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Pope cements Church's privileged role in Cuba
 
HAVANA, March 29 (BSS/AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Cuba helped the Church lock in its special mediating role with the Communist state, but his calls for change are unlikely to gain traction, analysts said Wednesday.

The 84-year-old pontiff, making the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years, came to the island hoping to bolster church-state ties so that the Catholic Church can keep working on sensitive issues, such as the release of prisoners.

"The Cuban Catholic Church should be satisfied -- the pope's visit accomplished what it hoped," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank.

"The Church is in a better position to play a mediating role
in the coming period in Cuba," Shifter stressed.

Wayne Smith, head of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said: "There were great turnouts for his masses, and I'd say the church comes out strengthened, though not without clear limitations."

Benedict on Wednesday wrapped up his visit to Cuba with a call for respect of "basic freedoms," pursuing his persistent prodding of the island's Communist authorities to embrace change.

It was a message that he delivered throughout his stay in the Americas' only one-party Communist state -- at masses in Santiago and Havana, and in his departure speech at the airport in the capital, before President Raul Castro.

The pope said Wednesday he hoped the "light of the Lord" would help Cubans build a "society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled."

"May no one feel excluded from taking up this exciting task because of limitations of his or her basic freedoms," Benedict
said.

Dissident groups have been pressing for political opening in Cuba, which has dragged its feet on economic reform and ruled out political change. Dozens of activists were detained during the pope's visit, dissident sources said.


"The pope is pressing for change and even suggested political reforms. The government has made it clear that isn't part of the program," explained Smith, who was the top US diplomat in Havana from 1979-1982.

The government "remains clearly in control," not moving in any apparent way to give the Church what it keeps seeking -- access to its own school and media systems, and scope for a more open Cuban society, Smith added.

For Shifter, "the pope went about as far as he could go without jeopardizing the Church's relationship with the Cuban government."

During his stay, the pope called for a more "open society"
and -- in what appeared to be a reference to political prisoners
and perhaps Cuban exiles, offered a prayer for "the needs of
those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who
are separated from their loved ones."

Benedict's "language was not exactly subtle. His message was clear, with political connotations, and was directed to the Cuban
government," he stressed.

While the Cuban government "showed that it can tolerate such critical language, ... it also made clear it was not yet ready to
move towards any political opening," Shifter said.

Catholics account for some 10 percent of Cuba's population.
Benedict was seeking to build the faith in a mainly secular country that was officially atheist for almost four decades until 1998.

The church nonetheless has emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba.

For Uva de Aragon, a Cuban-American who until recently led the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, the visit may have done most for Cubans here and abroad.

There are 11 million Cubans on the island and another two million living abroad -- often wrapped up in a tense, deeply emotional Cold War family feud.

The pope spoke to these social strains, repeatedly appealing for reconciliation among Cubans.

"The clear winner is the Cuban people, wherever they are," she said. "Pope Benedict XVI has talked to all of us."
"I believe after he leaves, after the emotion of his presence, the music, the rituals pass, his words will stay with us and inspire us all to build a better society for all Cubans," she said.
 
 
 
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