Cuban Dissidents Detained, Barred from Meeting with Pope Francis

Critics say Castro regime is still harassing political prisoners amid détente with Obama administration

Pope Francis at the Hill of the Cross in Holguin, Cuba / AP

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Cuban security officials are reported to have barred dissidents from either meeting with Pope Francis or attending his services in the country, raising further questions about the Castro regime’s commitment to political reforms amid warming ties with the United States.

Authorities initially detained Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva, two prominent dissidents, on Saturday before they could accept an invitation to meet with the pontiff at the home of the Vatican’s ambassador to Cuba. Both were also prevented from attending a vespers service with the Pope on Sunday at the historic cathedral in Havana.

Additionally, security officials prohibited more than 20 members of the dissident group Ladies in White from attending a Mass with the Pope. During the service, authorities also grabbed individuals who were passing out opposition pamphlets.

A Vatican spokesman said the events planned with activists were more of a "passing greeting" than an official meeting, though he added that the Pope wanted to "show an attention for everyone, including dissidents."

After President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba last December, Cuban authorities have continued to detain and monitor pro-democracy activists. U.S. officials formerly cited the Castros’ treatment of dissidents as a key reason for severing diplomatic ties, but the Obama administration now says that engaging Havana directly will help improve the conditions for government opponents.

The detention of dissidents during the Pope’s visit raises new questions about whether that strategy is viable.

When asked for comment, a State Department spokeswoman referred the Free Beacon to a critical tweet from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Cuban dissidents were also not invited to the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana last month, though Secretary of State John Kerry later met with them separately.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a Republican presidential candidate, wrote about the plight of Cuban dissidents before the Pope’s visit in a recent op-ed for CNN.

"[Pope Francis] will find a place where every Sunday in the past six months—as they've been doing for many years—Cuban agents are assigned to a Catholic Church where their instructions are to beat, jail, and intimidate the Ladies In White that attend Mass and who afterwards peacefully take to the streets calling for the release of their husbands, sons and fathers who are political prisoners," Rubio said.

"My hope is that the Pope’s visit to Cuba will remind all the Cuban citizens that they possess dignity and fundamental rights that come from God and that the Castro regime has no claim on changing what is 100% God-given."

Dissidents have assailed Catholic leaders in Cuba for hewing closely to the line of President Raul Castro and his brother, Fidel, the longtime communist leader. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega said in June that he had no knowledge of any political prisoners that were still behind bars, adding that, "It's really difficult to interpret who's a political prisoner."

According to the group Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, at least 71 political prisoners are still being held in Cuban jails. Critics say the Castro regime has also attempted to artificially deflate the number of prisoners by subjecting them to repeated short-term detentions, rather than long-term jail sentences that garner international attention.

Pope Francis, who met with Fidel Castro for about 40 minutes on Sunday, will fly to Washington on Tuesday where he will meet with Obama and address Congress. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI also did not meet with dissidents during their respective visits to Cuba in 1998 and 2012, in keeping with longstanding Vatican policy of not advocating against a current regime.

Daniel Wiser   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Daniel Wiser is an assistant editor of National Affairs. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013, where he studied Journalism and Political Science and was the State & National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. He hails from Waxhaw, N.C., and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice.