The Pope's Cuba Gamble

Ignoring those who have suffered for their faith may win some favor for the Church, but it risks alienating the island's faithful


With only a week to go until Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to make the second papal visit to Cuba in 14 years, joyful anticipation ought to be buoying the island's Christians. But for those brave soldiers of Christ who have stood up against political repression, the prevailing mood is deep frustration.

For 53 years, Cuba's totalitarian regime has made life hell for the population. But Castro also has spared no expense in running a clever international propaganda campaign. Regime survival has depended on East German-style repression covered over by a smiley face for international consumption. It has worked, and Cuban human-rights defenders have suffered their indignities with little moral support from the outside world.

Cuban dissidents had hoped the pope's visit would help them expose the twisted jailors who run the island prison. So what are we to make of the fact that the pontiff will not be meeting with any of the island's Christian human-rights advocates? These communicants have endured unspeakable acts of state terror to be witnesses to the faith. They have earned papal recognition. Disappointment doesn't begin to describe their dashed hopes.

It's not that they haven't asked. They've begged. From Havana, former Cuban political prisoner Angel Moya put the dissident concerns this way: "The Cuban regime will try to manipulate the pontiff's presence in Cuba," he told the website "Pieces of the Island." "We are calling on the support of the international community and of our exiled brothers, so we, the outcast, the persecuted, are able to meet with Pope Benedict XVI and tell him what is really happening here on the island . . ."

Berta Soler—Mr. Moya's wife and the spokeswoman for the Ladies in White, who since 2003 have withstood beatings, arrests and harassment by the regime to attend Mass as a group and protest political imprisonments—has gone even further. She delivered, through the papal nuncio in Havana, a formal request from the Ladies to see the pope, "even for one minute."

Numerous other Christians on the island have made similar requests. From the U.S., Yale Prof. Carlos Eire wrote a powerful plea on behalf of the Ladies for National Review Online on March 5: "Like the Canaanite woman who cried out to Jesus, 'Lord, help me!' or the woman who touched the hem of Jesus's robe in hope of a cure, they are reaching out, full of faith, begging against all odds. In an island where everyone has been turned into a beggar, they beg for the rarest and most precious gift of all: your presence." Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega's office told the Ladies in White that the pope's schedule is too tight.

Some dissidents wonder whose side the cardinal is on. In recent years he was instrumental in helping the regime deport scores of political prisoners who had become a liability for the regime's image. Though he recently offered a Mass for ailing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, Ms. Soler's request for a Mass for deceased dissidents has gone unanswered.

The cardinal has said that the purpose of the trip is "a new evangelization" and of course spreading the gospel is the Lord's work. But it is hard to see how converts will be won if the pope snubs the marginalized and schmoozes with the powerful.

On Thursday, 13 Christians holed up inside Our Lady of Charity of Cobre church in Havana to demand that the pope hear their grievances against the regime were forcibly removed by police, reportedly at the request of Cardinal Ortega. Then on Friday the Vatican announced that if Fidel Castro wants to meet, "the pope will be available."

In case all this is not enough to destroy Cuban confidence in the pope as an ally, the government newspaper Granma said this in an editorial last week: "We are sure that His Holiness will affectionately treasure the memory of this Caribbean Island, which values his visit as a manifestation of trust and a renewed expression of the excellent and uninterrupted relations between the Holy See and Cuba."

All Cubans know that the "revolution" persecuted the faithful. They were sent before firing squads or to the dungeons, Catholic schools and churches were shuttered, and the island was declared an atheist paradise.

But now Fidel is reminding Cubans that relations were never broken with Rome and he is claiming that all the while he has gotten on fabulously with the pope. Will Pope Benedict, who is by no means a Castro sympathizer, allow the regime to get away with this?

Unless he has something up his sleeve, the visit may turn out to be a gross miscalculation. Cubans know that they are hostages in their own country. If the pope is perceived as going along with this big lie, it will only heighten the sense of betrayal toward Cardinal Ortega and it will do nothing to strengthen the Church in Cuba.

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