The Pope, the Crocodile and Cuba / Yoani Sánchez

The papal entourage that will soon arrive on our island will include a beautiful Cuban crocodile that was illegally exported to Italy. Pope Benedict XVI has decided to return it to its native land, perhaps as a symbol that Cuba can return to Cuba, reclaiming its proper place in the world habitat. So when the two of them – Benedict XVI and the crocodile – land at the airport in Santiago de Cuba, everything will appear tranquil. The sun will be discouragement-proof and an enormous congregation will welcome Peter’s successor.  Everything is being readied ahead of time. For the Catholic faithful it will be, without a doubt, a magnificent opportunity to receive their pastor, but they will not be alone in the welcoming entourage.

Over the span of the last weeks, in all the workplaces of the country, meetings have been held to call Cubans to participate in the masses to be offered by the Pope. “No one should be absent,” the authorities have said and, as is almost always the case, these calls have something of an imperious nature, of a command. The government wants to give – at all costs – an image of normality, it needs to show that Raul’s reforms are advancing without major obstacles. But the reality is more fickle.

For several weeks now, in anticipation of the great man’s arrival, the social temperature has been rising. On March 13 a group of thirteen people entered the church in Havana dedicated to our patron saint, la Caridad del Cobre, and demanded that a list of their demands be given to Joseph Ratzinger. Two days later, around midnight, the religious hierarchy authorized an unarmed commando to enter the premises and remove the occupiers by force. The collusion between the political police and Cardinal Jaime Ortega disturbed many and raised the question of the social role of the clergy.

Even those who had applauded the 2010 conversations between the church and the government to affect the release of the political prisoners, were negatively affected by the actions in this conflict. Although several dissidents had expressed their disagreement with the occupation of the church for political purposes, the final outcome conflicted with the image of the Cuban church. To the point that many would argue that in this act the top Catholic leadership signaled its future role in our transition.

Parallel to these incidents, the repression has been growing Arbitrary detentions, however brief, have become a common practice of the police authorities. They want to “clean” the island for when the Holy Father offers his homilies in the east and in the capital of the country. One way to achieve this calm is to threaten the regime’s opponents and order them not to leave their homes on these dates.

The latest raids on the Ladies in White – wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the political prisoners – have ended with their being detained at police stations. To top it off, the pope’s visit coincides, within a few days, of the ninth anniversary of the Black Spring of 2003, when 75 dissidents and independent journalists were arrested and condemned, in summary trials, to long prison terms.

Each year the commemoration of that sad event becomes at least a week of tension between State Security and anti-government groups. But on this occasion the tyranny is more notable because it has been linked to requests from civic activists to be received by the Pope.

The Ladies in White themselves have asked Benedict XVI for at least one minute of his time to tell him of the other Cuba he will never hear of in the official version. So far, there is no sign that His Holiness will receive them. Not them, nor any other personality from civil society not associated with the government.

This could be the biggest mistake of this papal visit. A visit that does not appear to have the same connotations as that of John Paul in 1998, when he spoke that famous phrase, “Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba.” Fourteen years later, many of us are still hoping that, at least, “Cuba will open itself to Cuba.”

Raul Castro’s government is now trying to present the visit of Benedict XVI as a gesture of validation of his administration. The church hierarchy, for its part, will try to recover some of the social and educational terrain that was wrested from it in 1959. It has already managed to get permission to build a new seminary and to show the most important masses on television, moving beyond those years of anti-religious bigotry when people were fired from their jobs or expelled from school for murmuring a single Our Father.

However, the Church is still far from having the power over public spaces, schools and politics that it displays in other Latin American countries. The visit from the tenant of the Vatican could be could be a defining moment in reaching that longed-for place. But it will only manage to do that if, instead of speaking only for themselves, they also speak for all Cubans, for the enormous plurality that inhabits this island that lies in the sea in the shape of a sleeping crocodile.