Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and renewal “for the greater good of all Cubans” in Havana today before meeting Fidel Castro, but the regime’s Communist leaders dismissed the pontiff’s call for political reform and stepped up harassment of the island’s dissidents.
Security forces detained more than 150 democracy advocates, surrounded activists’ homes and cut phone lines to prevent them “denouncing abuses during Pope Benedict’s tour,” said Amnesty International.
The pope reportedly raised the case of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross, jailed on charges of espionage after transporting communications equipment onto the island, at the request of the Obama administration.
“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity,” the pope said in his homily.
“On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in ‘their truth’ and try to impose it on others,” he said, in his second stab at Marxist orthodoxy.
“The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom,” he said.
Upon his arrival, the pope described the regime’s Marxist ideology as an anachronism that “no longer corresponds to reality,” pressing a message of renewal and reform in a prayer and brief homily at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago.
“I have prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty,” the pope said.
But the country’s minister of economy and planning was curtly dismissive.
“In Cuba there will not be political reform,” Marino Murillo Jorge told the foreign press corps. “We are talking about the update of the Cuban economic model to make our socialism sustainable.”
The crackdown on the island’s dissidents prompted rights activists to call for a more robust stance.
“In view of this situation, which contradicts his appeal for a ‘more open society’ in Cuba, the Pope should take a stand and lend his voice to those that have been left voiceless due to the ongoing repression and condemn the lack of freedoms in Cuba,” Amnesty’s Javier Zúñiga said in a statement.
Many activists were disappointed at the Pope’s failure to meet or speak up for the dissidents.
“I’m sorry to say it,” she said on Twitter, “the Pope’s mantle did not protect all of us.”
The Vatican’s refusal to engage the democratic opposition is all the more surprising since many leading figures are prominent Roman Catholics.
Activists like the Ladies in White and Oscar Biscet are “the emotional heart of Cuba’s civil society,” said George Weigel (above), a leading authority on Roman Catholic affairs and biographer of Pope John Paul II.
The pope is “well aware of the situation” that Cuban dissidents face, Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski told the Miami Herald:
The Vatican’s ambassador to Cuba, known as a nuncio, met recently in Havana with representatives for the so-called Ladies in White, a movement of women who wear white and gather at Masses at Catholic churches in Cuba to protest the treatment of the island’s prisoners of conscience.
“I’m confident that the nuncio has informed the pope of their concerns,’’ Wenski said. “The pope has given a message of encouragement and hope. Dissidents ought not be excluded from that message.’’
Despite the pope’s relative diffidence, his coded critique may rebound on the church, some observers suggest.
“One of the consequences of this visit could be to distance the Church more from Raúl, because he may have believed that this would only be a pastoral visit, but the pope has made his criticisms, even in the abstract language of priests,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Miami-based analyst.
Meanwhile, Associated Press reports, dissidents on the island say they still don’t know the man who yelled “Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!” before the pope’s Mass on Monday in Santiago.
Security agents hustled him away. Video of the incident showed him being slapped by another man wearing the uniform of a first-aid worker before security agents separated them.
“We do not know his name or his whereabouts, only that it was somewhat violent,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of a group that monitors detentions of government opponents.
Later, the Globe and Mail reports, an AP journalist saw a man in the crowd being briskly led away by people in civilian clothing after he shouted “Pope, don’t leave until communism falls!” It was not clear who he was or where he was taken. The incident was similar to another during the pope’s Mass in Santiago Monday, when a man shouted anti-government slogans before being hustled away.
Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors human rights on the island and acts as a de facto spokesman for the opposition, said he could not confirm any detentions because his mobile phone hadn’t worked since shortly after the pope arrived on Monday. It was an experience shared by many other islanders and foreign journalists who could not make calls on jammed lines.
*George Weigel is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.