- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

HAVANA (AP) — Pope Francis plans to meet with Cuba’s president and its priests, its young and its sick, its churchgoers and its seminarians as he travels around the island starting Saturday. But not with its dissidents.

The absence on Francis’ agenda of any meeting with the political opposition has sparked bitter critiques from dissidents who say they feel let down by an institution they believe should help push for greater freedom in Cuba.

“He should exert more pressure,” said Antonio Rodiles, head of the hardline group Estado de SATS. “In many cases political systems have come under international pressure that has resulted in change, and that’s what needs to happen with Cuba.”

Papal observers say it’s likely Francis will speak strongly to Cubans about the need for greater freedom in their country and may speak to President Raul Castro in private about the same topic.

But in shying from meetings with dissidents, the pope is hewing largely to the Cuban Catholic Church’s strategy of advocating for change within bounds laid out by the communist state, rather than pushing the system to change as John Paul II did in Eastern Europe.

There is no one Cuban officials consider more out of bounds than the country’s dissidents, whom they call mercenaries paid by the U.S. government and Cuban-American interest groups in Miami.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said this week that Francis had not accepted any invitations to meet with dissidents, and well-known opposition members told The Associated Press they have received no invitation to see him.

Father Lombardi noted that a possible occasion for bringing up Cuban’s human rights situation could be during Francis’ private meeting with Raul Castro, or while the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, meets with his Cuban counterpart.

“Often, these types of problems are dealt with in conversations, not so much with public proclamations but in personal, direct or private discussions,” Father Lombardi said. “The tradition of the Holy See’s authority is to deal with them with a discretion that can often be more efficient than other, possibly more visible but less opportune ways.”

The pope “will be well aware that his not meeting dissidents will be construed in some quarters as kowtowing to the regime but he won’t care about that,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

Francis has a close relationship with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana who has overseen the church’s relationship with the Cuban state since 1981. Cardinal Ortega has been fiercely criticized by dissidents in Cuba and anti-Castro forces in Miami for not confronting the government as the church has done in other places around the world.

Despite the assertions of rights groups that there are still dozens of political prisoners in Cuba, Cardinal Ortega told reporters in June he wasn’t aware of any, saying: “It’s really difficult to interpret who’s a political prisoner.”

The next month, a dissident tried to deliver a list of political prisoners to Cardinal Ortega during a July 4 party at the residence of the top U.S. diplomat in Havana. The cardinal refused to accept it, telling reporters it wasn’t the appropriate forum. The dissident said Cardinal Ortega threatened to call security and have him thrown out.

“There’s a very great nervousness in the Cuban church about being seen to be in any way abetting the political opposition in Havana,” Mr. Ivereigh said. “They have gone out of their way — some say they may have gone too far in being supportive — but I think they’re playing the long game and I think they know this is a process of evolution rather than regime change.”

Backers of the church’s approach say it has produced results, such as increased church freedom to conduct social welfare and educational programs and the release ahead of the pope’s visit of 3,522 people serving time for relative minor crimes.

Dissidents say that’s not enough.

“I don’t think there should be Western, democratic thinking everywhere else and, upon arrival in Cuba, not saying virtually anything in order to not upset authorities,” said Eliecer Avila, head of the opposition group Somos Mas. “It’s essential that the pope delivers a message to the government of Cuba.”

Cuba has dramatically reduced the number of people that human rights groups say are prisoners of conscience, but allowing a free press and legalizing political parties other than the ruling communists remain unlikely over the short term.

“We shouldn’t have too many expectations for the benefits that a pope can bring,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a dissident group from eastern Cuba. “The goodwill of the pope is one thing; what the Cuban government is able to allow is another.”

Some members of Cuba’s moderate civil society groups say they support the pontiff’s non-confrontational approach and think his visit may ultimately speed up slow-moving political and economic reform more than expected.

“If people are expecting tough words and insults, I think the pope will disappoint them,” said political scientist Roberto Veiga, a director of the Cuba-based think tank Cuba Posible. “Firstly he’s a pastor and what’s more he’s a very intelligent politician.”

But Mr. Veiga said he expects Francis will speak powerfully about the need for diversity of opinion and the importance of civic participation and freedom.

“I think he’ll surprise us,” Mr. Veiga said.

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