By: FOX News Radio's Courtney Walsh in Havana, Cuba
I am by no means an expert, but my impression after a few days on the ground in Havana covering Pope Benedict's three-day pilgrimage to Cuba is that the the aging Castro brothers are slowly releasing their grip on the society; but an open democracy is still a dream. There are greater religious and economic freedoms, but as one Cuban official told us at the International Press Center in a veiled response to the Pope's discreet push for a more open society, the economy will be further liberalized, but expect no changes on the political front.
Yet some people on the island are still working for change in a peaceful way, and hoping that the Church will help them in the struggle.
The Catholic Church has grown in influence since the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II, even though the pews remain quite empty. Fewer that 10% of the Cuba's 11 million are practicing Catholics, the lowest level in Latin America where over 40% of the world'S 1.2 billion Catholics live. Abortion rates are among the highest in the world. Yet in the early 90's the Jesuit educated Fidel Castro declared that Atheism was no longer the state's creed, and Christmas was reinstated as a national holiday after a Pope John Paul's visit.
President Raul Castro, who took over in 2006 when Fidel stepped aside due to illness, has been working closely with Cuban Church leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega and in 2010 asked him to help broker a deal to release political prisoners. Some say they are too close. One Cuban exile I spoke to said his nickname was "Cardinal Spoon" in that he neither cuts like a knife nor pokes like a fork. But others I spoke to say Cardinal Ortega is doing the best he possibly can to help the country transition away from a strict communist model.
Among the opposition groups counting on the Church's help are the Damas in Blanco or Ladies in White; relatives of Cubans who were arrested in 2003 for calling for elections and political reforms and later released and exiled with Cardinal Ortega's help.
They attend mass every Sunday at St. Rita of Cascia, and then walk down the avenue, dressed in white in protest of human rights violations. They have been detained for up to 24 hours and occasionally attacked by what they say are pro-Government mobs. One of these attacks was even filmed and put on YouTube. The Government says they are traitors and financed by the Americans.
Some of my colleagues met with them in their humble apartment on the eve of Pope Benedict's open-air mass on Revolution Square. One of them, 46 year-old Alejandrina Garcia de la Rivas told them she believed in the Church's message of reconciliation, but wanted the Cuban Bishops during their dialogue with the regime to ask that these discussions include members of the political opposition. They also had requested to speak to the Pope, who had meetings with both Castro brothers, about their aspirations.
I tried to meet them too before the Pope's outdoor mass on Revolution Square on Wednesday, during which he told a crowd of 300,000 that religious freedom was a pre-condition for "genuine freedom." I took a taxi to the designated spot, but no one was at the meeting point. At 6am that morning, Alejandrina and her friend Laura Maria Labrada Pollan were picked up and detained at a military prison outside of Havana until four hours after the mass ended. The others Damas did not show up either, out of fear, I assume.
Cuba still has a long way to go.
Listen HERE to some of Courtney Walsh's reporting from Havana, Cuba: