Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Havana Tuesday on the second day of his historic visit to Cuba, the first papal visit to the communist Caribbean island nation in 14 years. The pontiff is expected to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro and possibly his brother Fidel, the ailing former revolutionary leader. Latin America watchers said the Castro government has refused to allow any Cuban dissidents to meet with the pontiff, and resisted the pope's calls for greater openness. But the Cuban Catholic church has been energized by the visit, others said.
"For the Catholic Church in Cuba to have the Pope's blessing now — with the role it is playing, engaging with the Cuban government — is really huge," said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, in an email to Yahoo News, from Cuba Tuesday, where she is currently traveling.
"For the American audience, this is an important opportunity to give a broader U.S. public a lesson about the extent of religious freedom in Cuba and the willingness of the Cuban government to give the Pope a platform to talk about his aspirations for the Cuban people," Stephens said. "These things are not anticipated or understood given how cut-off Americans are from the complicated realities of Cuba."
Some scholars suggested the pope could push back on the Cuban government's refusal to allow dissidents to meet with him."The Cuban government removed any opportunity for dissidents to meet with the pope and be in meetings where he is," David Smock, director of the program on religious studies and peace-building at the U.S. Institute of Peace told Yahoo News Tuesday. "The pope can make a strong statement and insist he be allowed to do so, but he has not been inclined to do so so far."
The Catholic Church "has been in decline through the communist-Castro period," Smock noted. Only about 10 percent of Cuba's population is estimated to practice the faith.
"I think he's trying to revive it; that's the main purpose of his visit," Smock said. "I think he wants to make some statement about greater openness and transition to a freer society, but he's been very muted."
The pontiff did allude to wanting more freedom, but fell short of becoming political in his statements. "I have also 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," Pope Benedict XVI, 84, said at a chapel in the Cuban town of El Cobre, site of the statue of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the Associated Press reported.
Cuban officials bristled at the pope's calls for greater openness, however. "In Cuba there will not be political reform," Cuban economic czar Marino Murilla told foreign journalists covering the visit, the AP report said.
"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith … that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," Pope Benedict said at a Mass Monday in the city of Santiago.
Ahead of the Santiago Mass, a man ran into the journalists' section yelling "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" before being led away, the AP reported, adding that Cuban dissidents were still trying to figure out who he was.
Separately, Judy Gross, the wife of an American USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba, has asked the Vatican to appeal for her husband's humanitarian release during the pope's meetings with Cuban officials, the Washington Post reported. Alan Gross, 62, from Potomac, Md., was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year for bringing in Internet communications equipment under a USAID subcontract to help Cuba's tiny Jewish community. He has lost over 100 pounds in prison and both his mother and his daughter have been diagnosed with cancer, Gross's wife told the Post.
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