In 1998, when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Cuba, few Cuban-Americans made the pilgrimage across the Florida straits.
But when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba on Monday, hundreds of Cuban-Americans will be on hand in Santiago de Cuba when he celebrates mass.
Carlos Saladrigas is well-known in Miami’s Cuban-American community. He’s a prominent businessman and co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, an organization working to make Cuba a free and open society. He’ll be in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square for mass.
Fourteen years ago, it was a different story. Saladrigas helped lead a protest that caused Miami’s archdiocese to cancel a pilgrimage planned for John Paul’s visit. Like many in the Cuban-American community, Saladrigas felt the papal visit gave legitimacy to a repressive regime. But watching it on TV in Miami, he says he had a change of heart.
“It made me realize that I had made a huge mistake in opposing the visit, that the visit was good,” he says. “It did a lot of good for Cuba and for Cubans. It rekindled hope, although a lot things haven’t materialized, but hope is nevertheless important. And I think this pope is gonna do the same thing, he’s gonna stress the importance of hope.”
Pope John Paul II’s visit led to improved relations between Cuba’s Catholic Church and the Castro regime that allowed the Church to grow in Cuba. The improved dialogue between the Church and the government also was a factor in winning the release of jailed political dissidents.
All of that helped convince Saladrigas and others in South Florida’s Cuban-American community that the Catholic Church may present some of the best hope for change in Cuba.
After all, says Saladrigas, aside from the government, the Church is the only institution Cubans can look to.
“The Church is an ally of the Cuban people. The more the Church strengthens in Cuba, the weaker the government becomes,” he says. “And what the Church is doing, it is trying very strongly to increase the space and opportunities for other elements of Cuban civil society to fill in.
But in Miami, there are still outspoken Cuban-Americans who oppose the visit.
“I don’t think it’s the Church’s role to organize pilgrimages where the Cuban regime will decide who gets in and who doesn’t,” says Ninoska Perez, a radio talk show host in Miami and a director of the hard line Cuban Liberty Council.
She points out that in recent weeks, in advance of the pope’s visit, there was a crackdown on dissidents. Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 women, members of the Ladies in White, female relatives of men who are held as political prisoners.
Perez says the pope’s visit draws attention away from those government activities.
“When then all of a sudden, the pope goes and everything is fine, and you’re organizing a pilgrimage from Miami, it’s like, ‘OK, this is fine.’ And I think what the Catholic Church should be addressing both inside and outside Cuba is the fact that there is violence and repression,” Perez says.
The recent crackdown on dissidents is a concern also to Cuban-Americans who support the pilgrimage, people like Andy Gomez.
Gomez is a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. He notes that 14 years ago when Pope John Paul II was in Cuba, he raised the issue of human rights. Gomez hopes Benedict will take the cause further.
“I think the pope, given the actions that just took place, needs to reach out to the Ladies in White, invite them to one of the masses if not both,” he says. “He needs to recognize, acknowledge the dissident movement in Cuba.”
At the same time, Gomez is critical of some within Cuba’s Catholic Church — particularly Havana Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Ortega recently asked the government to clear a group of dissidents from a Havana church they occupied in advance of the pope’s visit.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who organized this week’s pilgrimage, concedes that Catholic Church is trying to walk a very fine and difficult line in Cuba — between an open dialogue with the government and actions that accommodate a repressive regime.
“The Church has been an advocate,” Wenski says, “but at the same time, it doesn’t want to be co-opted into anybody’s political agenda. Because if it’s co-opted into somebody’s political agenda, then it cannot play the role of mediator.”
Asked whether a papal visit lends legitimacy to a repressive regime, Archbishop Wenski laughed. Pope Leo the Great met with Attila the Hun in 452, he noted, saying, “Popes meet with people of all types.”