HOW IS CUBA preparing for the visit next week of Pope Benedict XVI? By rounding up dissidents, of course.
Four score or so were detained over the weekend, including the leaders and most of the members of the Ladies in White, the group that regularly marches in support of political prisoners. Many were released Monday, but they can expect regular harassment in the coming days. The regime’s practice is to carry out short-term arrests rather than formal imprisonments: According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were more than 600 such detentions in February alone.
If Pope Benedict or the Cuban Catholic hierarchy under Cardinal Jaime Ortega is troubled by this, they don’t show much sign of it. So far, the pontiff has not responded to appeals by the Ladies in White and other dissident groups seeking a few minutes of his time during the three days he will spend in Cuba. He has, however, scheduled two meetings with Raul Castro and made it known that he will be “available” if Fidel Castro wishes to meet with him. Cardinal Ortega, for his part, asked police to expel 13 dissidents who were camped in a Havana church last week in an attempt to push the pope to talk to the Castros about human rights.
The church’s coldness toward peaceful pro-democracy activists isn’t all that surprising. Since 2009, Cardinal Ortega has become a de facto partner of Raul Castro, meeting with him regularly and encouraging his limited reforms. The church helped broker the release of more than 100 political prisoners and did not object when most were pressured into emigrating to Spain. The cardinal has lobbied in Washington for the relaxation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba; the pope himself gave a speech Friday calling for the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. Pope Benedict’s visit, the first by a pontiff since John Paul II toured the island in 1998, seems aimed at reinforcing what the church sees as a gradual process of peaceful reform led by the regime.
The problem is that, as Raul Castro has made clear, liberal democracy plays no part in his strategy. Rather, he hopes that Cuba will follow the path of Vietnam or China, opening its economy enough to stabilize a one-party regime. That may work for Cardinal Ortega, but it won’t satisfy Cuba’s opposition. Some 750 activists sent a letter to Pope Benedict warning that his visit “would be like sending a message to the oppressors that they can continue to do whatever they want, that the church will allow it.”
How could Pope Benedict avoid sending that message? He could meet with the Ladies in White. He also could press the Castros to stop persecuting democratic activists and release those who remain in prison. That should include the American Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison term for delivering computers and satellite Internet connections to Cuba’s Jewish community as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The Vatican is right to support change in Cuba but wrong to suppose that it will happen without greater pressure on the regime and cooperation with peaceful opponents.