Opposition: Cuba arrests dozens before pope's visit
Mar 26, 2012, 13:59 GMT
Havana - Dozens of dissidents have been arrested in Cuba, opposition groups said, ahead of the arrival Monday of Pope Benedict XVI in Havana.
While the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban government have stressed that Benedict's trip of just over 48 hours was merely a pastoral visit, the pope was expected to walk a political tightrope in the communist island nation.
Cuban authorities expected the pontiff to confirm the Vatican's opposition to a United States embargo on the island, but dissidents both inside and outside Cuba wished to see him make a clear stance on human rights.
Several dissident organizations had requested audiences with the pontiff, although the Vatican said there were 'no plans' for such meetings.
Most of the latest arrests were made in Santiago de Cuba, in the south-east of the island nation, where the pope was scheduled to say mass in the open air in the evening.
Jose Manuel Ferrer, of the banned opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba, told dpa that the authorities wanted to prevent any actions by the dissidents during the pope's visit - his first to Cuba.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other pressure groups have denounced repression in Cuba in the run-up to the pope's arrival.
'The arrests, beatings, and threats against dissidents in the lead up to the pope's visit suggest the Cuban government will do everything in its power to quash any dissent while the world's attention is on the island,' Human Rights Watch director Jose Miguel Vivanco said.
The German-born pope himself braced expectations with his comments on Cuba on board the plane that took him to Mexico on Friday.
'Today is a time when Marxist ideology ... no longer responds to reality and if it is not possible to build a certain type of society, then there is the need to find new models, patiently and constructively,' Benedict said.
The pope further stressed that 'the Church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.'
The Cuban government stood its ground, although it expressed 'respect' for Benedict's 'opinions.'
'Our people have deep-rooted convictions, developed throughout our history,' Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Friday.
Relations between the church and Havana improved under the pope's predecessor, John Paul II, who visited Cuba in 1998 and called for greater freedom for both the Church and political dissidents.
After John Paul's historic visit, the Cuban state again allowed public religious celebrations, which had been banned since the early 1960s, and it re-established Christmas as the island's only religious public holiday.
In recent months, the Cuban Roman Catholic Church brokered the release of scores of imprisoned dissidents, most of whom were forced into exile in Spain.
Many Cubans have expressed hope that the papal visit could provide a boost to social reforms.
President Raul Castro was to meet Benedict at the airport in Santiago de Cuba, which is 900 kilometres away from Havana, following his visit to Mexico. After an open-air mass in the city, the pope was to spend the night at the nearby shrine to Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba.
On Tuesday, Benedict was scheduled to travel to Havana, where Castro would officially welcome him to the island.
On Wednesday, the pontiff was to lead a second open-air mass, at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, in what has already been billed as the main event of his trip to Cuba.
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