The Cuban government has made plans to celebrate Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba, September 19-22. The government also has taken conflicting actions regarding prisoners. On September 11 the Cuban government announced that it would release 3,522 prisoners. Two days later, on September 13, it detained about 50 predominantly Roman Catholic citizens whom the government regards as dissidents.
Cuba’s Plans To Celebrate the Pope’s Visit
In anticipation of the visit, Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, published a lengthy and extraordinary article about the role of religion in Cuba. It started with the recognition that the visit will be “in the year of the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Holy See, and the 100th anniversary of the request by the veterans of the Cuban War of Independence for Our Lady of Charity to be declared Patron Saint of Cuba,”
“As Cubans we are conscious, whether religious or not, of the fact that the Pope will be welcomed by a combative, noble and united people, accustomed to rising above difficulties and walking tall, despite having been subjected to a brutal economic, commercial and financial blockade for over five decades, and having confronted the limitations resulting from this without neglecting to defend our culture, identity and roots, while safeguarding the education of our children.”
The Pope “will find a country that learns every day how to move forward with a progressive and constantly updated social project; a society that is built on the basis of the struggle for a better world; and whose history includes [sympathetic priests] . . . the synthesis of Cuban ethics, and for whom love of their homeland and of God were two consubstantial passions.”
The Pope also “will find a nation of cultural and religious multiplicity, the product of a process of transculturation, . . . essential to an understanding of the history of the nation and of Latin America. A mix of beliefs and manifestations marks the country’s religious makeup, described by the researcher as complex, heterogeneous and contradictory, due to its origins, ideas and representations and ways of organizing and expressing itself through rituals, etc.”
This diversity has “ the Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant and Orthodox churches coexist[ing with] Judaism, spiritualism, Afro-Cuban religions, Islam and Buddhism.” This diversity is protected by Article 8 of the Cuban Constitution, which states:
- “The State recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious freedom. In the Republic of Cuba, religious institutions are separate from the State. The different creeds and religions enjoy equal consideration.”
Article 55 of the Constitution also states: “The State, which recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, simultaneously recognizes, respects, and guarantees the freedom of every citizen to change religious creeds, or not to have any; and to profess the religious worship of their choice, with respect for the law. The law regulates the State’s relations with religious institutions.”
These principles have also been reflected in the thoughts and actions of . . . Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz. [He] met with Chilean priests in 1971 and expressed the need to “unite Christians and revolutionaries” in the struggle for freedom. Later, when visiting Jamaica in 1977, this time addressing a predominantly Protestant audience, he returned to the theme of the “strategic alliance” that should exist between religion and socialism.”
“Years later, as evidence of the maturity of the Cuban revolutionary process and in line with the wishes of both parties, meetings between the Comandante and evangelical and protestant leaders in Cuba began to take place – a tradition maintained today by the highest authorities of the government – until, in 1991, at the Fourth [Communist] Party Congress, the wish of those believers eager to join the ranks of the organization was crystallized, an intention reiterated in January 2012 at the First National Conference of the [Communist] Party.”
“There are currently three Protestant pastors, a Presbyterian, a Baptist and an Episcopalian in the Cuban parliament, elected by popular vote; and in the same way members of the Catholic Church and other denominations and religious manifestations form part of the organs of state power and political and mass organizations.”
“The activities undertaken by religious institutions in cooperating with the state in the management of hospitals and nursing homes are examples of their connection with the most pressing problems of society, particularly related to the family and the aging population. These issues have featured on the agenda of recent meetings held between representatives of the institutions and fraternal associations, and the country’s leadership.”
“The visits of Popes John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012, reflected the similarities between the Cuban social project and Christian sentiments, in the effort to eliminate poverty and exclusion, in praising the role of the family, in defense of peace and against war, and in the preservation of the human species. In addition, they demonstrated the deeply humanistic culture of an entire people.”
Benedict XVI said in his farewell address in Cuba: “I hold deep in my heart all the Cuban people, each and every one. You have surrounded me with prayer and affection, offered me cordial hospitality and shared with me your profound and rightful aspirations.”
John Paul II expressed, “I am grateful to you for your cordial hospitality, an authentic expression of the Cuban soul, and above all for being able to share with you intense moments of prayer and reflection.”
“Other religious figures, including leaders of the Latin American Council of Churches, the Latin American Episcopal Council and the Caribbean Conference of Churches, general secretaries and presidents of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, cardinals and other prelates of the Holy See, pastors, priests, rabbis, Yoruba leaders, Muslims, Buddhists and scholars, have also visited our country.”
“In 2011, the Cuban Interfaith Platform, which includes representatives of all religious manifestations, was created. Undoubtedly, of special significance was its struggle for the return of the Cuban Five imprisoned in the United States, and in establishing a bridge between them and their families. The Council of Churches of Cuba was also a leading protagonist in the return home of Elián González and in confronting the blockade, another of the battles of our people for justice.
“Pope Francis will encounter these and other realities . . . [in Cuba. We] will welcome him on behalf of all Cuba. Among the gathered there may be those who don’t share the same religious beliefs, even those who are there motivated simply by that feeling of warmth and hospitality so inherent to Cubans.
But we are sure that [the Pope] will leave this land taking with him the imprint of intense days shared with a united and respectful people, true to its ancestors and patriotic sentiment; a nation with a deep commitment to justice and freedom.”
The Release of Prisoners
On September 11 the government announced that it would release 3,522 prisoners, including women, inmates younger than 20 with no prior offenses, those older than 60, prisoners with illnesses, some foreigners whose countries have agreed to repatriate them and others whose terms are coming to an end. Excluded from the release will be those charged with serious crimes like murder or child sexual abuse or crimes against national security.
“It’s a gift to Pope Francis— a grand gesture,” said Elizardo Sánchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks rights in Cuba.
Sebastián A. Arcos, a former political prisoner in Cuba and now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said the mass release on the cusp of the Pope’s visit was a cynical and opportunistic effort to demonstrate a more tolerant government. “It’s makeup,” he said.
Mr. Arcos added that Cuba was able to make such a mass release largely because so many people were jailed for doing things that would not be illegal in any other country. “The reality is that Cuban prisons are overpopulated, and they have been for many years, because we are talking about a police state, a repressive police state, where almost anything is a crime,” he said. “Before these economic reforms were implemented, selling peanuts on the corner in Havana was a crime.”\
The Detention of Dissidents
On Sunday, September 13, Cuban police detained about 50 people when a predominantly Roman Catholic dissident group led a march in Havana. In their weekly rally following mass at Havana’s Santa Rita Catholic Church, about 40 of the women, accompanied by about a dozen male supporters, marched outside their authorized route and down a side street where they were set upon by some 200 government supporters and police. Female police pushed, pulled and carried the women onto buses as some sat down in an attempt to resist. The men were handcuffed and shoved into police cars and vans.
Such detentions have become common following regular Sunday marches by the Ladies in White, a group that has criticized the Roman Catholic Church and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega for failing to advocate on its behalf with the Cuban government.
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler told Reuters the women planned to attend masses that Pope Francis will lead in Havana and Holguin while in Cuba. “I would discuss with the pope the need to stop police violence against those who exercise their freedom to demonstrate in public,” Soler said.
Cuba’s government considers the dissidents to be provocateurs who are financed by anti-communist groups in the U.S. as part of an effort to destabilize the government in Havana.
Among those detained for about an hour on Sunday was Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country’s largest dissident organization. “The Church should be concerned about this or any time human rights are involved,” Ferrer said. “It is their duty.”
Francis’ visit to Cuba and then to the U.S. and what he has to say to the people and leaders of the two countries will be interesting and most challenging in light of his having played a significant role in helping the two countries to reach their historic decision last December to pursue normalization of relations. These future remarks undoubtedly were previewed in his recent critique of capitalism in an encyclical about environmental degradation and climate change. This theme also was prominent in remarks in his recent trips to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. He called the “unfettered pursuit of money” the “dung of the devil” and urged the poor and disenfranchised to rise up against “new colonialism,” including corporations, loan agencies, free trade treaties, austerity measures, and “the monopolizing of the communications media.”
On the other hand, as Nick Miroff in a Washington Post article pointed out, In a 1998 book about Pope John Paul II’s trip to Cuba, Francis, then still a high official of the church in Argentina, said that “socialism was an ‘anthropological misreading’ of human nature that fails to address man’s spiritual needs, mistakenly believing that the state is the solution to all of society’s problems. He also said, “Cuba and other nations need to transform some of their institutions and especially their policies, substituting corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian governments for democratic and participatory ones. The free participation of citizens in public life, the guarantee of civil and human rights, are an imperative condition for the full human development of all people.”
 Ahmed & Robles, Cuba to Release 3,522 Prisoners Before Pope Francis’ Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2015); Miroff, Cuba pardons more than 3,500 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis visit, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2015); Council of State agrees to pardon 3,522 prisoners, Granma (Sept. 11, 2015).
 Reuters, Cuba Detains Dissidents Ahead of Pope Francis Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2015).