Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Mexico Friday. He will also visit Cuba. (Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty…)
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba this week is clearly intended to be a pastoral mission, not a political one. Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the island's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, it is timed to help revive interest in Catholicism in one of Latin America's less devout countries and to draw followers to the church.
But we hope Benedict's visit will serve another objective as well: to persuade President Raul Castro to abandon his crackdown on dissidents and show greater respect for human rights. Dozens of Cubans have been rounded up in recent weeks, including key members of the Ladies in White, a group of relatives of political prisoners who hold weekly protest marches. And 13 others who camped out in a Havana church to demand a meeting with the pope were detained.
Some critics have expressed concern that the Catholic church is already too cozy with the regime in Cuba, and that Benedict's trip will strengthen Castro, lending moral authority to a government that has been a repeat violator of human rights. But that doesn't have to be the case. In recent years, the church has worked behind the scenes, and in 2003 it secured the release of dozens of dissidents. On this visit, the pope is scheduled to meet with Castro, which means he'll have the opportunity to suggest that allowing Cubans greater freedom wouldn't undermine the communist regime. While he's at it, he could push for the release of some political prisoners who are ill, along with American Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was arrested and convicted in 2009 for bringing communications equipment to Cuba's Jewish community and sentenced to 15 years.
Benedict's trip isn't expected to produce the same kinds of reforms that followed the last papal visit in 1998, when Pope John Paul II met with then-President Fidel Castro. After all, that's the trip that led to the official restoration of Christmas on the island. Benedict lacks the charisma and political influence of his predecessor, who was seen as a champion of social justice in much of Latin America. John Paul repeatedly spoke out against human rights abuses and the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
Benedict should exercise whatever power and leverage he has with Castro to help not only Catholics, but all Cubans who are silenced by force or fear.