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Aida Valdés Santana fought against former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista “with weapons,” she says, bringing her frail arms up in a rifle action.
But the 73-year-old coordinator of the National Society of Political Prisoners in Havana is not happy about helping bring Fidel Castro to power in his 1959 revolution.
“I didn’t fight one dictator to bring in another,” Santana said from her home in central Havana. “I have hope for the pope’s visit. The church has spoken with the government and achieved some liberties.”
Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and a renewal of Christian faith Tuesday before a religious icon that is a powerful symbol of the Cuban nation on the second day of a visit to the communist-run island. Before arriving, he accused the socialist state of not living in reality or caring for its people.
“I have entrusted to the mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans,” the pope said at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago.
“I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty,” he said.
Leaders here said there would be no moves toward democracy following five decades of one-party rule led by Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl.
Marino Murillo, a vice president, said that though Cuba is making changes in its impoverished Marxist-style economy, “there will not be political reform.”
The exchange came before the pope had a 55-minute meeting with Raúl Castro.
There are 72 political prisoners in Cuban jails, imprisoned for criticizing the regime on issues ranging from poor economic opportunities to fair elections. Amnesty International reported this month that the Cuban government wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights.
“If you are critical of the Castro government, you will be punished,” said Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch. Steinberg said punishment ranges from solitary confinement, beatings, denial of employment and harassment of family members.
The Cuban government pardoned 2,900 prisoners in December ahead of this papal visit, including some who had been convicted for crimes against the “security of the state.”
The previous year, Cuba released more than 100 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church. Many here say they hope the pope’s presence will help.
Last year saw the release of the final set of 75 prisoners arrested in 2003 in an event that the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, regularly march and protest outside a Havana church. The government refused to let them visit with the pope. “We only want a minute to communicate with him,” leader Berta Soler said.
You need permission to leave Cuba and to use the Internet. Blogger Yoani Sánchez, recently denied permission to leave Cuba for the 19th time, told Voice of America that the pope’s visit would be “a good opportunity” for foreign journalists to see “the real Cuba.”
The foreign news media is acutely aware of Cuba’s repression. Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba is filled with accredited foreign journalists, but many news organizations have been unable to obtain credentials from Cuba. Interviews on the street by USA TODAY have been interrupted by police. Dissidents who wish to talk say cellphone service is being disrupted.
An attempt to visit dissident Elizardo Sanchez, a former political prisoner, at his home was prevented by police who patrolled the streets around his home.
Just before a Mass celebrated Monday by the pope in the city square of Santiago de Cuba, a man yelled “Down with the revolution! Down with the dictatorship!” near journalists covering the ceremony. Security agents quickly hustled him away. Video showed him being hit by a first aid worker.
Óscar Espinosa Chepe, imprisoned for nearly two years in a crackdown on dissent, said the consequences for disrupting a public act are serious.
“Everyone in Cuba knows what happens. ... Going to jail in Cuba is hell,” he said. “I lived it.”
Contributing: The Associated Press