WASHINGTON (CNS) — If Cuba is going to undergo the kind of political transition that leads to an end of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, the work toward reconciliation and forgiveness that the Catholic Church is trying to facilitate there is an essential step in the right direction, according to the archbishop of Miami.

The observation by Archbishop Thomas Wenski came just after Cuba released the last of 75 prisoners who had been held since anti-government protests in 2003.

Archbishop Wenski last visited Cuba in February with a group of Cuban-American pilgrims who were returning to their homeland for the first time. The pilgrimage brought the group by bus from Havana to Santiago, in the southeast, and back across the country with stops along the way to visit local projects supported by the Cuban Association of the Knights of Malta, a Florida-based group.

A few months earlier, Archbishop Wenski was among participants in ceremonies outside of Havana marking the inauguration of the first new Catholic seminary building in 50 years. President Raul Castro and other representatives of the government as well the apostolic nuncio and bishops from Mexico, Italy and the Bahamas also attended the ceremonies.

Since last summer, Cuba’s Catholic bishops have had a highly visible role in some of the developments that have prompted speculation about positive changes coming.

When harassment escalated last summer of women known as the Ladies in White, who have been holding weekly silent protests of their relatives’ detention, the bishops began working with the government to dial back tensions and negotiate the release of the last 52 of the 75 prisoners. In the months following, the prisoners were released a few at a time, and most were flown to Spain.

About a dozen refused to leave Cuba and ultimately were allowed to stay there upon release. The final two were let out of prison March 23.
Another 35 detainees, long listed by Amnesty International as political prisoners but not part of the 2003 group, were released in early April and flown to Spain, along with more than 200 of their relatives.

Meanwhile, the White House in January announced presidential directives loosening restrictions on travel to Cuba, opening the door to more travel for religious, cultural, educational and journalistic purposes. Restrictions also were eased on cash remittances to Cuba, allowing all Americans to send money to support private economic activities or religious institutions. Previously only Cuban-Americans were allowed to send limited amounts of money directly to their families.

Archbishop Wenski told Catholic News Service in an April 11 phone interview that expectations are high in Cuba that recent events are harbingers of something positive.

“There are a lot of expectations now,” he said. “A lot of people are trying to get a sense of where things are going.”

He said the Cuban bishops see their role as contributing to a national reconciliation.

“The Church is not about politics,” he said, “but about trying to promote reconciliation and forgiveness, which will eventually make politics possible.”

Archbishop Wenski described the effort as “a way to help whatever is coming (politically) to make a soft landing.”

To be sure, there are still areas of great tension between the United States and Cuba, such as the March sentencing of an American, Alan Gross, to 15 years in prison for his efforts to bring telecommunications equipment into Cuba to allow a Jewish group to use the Internet.

The latest State Department country report on human rights released April 8 listed ongoing problems, including harassment, arrests, restrictions on speech, movement, press, peaceful assembly and other activities. The International Religious Freedom Report released by the State Department in November, however, reported improvements in how churches and faith groups were allowed to function, though noting that significant restrictions remained.

The human-rights report had several positive comments when it came to religious activities, such as a notation that Catholic priests and other clergy in some cases criticized the government in sermons, church publications and media interviews without reprisals, “openly questioning how the country’s leadership dealt with criticism and managed the economy. Catholic publications in Havana and Pinar del Rio often challenged government policies and assumptions. In February, the Cuban Council of Churches issued a statement lamenting the death” of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner who died in February following a prolonged hunger strike.

In addition, the report noted, the Catholic Church received permission to broadcast Easter Mass on state-run stations. Christmas Mass broadcasts have been allowed since the 1990s. Another special Mass broadcast was allowed last August to launch celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of the country. And a Protestant organization was allowed to host a series of nationwide radio broadcasts.