From BBC News, this bad news:
Cuban police have arrested dozens of opposition activists, a week ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
Most of those detained are members of the protest group Ladies in White, who are demanding the release of political prisoners.
Many were stopped as they staged their silent weekly protest march along an avenue in the capital, Havana.
The group says the country’s Communist authorities have increased pressure on them in recent days.
The government says they are paid by the US to undermine Cuba’s revolution.
The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) usually attend Mass together and then stage a protest march outside calling for the release of all political prisoners. …
A group spokeswoman said that 19 of its members had been detained on Saturday evening while trying to stage a march in central Havana. Three have since been released without charge.
On Sunday morning, police detained another 36 members of the group – including leader Bertha Soler – as they made their way to attend Mass together in Havana.
After the church service, 22 women and two men were arrested as they marched to the city centre, trying to go beyond a route that has recently been tolerated by the authorities.
For a detailed look at the Ladies in White and their activism on the behalf of political prisoners in Cuba, read Daniel Allott’s May 2011 article for Catholic World Report, “Cautious Defiance”. Allott writes:
The Church will play the important role of mediator as the Castro regime continues to seek to engage other countries. It is clear that the Church is Raúl Castro’s preferred negotiating partner. The state-run Cuban newspaper Granma ran front-page coverage of Cardinal Ortega’s talks with Raúl Castro and was careful to highlight “the favorable level and development of relations between the State and the Catholic church in Cuba.”
Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Washington, DC, told CWR that although the Church has always communicated with the Cuban government, “most of that contact has been about its own issues—pastoral duties, its charities, and the space that it needs to carry those things out. So the idea that they are talking about Cuban domestic policies, especially issues as sensitive as human rights and reform, is very new.”
“Fidel Castro’s style,” he added “was to do diplomacy with the Vatican, and to go over the head of the Cuban Catholic Church. We are seeing now that that is not the case [with Raúl], and that’s a positive change.”
It is easy to wonder why a regime historically so hostile to the Church would seek to engage it now. But the Church is the only institution that enjoys legitimacy and a certain level of trust among all the key players—the Cuban government, the families and advocates of political prisoners, as well as the US and other foreign governments.
Purcell speculates that the regime thought it would look weak and submissive if it dealt directly with the United States or other governments. “We know that the Cuban government does not respond well to foreign pressure. And this has been the case for a long time. So Raúl Castro was obviously disposed to start releasing these prisoners.”
But, she added, “If he’s got this predisposition to release prisoners and if the Cuban government is not going to take an action where it appears to be responding to foreign pressure, it becomes important to carry this out with a Cuban institution.”
Traveling across Cuba, one is struck by the despair that grips many Cubans. It is evident in the young men who hustle Westerners out of a few bucks because their government jobs pay them a pittance and offer little incentive to work. It is evident in the young women who approach Western men with marriage proposals. It reveals itself on the faces of the diminishing group of older Cubans who can remember a time of prosperity and freedom in Cuba.
Yet, amid the despair, there is a real, if repressed, thirst for faith, a glimpse of which was seen in the overwhelming turnout for Father Olallo’s beatification Mass. Many Cubans continue to embrace the hope, evident in the sentiments of those interviewed above, that someday freedom will be restored to the island that Columbus, upon his arrival in 1492, called “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”
During another visit with Elsa Biscet, she was beaming after having just returned from a visit with her husband. She spoke about the future. “We are optimists,” she said. “We always see the door of hope open, we believe that all of this suffering that he has endured… will be absolved by the powerful hand of Jesus Christ.” Elsa was speaking of her and her husband’s hopes. But she might as well have been speaking of the hopes of all the faithful in Cuba.
For more about Oscar Biscet, see Jordan Allott’s recent interview with Biscet, titled “Cuba’s Conscience”.
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