Vatican officials say the pastoral visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba beginning this week has nothing to do with politics. But nobody in Latin America really believes it.

In Mexico, the pope is expected to bolster a close Catholic ally, President Felipe Calderon, and his beleaguered ruling party, which is running behind in opinion polls on the upcoming elections.

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.

“This has been a gradual process since the visit in 1998 of Pope John Paul to Cuba. That marked a new path,” Lopez said. “Since the presidency of Raul Castro, this process has been accelerated. Raul Castro is giving the church a new role of interlocutor.”

In a nation that once officially declared itself an atheist state, the church now has a seat at the table. Rather than directly challenge the government or criticize its leaders or the belief system that underlies the communist revolution, the small but nimble Catholic leadership in Cuba has served as a nonconfrontational but persistent voice for change, a soft-power strategy it prefers to call “dialogue” or “reconciliation.”

The church has also added its voice to a chorus that condemns the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, saying the sanctions hurt ordinary people.

This has led some in the Cuban exile community in South Florida to criticize Ortega, calling him an enabler of the Castro government.

“ ‘Partnership’ is not a bad word to describe it. Raul Castro and Cardinal Ortega have a very productive working relationship that has benefits for society, the Cuban government and the Catholic Church,” said Julia E. Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A place in the public sphere

The Catholic Church has helped create a space for peaceful dissent. In 2010, after the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner who had been on a hunger strike for 85 days, the Ladies in White and their supporters decided to march through downtown Havana. But a mob blocked their way, shouting insults and spitting at them.

Ortega wrote to Castro and asked that the protesters be allowed to march in peace. Meetings among Ortega, the protesters and the government led to the release of most of Cuba’s political prisoners.

The release, however, was controversial because it required most of the paroled prisoners to leave the island; most went into exile in Spain.

The church has also embarked on social programs, providing food to the needy and assisting HIV-positive Cubans and families facing hardships.

“The church has created spaces of dialogue, and that is a huge contribution, so people can understand each other as citizens, with differences of opinions,” said Roberto Veiga, a sociologist in Havana. “We Cubans need to learn how to criticize each other in a positive manner so we are creating bridges and not foxholes for combat.”

When Pope John Paul II came to Havana in 1998, many people expected sparks. On this trip, expectations are lower, more realistic.

“It is not the same pope or the same Castro,” said Bernardo Barranco, a specialist in contemporary Catholicism at the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico, referring to Fidel Castro, Raul’s brother and Cuba’s former leader.

“Pope John Paul looked for more space for the church in the island. Now the church is an umbrella for many groups who seek more space for social action,” Barranco said. “This pope will try to strengthen this space, to try to position the church to play a strong role in a Cuba after the Castro brothers, as the church did in South America after the military dictatorships and in Europe after communism.”

“The church doesn’t think short term,” Barranco said. “It always thinks long term.”

Influencing region’s future

The 84-year-old Benedict will be met by Raul Castro in Santiago when he arrives from Mexico on Monday. A private meeting with Fidel Castro is also likely. Both the Castro brothers were educated by Jesuit priests.

In Mexico, the pope will be met by Calderon, whose National Action Party, or PAN, was founded by conservative Catholics challenging the 70-year hegemony of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

After almost 12 years in power, the PAN is struggling for support, mired in a violent confrontation with organized crime in which major cities have been shut down by gun battles.

Two of the main presidential candidates — PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota and PRI’s Enrique Pena Nieto — are Catholic. The candidate from the left, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is Christian but not Catholic.

“The church is worried about Latin America,” said Soledad Loaeza, a professor at the College of Mexico. “They are trying to recover Mexico, to build more support, and they see that the party in power is a Catholic party, with a Catholic president, and the pope understands this and wants to support this.”

Calderon is pushing for a religious-freedom amendment to the Mexican constitution that would lift restrictions on religious groups holding services in public. Now most public religious gatherings require permission from the government. The amendment might also allow the church to provide religious instruction in some public school settings.

Mexico’s constitution enforces a strict separation of church and state; from its early days, there has been societal tension over the role of the church in public affairs, so much so that in the 1920s the Cristero War was waged between anti-clerical government forces and pro-Catholic rebels.