Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive today in Cuba, even as bloggers chronicle the “wave of arrests and threats” that has preceded the papal visit. The oppressive actions of the Cuban government have attracted the attention of organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which are calling for an end to efforts aimed at silencing the political opposition.
The pontiff has called for patience when it comes to bringing freedom to the communist-governed island, prompting El Cafe Cubano to ask:
Patience? We have been waiting for 53 years!!! If the Cuban Catholic Church is on the side of FREEDOM, why have ALL the disidents and the Ladies in White being rounded up and prohibited from attending the Papel (sic) activities?
Meanwhile, bloggers and other dissidents continue to be targeted. Adding fuel to the online fire is the arrival of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to the island, ostensibly for a medical visit – but bloggers find the timing curious. El Cafe Cubano says:
The Pope is heading to communist Cuba today and wouldn't you know it, the dictator of Venezuela just happens to decide to go to Cuba for treatment? Can you imagine what these two dictators are saying and planning???
Pope Benedict XVI has accepted a request by Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez for an audience during his visit to Cuba…This news will no doubt raise the already heightened concerns of human rights activists in Cuba and throughout the world who have pleaded with the pope to grant an audience to Cuban dissidents, in particular the devoutly Catholic, all-women human rights organization, The Ladies in White Laura Pollan.
The Vatican has so far refused to commit to any meetings with Cuban dissidents or the Ladies in White, citing the time constraints of a full schedule during the visit to Cuba. However, the Vatican has offered an audience to Fidel Castro if he so wishes, apparently willing to shuffle the pope's busy agenda to accommodate the retired dictator. The news now that the Vatican on such short notice has suddenly found room in the schedule to provide an audience for another dictator, Hugo Chavez, will most certainly cause more controversy.
Pedazos de la Isla highlights the opinion of a Cuban youth activist who thinks that “Pope Benedict Still Has Time to Meet With Opposition”:
There is still time to rectify his mistake of not receiving the Ladies in White and not meeting with the opposition, which is an opposition, for the most part, that has always been in the streets demanding freedom and human rights which are also proclaimed in the same Bible. And those are our rights which the Castro dictatorship violates and it is those very same rights which they deny the Church itself on many occasions…
This is our message to Benedict XVI. He can rectify this, he still has time to meet with the opposition, for he has all the authority to do so.
In another post, the blogger adds:
Many questions still linger without having been answered. Will he meet with members of the peaceful opposition? Will he at least mention their existence? The answers are unknown, but we should all maintain ourselves aware of what is happening, considering that the violence against the Resistance has massively increased.
Commentary on the papal visit – both photographic and otherwise – abounds in the Cuban blogosphere. Yoani Sanchez, who notes key differences between this papal visit and the one by Benedict XVI's predecessor John Paul II, writes:
Over the span of the last weeks…meetings have been held to call Cubans to participate in the masses to be offered by the Pope. The government wants to give – at all costs – an image of normality, it needs to show that Raul’s reforms are advancing without major obstacles. But the reality is more fickle.
On March 13 a group of thirteen people entered the church in Havana…and demanded that a list of their demands be given to Joseph Ratzinger. Two days later…the religious hierarchy authorized an unarmed commando to enter the premises and remove the occupiers by force. The collusion between the political police and Cardinal Jaime Ortega disturbed many and raised the question of the social role of the clergy.
Even those who had applauded the 2010 conversations between the church and the government to affect the release of the political prisoners, were negatively affected by the actions in this conflict.
Parallel to these incidents, the repression has been growing Arbitrary detentions, however brief, have become a common practice of the police authorities. They want to ‘clean’ the island for when the Holy Father offers his homilies…to top it off, the pope’s visit coincides, within a few days, of the ninth anniversary of the Black Spring of 2003.
The Ladies in White themselves have asked Benedict XVI for at least one minute of his time to tell him of the other Cuba he will never hear of in the official version. So far, there is no sign that His Holiness will receive them. Not them, nor any other personality from civil society not associated with the government.
This could be the biggest mistake of this papal visit.
Rebeca Monzo thinks that this papal visit brings to the Catholic church a tremendous opportunity:
To play the role it has played so timidly, and once and for all to stand at the side of the suffering Cuban people. It is an opportunity that the highest hierarchy has to take on the role of Pastor of this scattered, hurt and skeptical flock, helping it to find and rescue the true path, which is none other than the deprivation of freedom for more than half a century.
This visit has been called ‘pastoral.’ Its political implications are, however, profound. The moral ones are awesome. The Cuban Church faces a painful choice. Preserving and expanding a material and sacramental presence on the island is critical. But being true to its deepest calling is just as important to the Church, which must speak with a prophetic voice and exercise what the Church itself has called a ‘preferential option’ for the poor and oppressed.
No one should seriously expect the Church to take the leadership in bringing about regime change in Cuba. Remember, when push came to shove around 1960, most Cubans followed Castro, not Christ. In fact, many got the two confused.
Remember, if you can — I do and so does Cardinal Ortega – the frenzied cheering crowds that endorsed Cuba over to Fidel Castro half a century ago. Unlike Communism in Poland, Castroism was implanted in Cuba by the Cubans themselves. The Church opposed it and was almost wiped out. For the leadership of the Cuban Church to feel weak and vulnerable is understandably ingrained as the residue of that experience. Cuba has changed fundamentally, though. The time has come to look to the future, not the past, with faith that, in Cuba, the past has no future.
It would be presumptuous for me or anyone to tell the Pope what to say or do. I pray, however that the Holy Spirit will illumine his wits and strengthen his resolve to do what is best for the Church and for Cuba and that his visit will bring that long suffering country the best one can hope for. Pope John Paul II asked the Cubans not to be afraid. It is only fair to ask Benedict XVI to act in consequence. Most Holy Father: do not be afraid.