Many hope Pope Benedict will address tough issues in Cuba
Many hope Pope Benedict will address tough issues in Cuba
By Mimi Whitefield
The Miami Herald
For centuries, pilgrims have come to the Our Lady of Charity shrine with
wishes for a cure for ill health, a better economy, and improved
relationships. Now Cubans inside and outside the island also have a long
list of wishes for Pope Benedict XVI when he visits Cuba to celebrate
the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin.
Benedict, who begins a two-country visit in the central Mexican state of
Guanajuato on Friday, will arrive in Santiago de Cuba on March 26 to
mark the the Jubilee year of the discovery in the Bay of Nipe. The
statue of the Virgin, who became Cuba's patron saint in 1916, is now
ensconced in a shrine in El Cobre, a mining town about 12 miles
northwest of Santiago.
The pope has said he comes to Mexico and Cuba as a pilgrim of charity
"to proclaim the word of Christ and the conviction that this is a
precious time to evangelize.''
But the list of topics those in South Florida hope he will address is
long, ranging from calling for Catholic education in Cuba to meeting
with dissidents on the island to requesting freedom for jailed American
subcontractor Alan Gross.
There were results from the 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II to Cuba, and
many would like to see some this time around also: After John Paul's
visit, a new convent and seminary opened, the government permitted
occasional Masses and addresses to be broadcast on state-controlled
media — and Christmas, long a regular day of work, became a national
"There's a long way to go, however, and I think Benedict will address
that,'' said Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale, the president of St. Thomas
University in Miami Gardens. "The return of Catholic schools would be a
Former President Fidel Castro received a Jesuit education, but after the
1959 revolution, religious schools across the island were closed. St.
Thomas, which traces its roots to the Universidad de Santo Tomás de
Villanueva, founded in 1946 by Augustinian friars, was one of them.
After the friars were expelled in 1961, they came to South Florida and
founded Biscayne College, which later became St. Thomas.
More than 50 years after that, Casale took a group of 10 students and
three faculty members to Cuba on a weekend pilgrimage and what he called
a "learning experience'' earlier this month.
Casale said he expects the 84-year-old pope to talk about religious
freedom, education and human rights. "These are all very regular themes
in his pontificate,'' said Casale.
Human rights may be a regular theme, but an item high on many exiles'
wish list — a meeting with island dissidents — is more controversial.
Dissident and human rights groups have sent letters and petitions to the
pope asking for such a meeting.
In Miami, a group of young professionals has launched One Cuba, a
Facebook campaign urging the pope to meet with human rights activists
during his trip and asking people to sign their petition.
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also appealed to the pope "to show
his support for the Cuban people by meeting with peaceful dissident
groups, including those practicing their faith while bringing attention
to human rights violations, the Ladies in White and Jorge García Pérez
(Antúnez)'' in a recent written statement.
The Ladies in White are relatives of political prisoners who dress in
white during weekly marches. García, a human rights activist known as
Antúnez, was jailed for 17 years. Pope John Paul II asked for his
release during his 1998 trip, but he was held until 2007.
Former political prisoner Guillermo Fariñas, in a letter to Benedict,
asked the pope to address themes such as freedom for all political
prisoners, the end to violence against the opposition, free travel for
all Cubans, and a dialogue between government authorities and the
peaceful opposition. Fariñas suggested it would be better for Benedict
to postpone his trip if he could not. But the occupation of a basilica
that's part of the Our Lady of Charity church in Havana last week by 13
dissidents seems to have opened a rift between the Catholic Church and
the dissident movement.
"No one has the right to convert temples into political trenches,'' said
a statement signed by Orlando Márquez, spokesman for the archdiocese of
And after his attempts at persuasion didn't work, Cardinal Jaime Ortega
requested that police remove the dissidents from the church although,
Márquez said, he requested that they be allowed to return to their homes
and not be charged. However, some of the dissidents said they were still
threatened with prosecution after the pope leaves.
That seemed to put even more distance between Ortega and the fractured
dissident movement — even though it was his dialogue with President Raúl
Castro that led to the release last year of 130 political prisoners,
most of whom were required to go into exile in Spain.
"Generally speaking the Church has been careful not to bring the
dissidents under its skirts,'' said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. "I
think the dissidents understand this has to be their own project.''
He said he didn't know if the pope would be meeting with dissidents and
human right activists. But he noted that if Benedict were to telegraph
such an intention, "he probably wouldn't be able to find them" — a
reference to a government policy of frequent, short-term detentions of
dissidents in recent months.
As far as his own wishes for the pope's trip, Wenski said, "I'll allow
myself to be pleasantly surprised.''
But Andy Gomez, a University of Miami Cuba analyst who will be going on
the archdiocese pilgrimage, is specific about what he would like to see
the pope do: reach out to dissidents and invite the Ladies in White to
one of his Masses, talk about human rights abuses — and specifically
reach out to the Afro-Cuban community.
Many of the more recent dissidents are black, poor and less likely to
have family members abroad who can send them remittances to help make
ends mean during tough economic times, Gomez pointed out. And without
strong messages from the pope, he said, "my concern is that people may
be looking at the Church as betraying the Cuban people or not doing
enough. You've got to build bridges to the Cuban people.''