During this visit the pope could meet publicly with dissidents to offer them a measure of protection from their tormentors. He could speak clearly and loudly about their dignity as human beings. He could point out that they shouldnt be thrown in dungeons for speaking freely, or accosted in the street by government mobs, especially when they are on their way to Mass.
Alas and inexplicably, all of this potential may be thwarted, as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Cuba has let it be known that the pope has no time to meet with dissidents because his schedule is too tight. Adding insult to injury, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that if Cubas ailing dictator Fidel Castro wants a personal meeting, the pope will be available.
It didnt take long for Fidels little brother and designated successor, President Raul Castro, to recognize that he had a free hand. His security forces arrested dozens of dissidents Tuesday, ahead of the popes visit. There are reports today they have been released but told to stay away from Mass or make any attempts to see the pope.
The decision by the Church hierarchy in Cuba to abandon the dissidents and show obeisance to the Castros is a grave mistake, perhaps even a shameful one.
Even if the popes mission to Cuba is entirely about gaining adherents to the Church and deepening the belief of those already Catholic, this snub to those who are the future of Cuba and obsequiousness to dying dictators is sure to backfire and make young Cubans even more skeptical of the faith.
Which would be a shame, as the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba has always been one of protection of the people against the depredations or neglect of their leaders. From Fray Bartolome de las Casas, who waged a successful campaign on behalf of the Indians at the court in Spain in the early 1500s, to Father Evelino Compostela, who advocated for bringing more comfort to ranchers living isolated lives in western Cuba at the turn of the 18th century, to Father Felix Varela, who argued for independence from Spain and the abolition of slavery in the 1800s.
The present head of the Cuban Catholic Curch, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, falls far, far short of his predecessors example. Unfortunately, it seems that Pope Benedict has been taking advice from his man in Havana.
Cardinal Ortega, as The Washington Post said Tuesday in a rightly hard-hitting editorial, has become a de facto partner of Raul Castro, meeting with him regularly and encouraging his limited reforms.
The cardinal hit a new low last week when he asked authorities to enter a church in Havana to dislodge a group of dissidents who had sought peaceful sanctuary there. It was Cardinal Ortega, doubtless, who advised Pope Benedict not to meet with the dissidents.
The dissidents who have asked to meet with the pontiff, known as "Las Damas de Blanco" aka "the Ladies in White," are very deserving of being granted an audience with the head of their church. They are a group of defenseless women, mostly the wives and mothers of political prisoners, who bravely take their opposition message to the streets of Cuba, only to be met with violence by government goons.
The Castros, as all communists, have always been enemies of religion, especially the Catholic Church. For a very long time after the Revolution, Cuba was officially atheist.
I remember well, as an altar boy in Mass in Havana, when rocks would come flying in from the streets and land in the middle of church, shaking all parishioners. I also remember taunts from teachers and the principal because I went to church every Sunday. The enmity shown by authorities to the church only deepened my familys faith. It made us better Catholics.
Standing up to dictators in extremely difficult circumstances is always difficult, and one needs courage. Cubans have practically no freedoms or civil rights, and has one third the Internet penetration of Haiti.
But Cardinal Ortega should be able to find strength and courage in thinking that the people of Cuba need his protection.
As for the pope, it may be too late by now for him to reconsider what is becoming a stained visit to Cuba, but its not too late to reverse a bad decision and meet with Cubas dissidents.
Mike Gonzalez is vice president of communications at the Heritage Foundation.