Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can Pope Francis Change Cuba? Why Star Power Isn't His Only Tool

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can Pope Francis Change Cuba? Why Star Power Isn't His Only Tool

Article excerpt

Posters welcoming Pope Francis hang in shops and in the rear windows of Cuba's ubiquitous antique cars on the eve of the first Latin American pontiff's visit.

And expectations are high that during his four-day visit, Pope Francis will encourage the government to speed up the economic and social reforms introduced by President Raul Castro in recent years. Many also hope to see him call for an end to the US embargo.

"People here want the pope to highlight that change is necessary. Because we need to change," says Carlos Cespedes, sitting behind a table of small, used electronics he's selling in the front room of his home.

But the pope's visit - Francis is the third in a row to make the trip - is just a high-profile moment in the church's long, ongoing campaign to effect change in Cuba. After decades of communist rule, the Catholic Church has gone from an institution non grata to one of the few independent organizations on the island. It has carved out a foothold in sectors long considered the domain of the state: from job training to the provision of food and social services.

In so doing, it has positioned itself to to gently press for improved human rights in a nation where citizens are still imprisoned for political reasons and thousands continue to take on the risky, 90-mile journey by raft and makeshift boats to Florida.

"The church is still seen as a religious institution" on the island, says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. "But, at the same time, its role in [international and national] dialogue and advocacy shows it's clearly not just somewhere you go on Sunday. It's trying to help shape the fabric of life in Cuba, or at least have a voice in it."

Finding a role in CubaReligion was all but banned in the years following the Cuban Revolution, with the regime declaring Cuba an atheist state. Castro was largely intolerant of those who didn't support his regime, eradicating freedom of the press and jailing or killing thousands of dissidents. Today, Cuba still ranks at the bottom of lists for transparency and economic and political freedoms.

But when the Soviet Union fell and Cuba lost its sole benefactor in 1989, a unique space opened up for the church, says William LeoGrande, an expert on Cuba at American University. The government began giving the church leeway in order to meet some of the needs the government could no longer serve. This has left a legacy of Catholic-run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other aid for the island's poor. And while the church is not the only player in Cuba petitioning the government to improve human rights - others range from individuals like opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez to groups like the Ladies in White - none have the resources available to the Catholic Church.

"Churches around the world were channeling assistance through the Catholic Church in Cuba," says Mr. …

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