Tuesday marks the second day of Pope Benedict XVI’s first-ever visit to Cuba, and already hopes that he would take a strong stance in favour of political prisoners and liberalizing reforms are waning. The head of the Roman Catholic Church mentioned the prisoners fleetingly in a speech before Cuban President Raúl Castro, saying they’re “in his prayers” along with the poor, the elderly, and the ill. He has no plans to meet with dissidents, and other than a vague call for “more openness” in yesterday’s mass, he didn’t go as far as suggesting increasing economic freedoms.
In a heartfelt piece for Foreign Policy titled “Of Popes and Potatoes,” Yoani Sánchez, the most prominent dissident blogger in Cuba, had already foreseen last week that the Pope’s visit wouldn’t sway Castro to introduce liberalizing reforms any faster than his preferred, slowest-possible pace. She warned that Pope Benedict XVI would arrive to a decrepit island:
…he will… find a cardinal who is past the age of retirement, a president who is 80, and a population with a shortage of young people because of emigration and a low birth rate. He will come at a time when the economy is becoming more flexible and the political discourse more radical, a time of commercial expectations and ideological disappointments.
Moreover, Sánchez says Cubans have lost all hope of change since the last papal visit, by Pope John Paul II, in 1998:
At the end of the nineties, Karol Wojtyla [Pope John Paul II] inspired us to hope. But now, in 2012, national cynicism conspires against enthusiasm. We already know, for example, that the phrase, “Let Cuba open herself to the world and let the world open itself to Cuba,” never became more than the beautiful intention of the Polish pope.
In the nearly 15 years between one papal visit and the other, the Church has gained ground in the public life of our nation. But to do so its hierarchy has had to make concessions that have disappointed some of the faithful, laypeople, and even some hopeful atheists. When priests are asked about the slow and cautious steps the Cuban Church has taken, they always respond with the line, “We have survived two millennia despite worse difficulties, we cannot be rushed now.”