Pope Benedict XVI has begun a six-day tour of Latin America that will take him to Mexico and Cuba. Catholics in the communist island hope the pontiff's visit will help speed up reform in the country and bring about greater freedom.
Mexico and Cuba will welcome Pope Benedict XVI starting on Friday, with huge crowds expected to follow the 84-year-old pontiff throughout his six-day tour. In what is only his second visit to Latin America, home to almost one third of the world's Catholics, Benedict will call for an end to drug violence in Mexico and attempt to carefully navigate the issue of democracy as he seeks to buttress the Church's position in secular Cuba.
The pontiff will spend three days in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, with the first leg of his trip culminating in a huge mass in the Bicentennial Park of Silao, a town of roughly 150,000 people that is expected to host twice as many visitors for the occasion.
Benedict is expected to condemn the drug trafficking violence that has killed some 50,000 people in Mexico over the past five years.
The pope will then travel to Cuba to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity, the Caribbean island’s widely revered patron saint. Masses in Santiago and Havana are expected to draw huge crowds of both Catholics and non-believers, with the government encouraging all Cubans to take part.
The late pontiff John Paul II’s shadow will loom large over the visit. Pope Benedict’s hugely popular predecessor travelled five times to Mexico, which claimed the Polish pope as its own, and John Paul’s historic 1998 stay in Cuba was widely hailed as a milestone in opening up Cuba to the West in the post-Cold War period.
Cuba and the Church
Vatican and Church officials in Cuba say the pontiff will be visiting the island primarily in the capacity of a pilgrim. He is expected to join Cubans in celebrating the Marian Jubilee Year, which marks 400 years since the statue of Our Lady of Charity – known to Cubans as La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre – was found.
Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America expert at France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), agreed the pope’s trip had a devotional element, and that it would also be inevitably exploited for different political reasons. However, Kourliandsky said Benedict’s first objective would be to reaffirm the dominant position of Catholicism in the region.
“Latin America remains a vast reservoir of believers for the Catholic Church, even more so than Africa. It’s a continent were it can still aspire to have a great influence and advantage over growing protestant churches and Islam,” the French researcher said. “In Cuba we will see the image of a church that remains a conquering force.”
Cuba's planned transition to a market economy
Cuba's single-party, Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after the 1959 revolution. Believers were barred from joining the party and faced discrimination in schools and work. Officially Catholics make up around 10 percent of the population, but some studies have suggested the figure is as high as 45 percent.
“John Paul was able to crack the door open. The church won the right to form organizations, publish periodicals, and gained in autonomy,” Kourliandsky explained. “The local church hopes that Benedict’s visit will consolidate these privileges that were won.”
In an effort to maintain agreeable terms with the Cuban government, the Bishops Conference has strongly condemned Cuban dissidents who recently occupied churches across the country ahead of the visit. “This is an example of certain people who are trying to give the visit a political tone,” Marquez told FRANCE 24. “The Church has listened to their demands, but has said their form of protest is not appropriate.”
Benedict will land in Cuba at a time of unprecedented change in the island's economy. Under the leadership of Raul Castro, the government has adopted a series of economic reforms that include opening the way for small businesses and reducing the number of state workers. But many fear the economic changes will not be coupled with expanded political freedoms.
Monsignor Luis del Castillo, a parish priest near Santiago, said the string of reforms and Benedict’s arrival were coincidental events, but agreed the timing was nevertheless significant. “The visit comes at a time of uncertainty, not just for Cuba, but for the world,” del Castillo said. “Expectations among citizens are not well defined, but everyone expects something good to come out of this.”
IRIS’s Kourliandsky said Cuba had no other option but to open up its economy and press ahead with the current process of change, however ill-defined. That slow transformation has not gone unnoticed in Rome. “Benedict is helping to lay the groundwork for the Church in Cuba, with an eye on greater changes a few years down the road.”
Date created : 2012-03-23