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Cube releases 3,522 prisoners prior to papal visit

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Last week, Pope Francis embarked on two consecutive visits, arriving first in Cuba and

then traveling to the United States. While both places widely welcomed the Pope’s presence,

individuals in Cuba and the United States alike have noted a divergence between his discourses

in both countries. In his speech to Congress, Pope Francis reported that he would not avoid any

controversial issues, a statement which seems to contrast with his inattention to issues in Cuba,

such as the weekly arrests of dissidents and the fact that, out of the 3,522 inmates released before

the Pope’s arrival, no political prisoners were included.

Among those political prisoners is artist Danilo Maldonado, commonly known as “El

Sexto,” who is famous for his performance “Rebellion on the Farm” in which he painted Fidel

and Raul Castro’s names onto pigs and released them in Central Park, Havana. Maldonado was

actually to be released as a peaceful political prisoner but his release was canceled because the

prison lost his papers.

The Pope’s neglect to call out the constraints on political and personal freedoms in Cuba

came as a disappointment to conservatives and liberals alike. Where he openly stressed the

United States’ responsibility to pursue the common good, particularly addressing issues such as

immigration and climate change, his silence on human rights issues in Cuba came as a surprise.

He did, however, openly call for Cuba to grant more religious freedom and highlighted

the healing properties of peace and reconciliation, the former perhaps referring to the recently

reestablished relationships between Cuba and the U.S. – a relationship very much facilitated by

the Pope himself.

“In their everyday rhetoric, the [Cuban] government claims that they do not have political

prisoners because they are instead mercenaries paid by the U.S. government,” said Alejandro

Benedí, a Cuban-American and father of thesis student and Catalyst staff writer Bianca Benedí.

Benedi said that one possible reason for Cuba not releasing any political prisoners is the potential

to use them as a negotiation card. Regardless of the reason, the government’s incarceration of

political protestors has frustrated many Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

The Pope’s silence on the matter of the political prisoners not receiving pardon was

disappointing for many dissident groups and sharply contrasted with what he said en route to the

United States: “Speaking clearly, life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty, it is like being

there dying every day, without the hope of liberation.”

Professor of Spanish Sonia Labrador-Rodriguez, whose research concerns Cuba in the

19th century, used to visit Cuba every summer until the Florida law denying state funding for

travel to Cuba passed in 2006. Labrador-Rodriguez commented on the release of prisoners prior

to the Pope’s arrival, the third time such a mass release has occurred before a papal visit to Cuba.

“Well, it gives the impression to the outside world that they are acknowledging the

significance of the event of the Pope coming to Cuba from the point of view of a public relations

image,” Labrador-Rodriguez said. “Some people call it a ‘cleaning of house’ in the sense that it

doesn’t cost a lot to Cuba because what they are doing is also solving the problem of keeping a

lot of people in jail,” she added. Indeed, Cuba’s prison population remains high at an estimated

60,000 to 70,000 out of the country’s population of 11 million.

“I mean, you know, the U.S. is a country with the single largest incarcerated population

so if the Pope said anything maybe it should have been here,” Professor of International

Relations Nat Colletta said. “I don’t think he oversteps his boundary, he’s a moral leader not a

politician.”

Labrador-Rodriguez explained her own thoughts on why the Pope may have been so

subtle in his address to Cuba. “Many people are discussing this in the media and I agree with the

analysts who are saying that he had to be very careful with what he said because he doesn’t want

to jeopardize the fragile atmosphere of communication between the U.S. and Cuba,” she said.

“There is hope that things will start getting resolved as a result of that dialogue and interaction

between Cuba and the United States.”

“The people in Cuba see the Pope as a bridge for a better future if U.S. and Cuban

relationships materialize as expected,” Benedí said. “But in South Florida we [Cuban-

Americans] are better informed, there has been too much forgiveness from the Pope and people

feel as if ignored basically.”

The Pope’s reluctance to mention issues of political freedom in Cuba still came to the

dismay of many, if only because of recent circumstances. Last May, Cuba met a record-breaking

month in political arrests after the number of such arrests rose 70 percent from February to

March alone. The Cuban government’s treatment of the organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies

in White) is particularly relentless. The women in this group are arrested every week during their

Sunday after-mass marches calling for the release of their husbands, sons,] and fathers.

Berta Soler, the leader of the Damas de Blanco, was quoted as saying, “What I would tell

the Pope is that political violence against people who want to participate or exercise their liberty

in public assemblies must stop.” The views of Soler were never communicated to the Pope,

however, as many of the group’s members were prevented from attending the Pope’s mass or

arrested at the mass for approaching the popemobile.

When asked about this incident and whether he would have met with the Damas de

Blanco, Pope Francis replied “I like to meet with all people. I consider that all people are

children of God and the law. And secondly, a relationship with another person always enriches.”

“Let be honest, it’s very difficult to visit a country and criticize them in their home,”

Benedí said. “That would obviously create issues and it is his goal to unite people, not stir the

pot. One thing people didn’t like though was the Pope’s visit to Castro’s house. They say there

was no need. Why visit the person responsible for the persecution of so many? People have not

forgotten what Fidel Castro represents.”

Information for this article was taken from theguardian.com, phillyvoice.com and

catholicnewsagency.com

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