Pope Benedict XVI will be available to meet Fidel Castro when he travels to Cuba next week. But it’s not in the program, nor are there official plans for the pontiff to meet with political dissidents.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists on March 16 ahead of the Pope’s March 26-28 visit to the communist island nation that a meeting with Cuba’s former president “is possible” but if it takes place “it will be communicated at an opportune moment.”
Fidel Castro, a Marxist and an atheist, led the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s and ruled the island-nation for almost five decades before handing over the presidency to his younger brother Raul in 2008.
The Italian press has been speculating lately that the former revolutionary, who at 85 is a few months older than the Pope and battling ill health, could be about to convert to Christianity. Such rumors have been circulating for a number of years.
In his press briefing, Lombardi also said there were “no plans” for the pontiff to meet Cuban dissidents during his visit which includes stops in Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Pope John Paul II also didn’t meet with political dissidents when he visited the country in 1998.
The news comes after 13 Cubans opposed to the regime were removed from occupying a Roman Catholic Church in central Havana on March 16. They were demanding that Pope Benedict XVI air a list of their grievances during his upcoming trip.
Earlier this month, nearly 750 Cuban activists wrote a letter to the Pope warning that his planned visit to Cuba will “send a message to the oppressors that they can continue” to abuse Catholic opponents.
According to its 2011 report on Cuba, Human Rights Watch says the communist nation is the only one of its kind in Latin America “that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.” It added that in 2011 Raúl Castro’s government “continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, forced exile, and travel restrictions.”
Cuba denies holding any political prisoners, but argues instead that they are U.S.-paid mercenaries aiming to destabilize the government.
However, shortly before Christmas last year, Castro announced the government would release 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes, in a gesture of goodwill partly motivated by the Pope’s upcoming visit.
Relations between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church have also thawed since the 1990s and in particular after John Paul II’s visit. In 2010, the Church brokered a deal with Raul Castro to release political prisoners.
As is usual for papal trips, this visit will be one of personal pilgrimage rather than politics. The Cuba leg is being timed so the Pope can share in this year's celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba.
But more significant for Latin America will be the pontiff’s earlier stopover in Mexico. The Pope decided to make the visit to participate in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the independence of the Latin American countries.
Last December, he spoke enthusiastically of the “dear continent” of Latin America and “of its new, emerging central role in the world.” Lombardi said that as Mexico is one of the continent’s most populous nations with great affection for the Pope (John Paul II visited it five times), it seemed the most fitting destination.
The visit to Mexico will also mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the Holy See. It also comes at a time when Church attendance is said to be falling, and the country and the church are battling violent crime.
The Pope’s 23rd visit outside Italy will get under way on Friday, March 23, when the papal plane touches down at around 4:30 p.m. at Guanajuato international airport near Leon. After a welcoming ceremony, the Pope will spend the evening and most of the next day resting before visiting Mexico’s president and greeting a group of children in the evening.
In what Lombardi called “an intense day” of activities the following day, the Pope will preside over a large open-air Mass in Leon’s Bicentennial Park with 150 cardinals and bishops from Latin America, the United States, and Canada, together with possibly as many as 200,000 pilgrims. He will also celebrate Vespers in the evening with Mexican and Latin American bishops.
The next morning, Monday March 26, the Pope flies to Santiago de Cuba where, in the evening, he will celebrate mass to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image "Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre." The next day, he will visit the shrine of the same name before leaving for Havana.
A few hours after arrival, the Pope is scheduled to meet Raul Castro and other government officials at 5:30 p.m., followed by a dinner with Cuba’s bishops. After a final Mass in the Plaza de la Revolución in the morning, the Pope will leave for Rome in early evening.
Fr. Lombardi said the Pope, who turns 85 next month, is in “very good form” health-wise, and particularly for “someone of his age and strength,” but that the visit will be paced out with relatively long periods of rest.
Edward Pentin also writes for the National Catholic Register, which is owned by EWTN. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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