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As downtown Havana prepares for its first papal visit in 14 years, Manuel Olivera, 48, sits playing chess outside his colorful yet faded home in the immense heat of the central city.
“The pope won’t change this country’s politics,” he said. “Only the people can change the politics.”
Benedict XVI is set to land in Cuba today for what will be a delicate exercise in diplomacy between the country’s dissidents, who are anxious for their voices to be amplified by a papal visit, and the historically atheist government that is in need of an air of legitimacy.
The pope was in Mexico on Sunday, where he addressed hundreds of thousands of worshipers in an openair Mass.
On his flight Friday from the Vatican to Mexico, Benedict offered some hope to the dissidents.
“Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality,” he said, adding that he was ready to help Cuba find new ways of moving forward. “New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way.”
Told of the pope’s comments, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said, “We will listen with all respect to His Holiness.”
Last weekend, 70 members of dissident group Las Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White) — protesting on behalf of political prisoners — were arrested as they marched in Havana.
“We only want a minute to communicate with” the pope, Berta Soler, leader of the group, said, adding that many of them had been beaten before their release. “We are marginalized, oppressed, and the church must hear and protect us.”
The Ladies in White marched again Sunday at the Santa Rita church on Havana’s 5th Avenue. This time, they did so in front the world’s news media and were not arrested.
Priest José Pérez Riera, inside the church, said that a politicization of any visit by the pope was inevitable. “It’s important for us to conserve the meaning of the trip,” he said. “The pope is the pastor of the church, presenting Christ to the world.”
The Communist Party newspaper Granma dismissed the Ladies in White as “mercenaries of the (U.S.) empire.”
“What happened to the Ladies in White is not an aberration,” said Nik Steinberg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There are thousands of arbitrary detentions like it every year, which represent one of the government’s most effective tactics to silence its critics.”
Dissidents have also complained of threats from authorities. Oswaldo Payá claims that members of his Christian Liberation Movement have received threats from state security, banning them from taking part in papal ceremonies. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and is one of the country’s foremost dissidents.
“The government is kidnapping the visit of the pope,” he said. “It’s a theater. The government, with all its mechanisms of repression, is pushing a culture of fear, and there’s a lot of pressure on the local church not to denounce what’s happening.”
The trip comes 14 years after a visit by Pope John Paul II, when he promised religious tolerance in a country where Roman Catholicism has been severely repressed.
The government expelled priests and nuns as well as seized church property after the revolution in 1959. Religious people were banned from the Communist Party, and Christmas was only reinstated as a national holiday in preparation for the last papal visit.
There are no plans for Fidel Castro to meet with the pope, though Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the pope would be available if Castro — who was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1962 — desired an audience.
Support for Cuban authorities still remains strong in many parts of Havana. Pointing toward a picture of Castro on the faded green wall behind him, 45-year-old butcher Ismael Camacho proudly proclaims, “This is our pope.”