In Cuba, Benedict will affirm Rome’s backing for a politically savvy cardinal who is pushing — ever so gently — for change on the communist-run island.
In both countries, the pews on Sunday are often empty — abortion, birth control and divorce are legal and commonplace — and the Catholic Church is struggling for parishioners, relevance and clout.
Officially, the pope’s trip to Cuba is timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin of Charity, the dark-skinned patron saint of Cuba, adored by the faithful and admired even by committed communists as a symbol of nationalist unity.
But many analysts also see the visit to Cuba as a well-timed demonstration of support for Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has positioned the church as a political player, serving as a moral, legitimate and parallel voice that negotiates with the government.
The church in Cuba has been pushing carefully for the government of Raul Castro to free political prisoners, protect human rights and advance economic changes to give Cubans more control of their lives.
But the cardinal is walking a tightrope. Last week, 13 opposition figures occupied a Catholic church in central Havana for two days before Ortega asked police to remove them.
On Sunday, Cuban security forces detained a leader and dozens of members of a group called Ladies in White, or Damas de Blanco, who each week march down the streets of Havana in silent protest. They were released shortly afterward. The U.S. government condemned the arrests, but neither Ortega nor the Catholic Church has said anything.
“The detention of members of the Damas de Blanco this weekend in Havana in the lead-up to Pope Benedict’s visit underscores the disdain of Cuban authorities for the universal rights of the Cuban people,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said Monday, calling on Cuban authorities “to abandon their tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent.”
Amnesty International denounced the arrests and said such “express detentions” were designed to intimidate the dissident community. The Cuban state did not respond to Amnesty’s report, but officials have said in the past that the dissidents receive support from foreign governments, such as the United States, toward efforts to topple a legitimate and popular government.
Dissidents and others have criticized Ortega’s cautious approach as weak, but it has allowed the church to boost its profile on the island.
“This is the best moment, since 1959, in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the communist government,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, an expert on church history at University of Havana.