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What the ‘Pope Francis effect’ hasn’t delivered in Cuba

What the ‘Pope Francis effect’ hasn’t delivered in Cuba
By Nick Miroff October 7 at 4:08 PM

HAVANA — Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 put Christmas back on the
Cuban calendar. When Pope Benedict XVI arrived in 2012, the Cuban
government made Good Friday a national holiday. Both men brought the
Catholic Church a bigger role in Cuba’s public life.

Pope Francis? Well, maybe all the good holidays were already taken.

Two weeks have passed since Francis left Cuba, and there has been no
sign yet that his visit — and his rapport with Fidel and
have led to any new concessions for the church.

Prior to Francis’s arrival, the government said it would pardon 3,522
prisoners, a gesture also made during the two previous papal visits. But
no announcements have followed.

“Nothing,” said Havana religion scholar Enrique Lopez Oliva. “You’d
think we would have heard something by now.”

Francis praised relations between the Castro government and the Vatican
during his visit, and his homilies addressed matters of religious
liberty only in general terms. Yet Cuba remains the only nation in the
Americas where the church cannot operate its own K-12 schools, and it’s
no secret the island’s bishops want more access to the state-controlled

In recent years, as the Cuban government’s social safety net has frayed,
the church has stepped in, opening day-care centers and clinics
and offering free English and computer courses, yet with little official

One of the sites Francis visited in Havana, the Padre Cultural
Center, already operates as a small de facto Catholic ,
leading to speculation that the government might finally give it formal
recognition as such. But the pope’s presence has brought no such
political blessing, at least so far.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said the Rev. Roberto Betancourt, the
pastor of Our Lady of Regla church in Havana, one of Cuba’s most
important churches. “There are a few whispers in the hallways of
possible announcements, but if something is forthcoming, it would have
to be soon.”

Cuban officials bristle at charges that the island remains restrictive
for religious believers, noting that official discrimination ended years
ago, even within the Communist Party, and church-state relations are
probably stronger than they’ve been at any point during that past

That may be one reason Francis steered a very careful course through
Cuban politics during his Sept. 19-22 trip, avoiding any direct
criticism of Cuba’s one-party, communist state. His appeal for Cubans to
serve “people, not ideology,” was resonant, but nothing like the
unequivocal calls for “” made by John Paul II, let alone the
criticisms of “authoritarianism” Francis made in his own book about that
1998 visit.

The visit was a notable contrast to Francis’s U.S. trip, during which he
addressed controversial political topics like immigration, climate
change and the death penalty.

Like John Paul II and Benedict, Francis did not meet with dissidents in
Cuba. The Vatican registered no public protest even when Cuban security
forces detained two government critics, both women older than 65, that
church officials had invited to see the pope.

Activists at the -but-tolerated Cuban Commission for
and Reconciliation tallied 353 political arrests and detentions
around Francis’s visit, and at least 882 in September, a 15-month high.

“The jury is still out on whether there will be a ‘Francis effect’ on
religious liberty in Cuba, but the early prognosis doesn’t look
promising,” said Andrew Chesnut, a Vatican expert at Virginia
Commonwealth University.

“If there is any one institution in Cuba that possesses the legitimacy
and organizational capacity to challenge the regime, it’s the Church, so
expect only minor concessions, if any, vis-a-vis religious liberty in
the near future,” he said.

Francis biographer Sergio Rubin, an Argentine , said it’s not
fair to the pontiff’s Cuba trip by the standards of the two
previous papal visits.

“I think Francis has his sights on something more important: a process
of change on the island that hasn’t been seen until now, with the
exception of a few small economic changes,” said Rubin, who traveled to
Cuba for the pope’s visit. “Francis has a bigger goal in mind: the
lifting of the U.S. , maybe in 2016.”

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from
the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has
been a staff writer since 2006.

Source: What the ‘Pope Francis effect’ hasn’t delivered in Cuba – The
Washington Post –

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