaving the island. The blockade, which has been in force since 1961, has had a debilitating impact on the Cuban economy and on day-to-day life. The Pope balanced his criticism of U.S. policies by calling on the Cuban government to introduce basic freedoms and relax its core ideological principles.

Cuba's Minister of Planning and Economy, Marino Murillo, was quick to emphasise that there would be no political reform in Cuba. Cubans are not willing to betray their revolution. They want the revolution to evolve further but within the parameters of socialism.

The Pope had a private audience with President Raul Castro. The meeting lasted for more than an hour and a half, much longer than the meetings the pontiff has with other heads of state. The Pope requested the President to declare Good Friday a national holiday. Pope John Paul, during his visit to Cuba, had requested Fidel Castro to declare Christmas a national holiday, which the Cuban government did. This time too the government acceded to the Vatican's request. For the first time, Good Friday was a national holiday in Cuba this year.

The current Pope, who is 84 years old, also had a very cordial meeting and exchange of ideas with Fidel Castro, who is a year older. Fidel Castro asked the Pope about the reforms he had introduced in the Church.

The Pope's generally conciliatory tone in Cuba was also not liked in the U.S. The Barack Obama administration does not want the new reforms initiated by Raul Castro and currently being implemented in Cuba to succeed. If they do, Cuba will be able to remain independent and free from American domination.

The Pope also stated that the Church would always be with the simple faithful in Cuba. Although Cuba, like Mexico, is overwhelmingly Catholic, fewer than 10 per cent of the people regularly attend church. Many Cubans mix their Christian faith with traditional Yoruba beliefs, which their African ancestors brought from the west coast of Africa.

Cuba, Brazil and Mexico are the three countries in the region that have been selected for papal visits in the past 15 years. Brazil and Mexico are big countries with huge Catholic populations. Cuba is small, but the Vatican seems keen to influence the politics of the country in the fond hope that it is on the cusp of radical change.