September 18, 2015 / 9:30 PM / in 2 years

Pope's visit to Cuba raises prospect of human rights friction

A woman writes on a message board outside the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, in Havana September 18, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

HAVANA (Reuters) - Pope Francis flies to Cuba on Saturday for a three-night visit seen as a potential public relations coup for Cuba but also a risk he might speak more bluntly about democracy and human rights than the Communist government would like.

On the first papal visit to Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II made pointed comments about prisoners of conscience, saying they suffered “an isolation and a penalty” for merely wanting to “speak their mind with respect and tolerance.”

Pope Benedict offered far more muted remarks about general prisoners in 2012.

This time, the Cuban government will welcome any papal denunciation of the U.S. economic embargo of the island, but not a corresponding critique of Cuba’s one-party political system that represses political opponents and monopolizes the media.

“This is a pope who has not hesitated to speak truth to power in any of his apostolic journeys thus far. He has emphasized human rights wherever he has gone. I am confident he is going to do the same in Cuba,” said Jean-Pierre Ruiz, theology professor at New York’s St. John’s University.

Cuba is sensitive to criticism of its human rights record, saying it needs to restrain critics it describes as mercenaries bent on destabilizing the government.

Many of Cuba’s dissidents receive funding from U.S.-based organizations, and activists are routinely detained by Cuban police for demonstrating.

In a gesture to the pope, Cuba released 3,522 prisoners last week, but these didn’t include any of the 60 political prisoners listed by the dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

One expert said the pope may deliver a polite rebuke by speaking in general terms.

“We shouldn’t expect a catalog of Cuba’s faults,” said Candida Moss, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “He may well focus his remarks on the global threats to human rights, especially in the Middle East and Africa, as a means of invoking the proverbial elephant in the room.”

Some of Cuba’s leading dissidents have said they will refrain from protest during the pope’s visit, respecting it as a religious and not a political event. For that reason, they do not expect mass detentions.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the human rights commission, predicted some “preventive repression” like stopping dissidents from attending the papal Mass.

He did not expect the pope’s visit to elicit change.

“This man is well intentioned,” Sanchez said. “But I don’t think he can achieve miracles here.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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