As Cuba prepares to receive Pope Benedict XVI on March 26, an increasing number of voices both on the island and abroad are complaining that the local church authorities are ignoring dissident groups and showing favoritism to a government that oppresses its own people. They also fear that the pontiff’s visit could be exploited for the same purposes.
In recent days, Lech Walesa, the former leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement that toppled the communist regime in 1989, as well as Cuban-American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have joined Cuban dissident groups to ask the pope to speak out against human rights abuses by the island’s communist government during his upcoming trip.
The Cuban authorities have added fuel to the fire during the past week by temporarily arresting human rights protesters and other dissidents, including seventy members of the Ladies in White, which consists of the wives and female relatives of political prisoners. Thus far, requests by the Ladies in White to meet with Pope Benedict during his trip have not been answered.
Seeking to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the pope’s visit, a group calling itself the Republican Party of Cuba occupied several churches in the dioceses of Havana and Holguín on March 13. The group’s spokesman says that they were trying to “call the attention of the pope” to their cause, which they characterize as “liberty, democracy, and respect for human rights.”
Although the dioceses of Havana and Holguin deny that they asked for police intervention, the Havana protesters were ejected by government authorities by force two days later, after the archdiocese informed the police of the situation. The Republican party of Cuba complains that its members were handled roughly, and that the Bishop of Holguin behaved towards them in an insulting manner when asking them to leave, an order that was peacefully obeyed.
The Archdiocese of Havana accuses the dissidents themselves of attempting to use the pope’s visit for political purposes, claiming their actions are based “on a strategy prepared and coordinated by groups in various regions of the country.”
“It is not a chance event, but rather a planned one, apparently with the purpose of creating critical situations as the Pope’s visit approaches,” the archdiocese stated in a press release published by Granma, an organ of the government.
The archdiocese says that “the Church hears and receives everyone, and intercedes for everyone, but it cannot accept attempts to undermine the nature of its mission or that could endanger the religious liberty of those who visit our churches.” It also states that it “received word that other groups and dissident individuals were called upon to occupy churches in other dioceses, but refused to do so because they considered it a disrespectful attitude towards the Church.”
However, at least one prominent dissident group, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), defended the protesters, complaining that they were “terrorized” by government officials who removed them from the churches, with “various devices and techniques of physical coercion.”
More broadly, the Cuban Network of Community Communicators (RCCC), said that while it rejected the decision of protesters to occupy Catholic churches in Cuba, it is disturbed by what it considers a hard-line stance against dissident activists expressed by the Havana archdiocese.
“With such hard and prickly language, the ecclesiastical hierarchy was unconcerned that it was transmitting to the people an opinion regarding the internal opposition in general, since it referred to groups in various regions of the country, which agrees with what is propagated by the regime to the people regarding dissidents, which implies in practice a self-identification with official opinion,” the organization said in an official communique.
The RCCC complained that “acts of violence, arbitrary detentions, searches of homes, seizures of goods of whatever kind, including money, harassment operations against housing complexes, impeding the free movement of their inhabitants and visitors, beatings, rallies of repudiation with paramilitaries, threats of every kind and even acts of sexual harassment, are carried out daily against dissidents.”
Adding that Catholics are sometimes “besieged” while at mass by government authorities, and harassed and threatened merely for attending public worship, the RCCC asks: “Where are the press releases of the Church condemning these events, with the same rigor that they have judged those who entered in this church?”
Frank Calzón, Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba, a U.S-aligned human rights organization, told Catholic World Report that he considers the decision of the Church authorities to denounce the protesters, using the official news service of the communist government, Granma, “very disturbing.”
“In Latin America, priests often bring peasants, workers, dissidents, into the Church, and they’re given refuge, they’re fed, they’re helped, and in Europe immigrants that claim that they could be expelled or mistreated find refuge in the Church. I have not seen anything from the Cuban Church that would justify allowing the police to enter the Church when no lives were at risk, and no one had been hurt.”
Calzón said he regards Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s recent involvement in negotiations with the government on behalf of political prisoners, which resulted in their release but also their permanent exile from the island, an “abomination.” He also complained that Ortega had recently offered mass for Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, but has ignored requests for masses for dissident victims of the regime.
“Why is a Cuban Cardinal offering a mass for a foreign leader? He could have found some reason not to get involved with that. And at the same time the opposition has repeatedly asked for masses on behalf of [people] like Laura Pollan, the leader of the Ladies in White, who died under uncertain circumstances in a hostel.”
A request for an interview submitted to the Archdiocese of Havana was not answered by press time.
Solidarity founder Lech Walesa makes plea directly to pope
Lech Walesa, who, inspired by Pope John Paul II, famously led the Solidarity movement to victory against Poland’s communist regime in 1989, has written a public letter to Pope Benedict, asking him to intercede for and defend the dissident movements that suffer repression from the regime.
Recalling that the first visit of John Paul II to Poland in 1979 “awakened in us, the Poles, not only the hope for change, but, above all freed the will to act,” Walesa adds that “One year later in the city of Gdansk, Solidarity was born — a peaceful social movement, which opened the road to freedom for Poland. I have no doubt that, without the force of the words of the pope, without his presence, the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible.”
Noting that Cubans are suffering under a similar repression to that of communist Poland, Walesa writes that he has “the hope that the visit of Your Holiness will contribute to positive changes in the life of the Cuban nation.”
“I ask Your Holiness to intercede for those who, because of their convictions, are imprisoned. I plead with Your Holiness to take up the defense of those Cubans who, demanding freedom, risk persecution and humiliations,” writes Walesa.
His petition has been echoed in recent days by Lleana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives, calling on Pope Benedict “to publicly support the aspirations of the enslaved Cuban people to exercise their God-given rights.”
Noting the Vatican’s silence on a requested meeting with the Ladies in White, Ros-Lehtinen adds: “It is my hope that Pope Benedict will meet with these brave dissidents and shine a light on the struggles of the Cuban people who are living under the rule of the oppressive Castro brothers. I urge the Catholic Church to express its support and solidarity with the internal peaceful opposition and hear the voices of the dissidents who are yearning for freedom.”
The Holy See Responds
The Holy See’s Secretary of State, Tarcicio Bretone, has thus far responded by seeking to assure the public that the pope will speak to the political conditions on the island and “help the process towards democracy, and open new spaces for the presence and activity (of the Church).”
“I don’t believe that the visit will be exploited by the government,” Bertone told the Italian daily La Stampa. “In fact, I believe that the government and the Cuban people will make the maximum effort to welcome the Pope and will show him the esteem and confidence that the leader of the Catholic Church deserves.”
As he flew to Mexico for the first leg of his trip, Pope Benedict made a stronger statement in response to a reporter’s question about persecution of dissidents leading up to the pontiff’s visit.
“Today it is evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality,” he said, adding that Cubans must “find new models, with patience and in a constructive way.”
The Church, said Benedict, wishes “to help in the spirit of dialog to avoid trauma and to help bring about a just and fraternal society.”
Ladies in White spokeswoman Berta Soler told the Spanish news agency EFE that she respects the words of Bertone, and that the Ladies in White continue trusting in God, but “for civil society and the marginalized sector, dissidents, it is very important for his Holiness, with his tight schedule, to dedicate some time [to such groups].”
“It’s necessary for him to listen to marginalized people so that he can know the reality of the current situation of the people of Cuba, and so we can have the hope that the government might improve regarding human rights,” she added.
The Castro regime, for its own part, has taken pains to express esteem for Benedict and the Catholic Church in general, but has indicated that it would be very disappointed at any contact between the pontiff and Cuban dissident groups.
“We don’t place conditions on His Holiness but logically for the Cuban people and for the government it would be shameful if a group that doesn’t represent anything, who are mercenaries, who act against the Cuban nation, were received by His Holiness,” said Cuba’s ambassador to the Holy See, Eduardo Delgado Bermúdez, in an interview with the Mexican newspaper Reforma.
“The pope can have a meeting (with the dissidents) although, of course, at the base of it would be a political manipulation. This visit isn’t political and it must not be politicized,” he added.
In the same interview Delgado Bermúdez reportedly claimed, in the words of the publication, that there has never been a “direct repression” of the Catholic Church by the Cuban government during its whole history, and that legal restrictions on the Church, like those of Mexico, “don’t exist in Cuba.”