Human Rights in Cuba

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April 2012
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Cuba, the Pope, and the

Pope Benedict's visit to Cuba revealed the intransigence of the
Castroite regime. Even so, the Ladies in White – the wives, mothers,
and sisters of political prisoners – continue their demands for human
rights on the Caribbean island.
Monday, April 02, 2012
By Faisaan Sami

The Cuban government, the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban
humanitarian group, the Ladies in White (Las ), all
formidable entities in their own right, found themselves thrust upon
the world stage together this week as a result of Pope Benedict XVI's
first trip to Latin America in five years. Ahead of the papal's
three-day visit to Cuba,many of the Ladies in White were held by Cuban
officials; a series of detainments that were initially prompted by the
occupation of a local church in Cuba by members of the Republican
Party of Cuba. The anti-Castro demonstrators were attempting to
influence the Pope before his impending arrival to directly address
the abuses leveled against the Castro regime.

The United States, a long time advocate of the Ladies in White,
naturally glommed onto the public protest and, unsurprisingly, Havana
was quick to accuse Washington of propping up the "subversive"
movement. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council
said the detainments revealed "the disdain of the Cuban authorities"
for civilian rights and critiqued "the acts of those who are standing
in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people."

For breaching the strict, state-administered regulations of their
weekly protest, the Cuban government has prohibited the Ladies of
White from future protests, revoking what was already a narrowed
platform to express their views. In light of their suppression, it was
expected that Pope Benedict XVI would emulate his predecessor John
Paul II in publicly denouncing the Cuban administration as well as
meet with the religious dissidents. However, the pope showed a
reluctance to be drawn into alliance with either the Cuban
administration or the anti-Castro dissidents, even those that are
directly affiliated with the Church, demonstrating the Catholic
institution's principal intent to become reconnected with Cuban
society at large and avoid intervention on domestic matters.

The Ladies in White March On

Back in October 16th 2011, the Ladies in White marched in somber
stride through the streets of Havana holding white gladiolas just as
they had done for eight years after every Sunday mass at the Santa
Rita de Casia Catholic Church. However, there was a special
significance attached to that day; it was the first silent protest
without their founding member, sixty-three year old Laura Pollán, who
succumbed to cardiac arrest while under care.

Pollán founded the Ladies in White after her husband, Héctor Maseda,
an , was during the three day 'Black
Spring' raid in March 2003, along with seventy four other Cuban
dissidents. The journalists were accused of "subverting the internal
order of the nation" and received sentences ranging from six to
twenty-eight years incarceration. Gradually, Pollán mobilized the
wives of other dissidents and held routine marches to push for their
release, even under conditions of adversity, when pro-government
protestors would harangue the group during their marches.

In March 2011 the remaining dissidents were released, largely due to
the efforts of the Spanish government and the Catholic Church in
reaching an agreement with Raúl Castro for the prisoners to flee into
exile; a condition that was not entirely adhered by those that were
released. In spite of certain developments, such as the release of
those incarcerated during the Black Spring, the subsequent
fragmentation of membership resulting from the of reunited
families as well as the regrettable death of their leader, the Ladies
in White have continued to demonstrate after every Sunday mass. The
impending arrival of his Holiness was viewed as an opportunity for
their claims to be finally heard by the leader of the very institution
that helped them form an unbreakable solidarity. However, compromised
by the government's authority, the Ladies in White and the Catholic
Church were unable to establish a direct connection on this particular

The Prospect of Conciliation Mediated by the Pope Benedict XVI

Received by Raúl Castro at the Santiago on March 26th, the
papal's visit to Cuba is meant to commemorate the 400thanniversary of
the El Cobre sanctuary of the country's patroness, our Lady of Cobre,
but there were certain other elements that comprised his visit. Of
course, the primary agenda was to reach out to the Cuban majority and
reinstitute the Catholic faith at a time when the country has been
incorporating certain minimalist civil liberties and opportunities to
its citizenry. Most of the Cuban faithful fled to the United States
after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the vast majority of which now reside
in Miami, but an estimated 800 Cuban Americans made the voyage to
attend the Pope's mass in Havana.

While the nature of the Pope's visit was claimed to be "pastoral," in
light of the recent demonstrations in Havana, comparisons were
inevitably drawn to Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998, which
had marked inferences regarding the protection of civil rights and
releasing incarcerated dissidents. Apart from the expected
denouncement of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, as previously iterated by
Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI was unlikely to be drawn into the
current political skirmish. Not only would intervention threaten the
Catholic Church's mending relationship with the Cuban administration
and thus its long-term goals in the country, but because it wouldn't
correspond with the Church's current emphasis on counteracting its
dwindling supporter base.

The Pope, however, did give a frank assessment of Cuba'sMarxist
political and economic framework, claiming it "no longer corresponds
to reality." But far from advocating outright economic liberalization,
he also criticized the West's capitalist model for leaving "humanity
devoid of values" and "defenseless" against predatory powers.

The Resurgence of Catholicism in Cuba?

In some ways, there hasn't been a better time for the Catholic Church
to reestablish itself into the social fabric of this Caribbean island
state, due in part to the efforts of Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who
has been able to position the church increasingly as an intermediary
force on the island. Under Ortega, the Church has offered care centers
and limited training programs and pushed for church administered
education, not to mention it was the Cardinal who helped to negotiate
the release of the Black Spring political dissidents.

With various external forces trickling into the socialist state, the
combination of light economic and social reforms under Raúl Castro's
government has highlighted a degree of adaptation of the stringent
style of governance that his brother practiced. Raúl's burgeoning
relationship with the Cardinal is indicative of the leader's
acknowledgement of the Church as a positive influence in not only
uniting the population but also providing them it with a
semi-autonomous authority capable of adequately nurturing the
population. As it seeks to gain legitimacy outside of its
U.S.-inflicted seclusion, the promotion of religious will
deliver the benefit of reinforcing Cuba's association with that of the
Latin American region in which Catholicism plays a prominent role.

On the other hand, with the backing of the Cuban administration, the
Catholic Church now has the capacity to influence public discourse in
Cuba over the long term, a prospect that would have been vulnerable if
it visibly sided with the Ladies in White. As he stood before several
hundred thousand Cubans at the open-air Mass in Havana, Pope Benedict
XVI used the opportunity to directly connect with the public, ticking
all the right boxes. In his speech, the papal urged for the
recalibration of Cuban society characterized by greater civil
liberties and material resources for Cubans, going on to denounce the
U.S. embargo, all of which reinforced the papal's indifference to
government influence.

Cuba's Minister of Planning and , Marino Murillo, responded
promptly and succinctly, confirming that in Cuba, "there would be no
political reform." The various initiatives of the Church, such as
instituting Catholic teaching in schools, gaining access to broadcast
networks, declaring Good Friday a public holiday and building new
churches have been proposed to the Cuban administration but the
general consensus is that the status quo will remain. However, as
marginal reform occurs under Raúl Castro's administration and as both
the president and Cardinal Ortega form a deeper relationship, it is
the sense of timing that could ensure that the pope's visit will act
as a catalyst for change in the hearts in minds of the Cuban public.

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