from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Pope’s Cuba Test

September 20, 2015

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The Pope’s visit to Cuba is of course a test of the regime: how much of a crackdown will it undertake to prevent him from seeing a single demonstrator or dissident?

But it is also a test of Pope Francis. He is visiting a vicious and brutal dictatorship that has largely eviscerated the Cuban church--closing its schools, for example, including those attended by Fidel Castro as a child. There have been plenty of news reports in the last week of round-ups of dissidents throughout the island. Today there are more. Jon Watts reported for The Guardian in London as follows:

I just spoke to Angel Moya, a prominent activist who said at least 31 people were detained this morning to prevent them from attending the pope’s mass.

“They are the ones we know of, but we are still counting,” he said.

Moya was among them. After being held in a police station from 5am to 11:30, he said he was picked up along with his wife, Berta Soler – the leader of the Damas do Blanco (Ladies in White) group that campaigns for prisoner releases.

With more than 20 other activists from the group who were gathered ahead of their planned journey to Revolution Square, when the police moved in with what he described as a “repressive, aggressive operation that was specifically targeted to prevent us from attending the public mass.”

His said his wife had also been detained the previous evening on her way to the Vatican embassy, where the pope is lodging during his stay in Havana. He said she had been invited by the church authorities.

Moya – who was imprisoned for eight years – expressed disappointment that pope Francis has ignored the state’s actions, unlike his predecessor John Paul II who visited in 1998.

“John Paul spoke out clearly, but the current pope is too soft with regards to human rights. Cubans have a harsh life, but he has not been categorical enough when talking about civil liberties. He must have known what happened to us, but he didn’t address the issue.”

Today CBS reported on the Pope’s words in Havana:

"Today we renew the bonds of cooperation and friendship, so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the space needed to bring he proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society," he said.

The Pope said he would pray to Mary "for all her Cuban children and for this beloved nation, that it may travel the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation," another subtle call for human rights reform in the island nation.

Given that his own visit is the cause of the additional arrests and detentions, with the usual regime brutality, His Holiness should speak far more clearly. Today, I’ve been told, he invited several dissidents to the Nunciatura, but they were grabbed by the police and never arrived. That calls for an explicit denunciation; either he is in charge of his own visit and whom he sees, or the Castros are. There are other reports that some dissidents reached him and he blessed them, but they were later arrested by police. No doubt the exact facts will come out in the next hours or days.

But subtlety isn’t the way to deal with the Castro regime. Pope Francis should be a powerful voice for religious and political freedom, and in this period when the rule of the Castro brothers is being brought to an end by the process of aging, his voice can truly matter just as did that of Pope John Paul II in Poland. Instead of focusing solely on reconciliation, it is time to speak about human rights, civil and political liberty, and full religious freedom.

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