Pope Takes Cautious Stance in Cuba on Dissidents
Pope Francis says religious life for Catholics difficult but doesn’t
directly criticize communist government
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Sept. 21, 2015 1:50 p.m. ET
HOLGUÍN, Cuba— Pope Francis commiserated with Cuba’s Catholics about the
difficulty of religious life in a communist country but stopped short on
Monday of directly criticizing the government a day after it reportedly
detained dissidents to prevent them from going to Mass or meeting the pope.
“I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the church in Cuba
to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote
areas,” the pope said as he celebrated Mass in the central Cuban city of
Holguín. He is the first pope to visit the city, in keeping with his
pledge to be a pastor to those on the periphery.
The pope’s relatively mild public complaint came during a trip that has
been marked by his cautious stance toward the island’s dictatorship.
The previous day in Havana, Pope Francis met Cuban President Raúl Castro
and his predecessor and brother Fidel Castro, hours after several
leading dissidents were prevented from attending a papal Mass.
‘[Faith in Jesus] pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with the
—Pope Francis in Holguín, Cuba
Other groups of dissidents were also detained on Sunday, including a
group that had been invited by the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to greet
the pope behind closed doors. The meeting never took place.
Elizardo Sánchez, a leading dissident, said a total of 50 people had
been briefly detained in the days leading up to and during the visit.
Asked on Monday about the reported detentions, Vatican spokesman Father
Federico Lombardi said, “I don’t have any information about this.”
Cuba’s government didn’t respond to requests for information about
During his Cuba visit just before his first visit to the U.S., the pope
has tried to focus on reconciliation: between the Catholic Church and a
government that once banned Christmas; between Cubans who support or
reject the regime; and between Cuba and its former Cold War enemy, the U.S.
Pope Francis is seen as having played an important behind-the-scenes
role in helping broker the re-establishment of diplomatic relations
between Havana and Washington. The trip to both countries was
orchestrated to strengthen that bridge.
“He’s sticking to a script of constructive engagement,” said Andrew
Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Cuba’s government has historically not responded well to confrontation
or criticism of any kind. It regularly harasses the country’s small and
disorganized dissident movement by detaining members for short periods
of time to prevent them from holding meetings, even when the eyes of the
world are watching.
“It seems more important to the Cuban government to continue to publicly
disqualify and defame its tiny dissident movement than to risk
legitimizing it by allowing its members to meet with Pope Francis or
attend any of his ecclesiastical events,” said Ted Henke, a Cuba expert
at Baruch College in New York.
The Vatican has said the pope would likely address concerns over
religious liberty or the civil rights of dissidents not in public
remarks, but rather in private meetings with Mr. Castro and other officials.
The church has occasionally worked quietly to ease the plight of
dissidents. In 2010 and 2011, Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega arranged
for the release of more than 100 political prisoners, most of whom then
left the country.
In not meeting with dissidents and observing caution in his public
statements, Pope Francis is following the precedent set by his two
predecessors on their visits here. Visits by then- Popes John Paul II
and Benedict XVI, in 1998 and 2012, respectively, led to government
concessions including visas for foreign missionaries and the
establishment of Christmas and Good Friday as national holidays.
But some analysts say the problem for Pope Francis is that he has
presented himself as a new kind of pope: plain-speaking and willing to
challenge entrenched interests everywhere, from the global financial
system to the Vatican itself. The approach of diplomatic caution and
apparent indifference to political oppression he has taken in Cuba now
clashes jarringly with the world’s expectations.
Even before the visit, the pope came under criticism for his decision to
meet with the Castros, but not with any opponents to their five decades
of rule. Analysts said the apparent decision by the Vatican to reach out
to the dissidents with invitations was likely a response to that criticism.
Having reached out to dissident groups such as the Ladies in White that
were detained and prevented from attending Mass, the Vatican would be to
some extent responsible for them, said Candida Moss, professor of
theology at the University of Notre Dame.
“When guests of the Vatican are being arrested, even informal guests,
people want to hear a stronger language condemning that kind of
conduct,” she said.
Pope Francis arrives in Cuba on Saturday, beginning a four-day visit
before the pontiff travels to the U.S.
The Cuban government and the Church have long had a strained
relationship. Cuba is no longer an officially atheistic state, but the
Catholic Church and other religious groups here continue to operate
under many of the restrictions imposed by the communist government in
the years after the 1959 revolution.
The Catholic Church in Cuba is still generally unable to operate
schools, build new houses of worship or maintain older ones, and its
social-service activity remains limited by a virtual monopoly of the state.
In a speech to President Castro and other dignitaries during an arrival
ceremony at Havana’s international airport Saturday, Pope Francis said
the Catholic Church in Cuba should have the “freedom, the means and the
space needed” to evangelize and provide charitable service to the
As Latin America’s first pope, Francis has enormous credibility and
popularity in the region, and his warnings about inequality and
unfettered capitalism have struck a chord. But his message has also been
commandeered by populist nationalist leaders such as Ecuadorean
President Rafael Correa and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de
Kirchner, who are criticized by rights groups for amassing power and
Some analysts said Pope Francis appears less balanced than his
predecessors in his attacks on capitalism. When John Paul II criticized
materialism of the west, he would also criticize the lack of freedom and
dignity in communist states, too.
“Francis seems to criticize capitalism, instead of materialism. And he’s
not criticizing communist totalitarianism,” said Carlos Eire, the Riggs
Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. Mr. Eire was born in
Cuba and left at age 11.
Holguín, a city of 1.65 million in the center of the country, is usually
overshadowed by Havana and Santiago, the other two cities the pope was
scheduled to visit during this trip. The Vatican said the pope added the
seven-hour stop there because it had been neglected by John Paul and
Benedict when they visited the country.
Small clusters of people greeted the pope’s motorcade on its way in from
the airport, and he covered last two miles in an open-sided popemobile.
The sweltering heat seemed to take a toll on the 78-year-old pope, who
looked and sounded especially fatigued as he celebrated Mass.
The pope flew on Monday afternoon to Santiago, where he was to meet
Cuba’s Catholic bishops and pay homage to the country’s patroness, the
Virgin of Charity of El Cobre. After less than a day there, he will fly
to Washington, the first of three stops on a U.S. tour that ends Sunday
—José de Córdoba in Havana and David Luhnow in Mexico City contributed
to this article.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at email@example.com
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