Cuba’s government ruled out political change in the communist island as Pope Benedict XVI, who is visiting the country, urged them to look for alternatives to Marxism and said he was praying for those people who’ve been denied freedoms.
“In Cuba, there won’t be political reform,” Marino Murillo, vice president of the Council of Ministers, told reporters in front of a poster of the pope today in Havana. The Caribbean nation “is in the process of carrying out the Cuban economic model that will make our socialism sustainable.”
Since arriving in Cuba yesterday, the pope has been greeted by enthusiastic supporters at his every stop as he vows to revive faith and offers support for political and economic change. Before traveling to what pollsters call Latin America’s least devout nation, he criticized Marxism as outdated and urged Cubans to seek out new models.
While the Roman Catholic Church has steadily gained influence in Cuba since Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit, the results of its campaign for greater economic, political and spiritual freedom have been mixed. After securing the release of dozens of political prisoners in recent years, it stood by as President Raul Castro’s government rounded up dissidents last week and helped evict protesters seeking refuge in a church. The pope and Cuban president are due to meet today.
Speaking at a church in Santiago de Cuba today, the pope said he was praying for “those who suffer, who are deprived of liberty, separated from their loved ones or who are going through serious moments of difficulty.”
Security pulled away a man who tried to approach the pope shouting “down with communism” during a Mass yesterday. Images broadcast on Colombian TV network RCN showed him being hit in the face several times by the crowd, once with a gurney by a man wearing a Red Cross vest.
Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told reporters that the incident lasted only one or two minutes.
“We know that there are people here that are part of the opposition and that aren’t in agreement with the government,” Lombardi said. “There’s a right for people to express their opinions, but there also is the right not to be disturbed in one’s religious activities.”
On arrival in Havana today, the pope was greeted by ballet dancers performing on the runway. He will hold an open-air Mass tomorrow in Revolution Square, where Fidel Castro used to lead anti-American rallies. While in the capital, it’s also possible he’ll have a private audience with the former president though no such meeting is planned, Lombardi said.
Venezuelan media have also speculated about the possibility of a papal visit for President Hugo Chavez, who is on the island receiving radiation treatment for cancer. Lombardi said no such meeting had been requested, though the self-declared 21st century socialist revolutionary is free to attend Mass like anyone else.
President Raul Castro yesterday welcomed the pope, who turns 85 next month, by declaring Cuba’s respect for religion. He said the government shares values with the church, and said capitalism was suffering from a “systemic crisis” fueled by “excessive selfishness in opulent societies.”
The pope made similar comments, deploring a global economy that was experiencing a “deep moral and spiritual crisis” fueled by excessive selfishness.
Since John Paul’s groundbreaking visit, the church has gained influence with Cuba’s government that’s normally reserved for allies like Venezuela and Brazil.
Back to the Pews
Cubans have also started returning to the pews after Castro declared Christmas a holiday in the once officially atheist nation. Still, only half of the nation’s 11.2 million people identify themselves as Catholics compared with 85 percent in Mexico, according to a 2011 study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Most of the church’s work has been behind the scenes. Its role has gained importance since Fidel started in 2006 to relinquish control to his brother, who then began easing state control of the economy to allow Cubans to seek self-employment in basic professions and buy and sell property for the first time since the revolution. Among other activities, the church runs courses teaching accounting and other business skills.
While the door is shut to political change, Murillo, the architect of recent economic policies, said that Cuba has studied modifications made by China, Vietnam and Russia to their economies with an eye to further reforms.
“We’ve done it with the aim of learning and understanding the economic concepts those countries have applied, which doesn’t automatically mean we’re going to copy what others did,” Murillo said.
The calls for economic change come amid a decline in the price of nickel, the country’s biggest export, and a slowdown in tourism as Europe’s debt crisis damps global economic growth. Cuba’s gross domestic product expanded 2.5 percent last year, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, compared with 4.3 percent growth for the region.
Pressure has been building on the Vatican to speak out against repression by the Castro government.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said March 19 that the U.S. would like to see the pope call on the Cuban government to release political prisoners. She said the detention of 70 activists from the Ladies in White a week before the pope’s arrival was “reprehensible.”
About 30 members of the group, made up of wives and relatives of jailed dissidents, attended Mass yesterday in Havana, reiterating their request for a one-minute audience with Benedict.
On March 13, a separate group of 13 activists occupied a church in Havana to demand an audience with Benedict only to be evicted two days later with the archdiocese’s support.
To contact the reporters on this story: Charlie Devereux in Havana at firstname.lastname@example.org; Eric Sabo in Panama City at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.