Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic voyage to Cuba in March comes at a time when, according to the 2011 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “serious religious-freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite some improvements.”

These violations include: “detention, sporadic arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders affiliated with unregistered religious groups, as well as the control and monitoring of religious belief and practices, including through surveillance, infiltration and legal restrictions prohibiting religious communities from operating without government permission. These conditions exist under the one-party rule of a communist government that continues to have an overall poor record on human rights.”

Cuba was again placed on the commission’s “Watch List” in 2011.

Cuba’s ambassador to the Holy See, Eduardo Delgado Bermudez, refuted those claims and sounded defensive in towing the Communist Party line in an interview, where he also discussed the Pope’s visit.

Ambassador, how has the Cuban government reacted to the news that the Pope will soon visit your country?

The statement made on Dec. 12 by His Holiness Benedict XVI during the homily of the holy Mass on the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary of the independence of the Latin American countries, confirming his intention of going on an apostolic trip to Mexico and Cuba before Easter 2012, has been received with special satisfaction by the government and the people of our country. For its part, the conference of bishops has renewed its great happiness on the occasion of this visit, for which it has been working wholeheartedly.

Does Cuba intend to improve its human-rights record, particularly on religious freedom, freedom of speech and its treatment of political prisoners, as a result of this visit?

In Cuba there is total religious freedom, guaranteed by the constitution of the republic and legislation.

This is often recognized more by the Catholic Church and other religious denominations than by the U.S. government itself. There is more freedom of expression in Cuba than in the United States, where its main mass media is controlled and silenced by the economic groups who own them. In Cuba, prisoners are treated with absolute respect, and there are no political prisoners. People who have been arrested have received legal assistance and trials, and no torture has been applied.

The United States, on the contrary, has illegal prisoners in the naval base at Guantanamo, who have been tortured; it has invaded other countries, in Latin America, Asia — such as Vietnam — the Middle East. Cuba itself has been the victim of these aggressions, such as the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) invasion, as well as subversive actions and terrorist aggressions that have provoked thousands of deaths.

Many Americans consider the Cuban government a dictatorship. This doesn’t worry us. We have faith in the truth and the strength of our ideas, of our revolutionary ideals for social justice, which are closer to Christian doctrine than those of the hypocrites and Pharisees who attack our country.

Some say that the Cuban government is in trouble economically and politically, and, so, it is looking to the Vatican for support. How true is this, in your view?

This is false. Cuba does have economic problems, just like Europe, the U.S. and all the other countries of the world. These problems have been provoked by the selfish policies of the large powers who are also threatening the destruction of the world through their consumer system based on the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and the unequal distribution of wealth.

In the case of Cuba, these problems have been intensified by the economic blockade the U.S. applies against our country. Our relations with the Vatican go back 76 years, far more than the relations of the United States with the Holy See, which it recognized just a few years ago [in 1984].

Our relations have always been good since the triumph of the 1959 revolution.

What does the Cuban government hope the visit will achieve for the country, the government and its people?

All the Latin American peoples, and in particular the Cuban people, will welcome the Pope with important signs of affection and respect. They will offer their hospitality, and they will represent the values of their culture and their ethics. This will be the second visit of a pope to Cuba and the second visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Latin America. In the case of Cuba, this visit coincides with the 400th anniversary of the apparition of the image of the Virgin of Charity from El Cobre (Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre), patron saint of the nation, who has been traveling throughout the whole country since August 2010 and will end its pilgrimage in the capital, Havana.

The year 2012 will also be the Jubilee Year, commemorating the fourth centennial of the day the Virgin’s image was found. The Cuban government will receive His Holiness with all the respect and love he deserves, and it will do everything within its power to ensure he has a happy stay, so he may treasure a very pleasant memory of our people and his visit, just like he did in the case of Blessed John Paul II, when he traveled to Cuba in January 1998.

Pope John Paul II called for a lifting of sanctions on Cuba when he visited in 1998. How important is it for Cuba that Benedict XVI makes the same appeal?

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken officially against the U.S. blockade imposed on Cuba, and he has rejected policies to isolate our country. This is nothing new. This position is based, furthermore, on the humanitarian character of the doctrine of the Church.