When Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba on Monday, the trip will be held up as a milestone in tolerance and religious freedom there.
But last weekend, Cuban police arrested 80 dissidents, including leaders of the protest group Ladies in White. Most were soon released, but the message was clear: Don't make trouble while the pope is in town.
Observers generally agree Cuba has eased up on churches since Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the island in 1998. Churches have reopened, processions are allowed, many political prisoners have been freed.
But the regime of Fidel Castro, and his successor and brother Raúl, never want to leave any doubt who holds the power.
"There's more freedom, but it's not free," says religion professor Mary Carter Waren, ofSt. Thomas Universityin Miami Gardens, who recently returned from a nine-day student trip to Cuba. "I don't think there is ever an easy relationship [with the church] under any communist regime."
For those who demand freedom now, the papal appearance may well disappoint. Rather than confront, the pope and his Cuban bishops choose a careful tightrope walk designed to keep churches functioning in an oppressive communist state while gently pushing for reforms.
"The church is providing the umbrella for slow, gradual changes," says Philip Williams, director of the Center for Latin America Studies at the University of Florida. "The Vatican wants to retain those spaces that it has worked hard to open up. And if it takes too hard a line against the regime, it might backfire."
Officially, politics is off the table for Pope Benedict's visit. During his scant 51 hours in Cuba, he will celebrate two outdoor Masses, one at each end of the island. He'll pay a visit to President Raúl Castro, perhaps another with the ailing Fidel, and have dinner with Cuba's bishops.
The focus of the trip will be Our Lady of Charity, patron saint of the island. Pope Benedict will celebrate a large Mass for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a revered statuette of the Virgin Mary. He also will visit the shrine in El Cobre that shelters the image.
Our Lady of Charity knits together the 1.5 million Cubans outside Cuba with the 11.2 million inside.
"The visit will be for solidarity with the church of Cuba," says retired auxiliary bishop Agustin Roman, founder of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami. "The people have suffered terribly during a half-century."
Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who will lead 305 pilgrims to Cuba from the Archdiocese of Miami, says Pope Benedict will continue in the diplomatic tracks of his colorful forebear. John Paul may have been more charismatic, but both he and Benedict preferred a gradual approach to freedom, rather than confrontation.
"This is a visit with pastoral purposes — not political, but looking for openness and cultural and social change," Wenski says. "It also seeks to open channels of communication and understanding."
Pope Benedict's visit is nothing less than "a Catholic historical moment for Cuba," says Andy Gomez, a professor at the University of Miami's Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "People are asking for spiritual healing. More people are going to church. It's time to embrace them."
However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom places Cuba on a "watch list" of nations in its annual report, released earlier this month. That makes Cuba less repressive than Saudi Arabia, but on a par with Afghanistan.
The report does note improvements for religious groups, including Protestants and Pentecostals as well as Catholics. Churches are allowed to perform charity work and receive contributions from outside the island.
The Catholic church has a long history of providing safe haven for dissidents under authoritarian regimes. But in Cuba, it struggled to survive after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, when dozens of clergy were exiled and hundreds fled.
But unlike some other communist countries, Cuba allowed the church to conduct services and operate discreetly, as long as it did not try to rival the regime. The Vatican has moved cautiously on Cuba ever since, with some success.
Churches started opening again in 1991, and seven years later Pope John Paul II made his historic five-day pilgrimage to Cuba — the first pontiff to visit the communist-ruled island. "He planted the seed for social change," Gomez says.
Raúl Castro became president in 2008 and cultivated contact with Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, the ranking Catholic on the island. In 2010 and 2011, Ortega negotiated the release of more than 100 political prisoners — though on condition that they leave the island.
Last year, a statue of Our Lady of Charity, the nation's patron saint, drew thousands during a tour of Cuban cities.
"The church in Cuba has gained tremendous space," says Gomez, of UM, who will accompany the Miami pilgrims there. "It is the only institution besides the government that is functioning and doing its job."
Indeed, churches in Cuba have become go-to places for a wide range of social needs, such as caring for the poor, the elderly and the handicapped.
"That's given [the church] the credibility to speak for society," says the Rev. Juan Molina, who directs the Office for the Church in Latin America for the U.S. bishops. "The government has had to take a second look at its relationship with the church."
Not that it's an equal relationship. St. Thomas professor Waren saw that during the recent academic tour. Cuban students told of being called out and laughed at for being Catholic. Others said their papers were purposely graded down. "The young people were clear about the price they paid," Waren says.
Sister Ondina Cortes, who designed the course and helped lead the student tour, downplayed any negative impressions. "We're not out to change the system. We just want to gain space to carry out the church's mission, of a life through faith."
Of course, her reluctance to speak ill of the Cuban government may itself be a telling indication.
South Florida response to the pope's planned visit has thus far been muted — a surprise, given the fierce exile reaction to Pope John Paul II's visit. The anger caused then-Archbishop John Favalora to cancel plans to charter a cruise ship. He flew to Cuba instead, with a smaller group of pilgrims.
"The Cuban community has matured politically," Gomez suggests. "They're voting across party lines. And they're tired [of the conflict]."
But some observers accuse the church of wanting good terms with the government too much. One example happened this month, when 13 dissidents staged a human-rights protest at a Catholic church in Havana. After two days, Ortega had police remove them.
"It was a total violation of the idea of church as a sanctuary -— and it was coming from a cardinal," Gomez says. "He's more with the government than the people."
If the pope fails to champion those who oppose the regime, "he will accomplish the unthinkable: leaving the Cuban people worse off than they have been, God forbid," says Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state during theGeorge W. Bushadministration, who has tried to tighten the screws of the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
But the pope wants to avoid confrontations and risk a backlash, says Williams of UF. "The Vatican has always tried to find a balanced approach that keeps the doors open for the Catholic Church in Cuba. To that extent, he's not going to be able to satisfy some in the Cuban community in Florida."
Father Molina, the American bishops' spokesman, agrees with Sister Cortes that the Roman Catholic Church prefers to work with governments rather than against them. He notes that after 2,000 years, the church has outlived all political systems.
"We have a saying: 'It's God's time, not my time,' " Molina says. "We don't force things. We do what we can."
Here are some public observances for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba:
Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, 3609 S. Miami Ave., Miami:
Rosaries at 9 a.m. Monday and Tuesday.
Prayer and Mass to Our Lady of Charity at noon Monday-Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Monday.
Big-screen simulcast of Benedict’s visit at 6:30 p.m. Monday, 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, and 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
St. Brendan, 8755 SW 32nd St., Miami: Adoration Chapel open from 10 p.m. Sunday to 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Gesu Church, 118 NE Second St., Miami: Solemn Rosary by retired Bishop Agustin Roman at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
St. Juliana, 4500 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach: Mass, 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Follow along on TV or via social media:
WPLG-Ch. 10 will present live updates from Cuba during its 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts and a live special called “The Pope Visits Cuba” from 8 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Telemundo will have live updates in its network newscasts such as “Noticiero Telemundo” through Thursday on WSCV-Ch. 51.
Univision will broadcast the Havana Mass 9-11 a.m. Wednesday on WLVI-Ch. 23.
The Archdiocese of Miami will carry a streaming feed of the papal visit on its website, miamiarch.org.
On Twitter, Spanish speakers can follow news updates via @rogermoratagle, @telemundonews, @uninoticias, @univisionnews or @jdbalart.
Staff writer Aurelio Moreno contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun