Pope Benedict, we learned the other day, has commissioned a personal cologne. That seems more than a little effete, but he'll need it in Cuba to mask the stench of political, civic and social repression. Take, for example, the new ban on demonstrations by the Ladies in White. Or the appalling conditions in Combinado del Este prison, which we saw last week thanks to a brave dissident who smuggled in a camera and prisoners who risked beatings, solitary confinement and additional time by talking about the unspeakable conditions in which they're held.
I don't expect Pope Benedict to visit a Cuban prison, but he surely could pray during his masses in Santiago and Havana for all Cuban political prisoners and others who've been killed, harmed or harassed by the Castro brothers. Ideally, he'd hold a private meeting with some dissidents who've been imprisoned for demanding basic human rights: speech, press, assembly, religion and movement. Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, Marta Beatriz Roque or Antunez could fill him in on what it's like to live without them. So could Berta Soler and the Ladies in White. Will the Pope meet with them? I hope so, but doubt it. Nor do I expect Allan Gross to be freed because the Pope requested it.
This appears to be a purely pastoral, apolitical visit by a pope who lacks not just the charisma of John Paul II but his sense of urgency about social injustice. Pope Benedict's mission appears limited to bucking up Catholics on the island and their clergy with a message of hope and faith. Talking, much less encouraging dissidents, the thinking goes, may take away some of the "space" the Church has managed to carve out in the 14 years since John Paul was there.
The Church's expanded space, of course, has come with a price. The Cuban Catholic Church has, in effect, become a partner with the Castro regime. Yes, Cardinal Jaime Ortega has helped free some 130 political prisoners, but most of them were freed on the condition that they leave the country. Last week, when 13 Christian activists gathered at a church in Old Havana demanding freedom for political prisoners and other human rights, Cardinal Ortega reportedly called in state police to kick them out. So much for the church as sanctuary in Cuba. And it was Ortega, of course, who recently held a mass and said prayers for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
That infuriated Sylvia Iriondo who heads the Miami-based Mothers & Women Against Repression, which supports Cuba's Ladies in White and democratic reforms.
"Why doesn't Cardinal Ortega hold a service and say prayers for Orlando Zapata Tomayo or other dissidents who've died for freedom in Cuba," asks Ms.Iriondo.
Last Sunday, and on my TV program, Ms. Iriondo called it "humiliating" that the Archdiocese and their tour group acceded to the travel conditions imposed by the Cuban government in order to make the "pilgrimage of faith," as Archbishop Tom Wenski calls it. Indeed, Iriondo essentially accuses Wenski of turning the Archdiocese into a travel agency for the Castro regime.
I respect Sylvia Iriondo, but find that judgment too harsh. The archbishop sees himself and the archdiocese as the best conduit through which Cubans here and there can peacefully and respectfully connect. More than 300 Catholics will be on the two Archdiocese-chartered flights leaving next Monday for Santiago de Cuba.
Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas and his wife will be among them. He was a hard-liner who spoke out strongly against Cuban Americans going to Cuba in 1998, but says he had a change of heart as he watched Pope John Paul deliver his homily in Havana.
"I realized I was wrong," Saladrigas says.
He helped found the Cuba Study Group, a collection of high-powered Cuban American businessmen who work to "facilitate a peaceful reunification of the Cuban nation leading to a free and open society with respect for human rights, the rule of law and a market-based economy." Saladrigas says he and his colleagues believe it's more important to help the Cuban people than to hurt the Castro government.
I'm inclined toward that view, but I respect Cubans on all sides of this argument -- those who will make the "pilgrimage of faith" next week and those who choose not to. Like so many here, I'm deeply and personally engaged in Cuba, but readily concede that its future is for Cubans to decide. The condition of exile, so familiar to one million Cubans, is a concept I understand only theoretically.
I do know that the defining story of our community and its future is how Cubans here and on the island find a way to reconcile.
Pope Benedict can ease that difficult process if he acts as a bridge. I pray that he does. More likely, his visit will be just a brief and innocuous stop on the long road to reconciliation.