By JIM YARDLEY, AZAM AHMED and VICTORIA BURNETT
VATICAN CITY — In brokering the historic thaw between Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis stepped squarely into the thorny realm of geopolitics, sending letters to the presidents of both nations, playing host to secret meetings in the halls of the Vatican and nudging the Cold War enemies to put a half-century of vitriol and mistrust behind them.
But as he arrives in Havana on Saturday, the first stop of a nine-day papal trip to Cuba and the United States, Francis faces a new challenge altogether: Having helped open up Cuba to the world, the first Latin American pope must now try to fully open up Cuba to the Roman Catholic Church.
“It is an occasion to ask for more openness,” said the Rev. Jorge Cela, who oversaw the Jesuit religious order in Cuba from 2010 to 2012. “The relationship is not easy.”
From his own experiences in the 1970s, when Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship, Francis knows the complexity, dangers and difficult compromises of coexisting with repressive authorities. For decades, the Cuban church has been wary of inciting the wrath of a Communist government that all but marginalized it after the 1959 revolution, when priests were cast out, religious schools were closed and the state was declared atheist.
Some call this caution wise pragmatism, noting that the Cuban government has gradually loosened its grip. But critics contend that the Cuban church has been too timid — eager to maintain close ties with the government, at the expense of speaking out for greater political and religious freedom in Cuban society.
“We could do more,” said the Rev. José Conrado, an outspoken Cuban priest based in the central city of Trinidad, speaking by telephone. “The church should not back off, even if doing so is difficult and problematic for the church itself.”
Francis has a global reputation for blunt talk and big symbolic gestures, so his trip to Cuba will be closely watched. Few analysts think he will press too hard in public, but diplomats in Rome do expect him to talk about religious freedom, as Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did during past Cuba visits. Francis is expected to push for more space for the church to operate in Cuban life — currently there are fewer than 350 priests on an island of just over 11 million people, and the church is forbidden from running schools or hospitals.
“Oh, I think he will talk about human rights, religious freedom, allowing the church to play its role not only in worship, but in social services — the church as a partner in the development of the country,” said Ken Hackett, the United States ambassador to the Holy See.
But the pope has already come under criticism for not making the issues more of a central focus of his trip. At a briefing this week, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that the pope would not hold any public meetings in Cuba with dissidents. Antonio Rodiles, a prominent political activist, said that he was disappointed by the decision, but not surprised.
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“It forms part of an established agenda,” he said, noting that dissidents were not invited to celebrations at the new United States Embassy in August and that they were often avoided by visiting delegations. Meanwhile, he said, the state had started cracking down ahead of the pope’s visit, detaining some dissidents and stationing police officers outside dissidents’ houses.
“For Cuba to change, we need to start to speak the truth,” Mr. Rodiles added.
One way the Cuban church has made headway in Cuba — winning public good will and political capital in the process — is by providing food and services to the needy, which the government itself is struggling to afford. In turn, the government is permitting construction of some new churches for the first time in decades, while allowing the church to organize youth activities and concerts.
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Churches and Catholic community centers offer free lunches, clothing, after-school classes, music groups and libraries. It even runs an M.B.A. course from a colonial-era cultural center in Havana and publishes magazines, including New Word, which touch on political and economic issues as well as spiritual ones. Still, the church has no access to Cuba’s radio waves.
There is also a question of how much spiritual sway the church has over the Cuban population itself. The Vatican says that 60 percent of Cubans are Catholic, but according to the State Department, very few of them regularly attend Mass, only about 4 or 5 percent.
“What the church recognizes today and they are addressing is that the first thing you have to address with the Cuban people is trying to meet their basic needs,” said Andy Gomez, a former senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “Once you start helping them address their basic needs, food and shelter, then you can start talking about religion, social change and some of these other things.”
The most powerful figure in the Cuban church is Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the archbishop of Havana, who is set to retire. Detractors attack him as being too conciliatory to the government of President Raúl Castro. Defenders say he is astute and politically savvy in preserving the relevance of the church.
Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the archbishop of Havana, at the Vatican in February.
According to Catholic clergy and lay members, Cardinal Ortega favors a slower, smoother transition to a more democratic and market-based Cuba, a view shared by some on and off the island who fear that a more dramatic change could bring social and economic turmoil. But some Cuban bishops have wanted a more confrontational approach, while other critics have been upset by the cardinal’s public dismissals of Cuba’s political opposition.
In June, Cardinal Ortega incensed members of the opposition when he suggested in a radio interview that he had no knowledge of political prisoners in Cuba.
A month later, he became the focus of an awkward standoff after he refused to accept a list of political prisoners presented to him by two dissidents during a reception at the United States Interests Section (the building soon reopened this summer as the American embassy when diplomatic relations with Cuba were restored). The dissidents loudly began to berate the cardinal, who threatened to call security.
“The line that you have to walk to have a voice in calling out injustices that the government commits, and on the other side mediating and looking for space for dialogue, that line is a tightrope, very difficult to walk,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban businessman who grew up in Miami and has close ties to the church.
“Sooner or later you fall on one side or the other,” he added. “Ortega has shown us that he has a tendency to do that.”
There have certainly been times when the church has challenged the government. In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro, knowing that he needed new allies and new sources of money, began to soften his stance on the church.
The move seemed to energize the church, which issued a statement in 1993 that sent waves through the Catholic community — and the government — in its calls for more openness to ideas outside of the state.
Ultimately, the door slammed on the church once more as Fidel Castro grew increasingly worried about its public activities and those of other Christian activists seeking to reform one-party rule.
“He felt a red line needed to be drawn against church political involvement,” said Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba and a professor at Boston University, describing the late 1990s. “So Cardinal Ortega distanced himself from these activities and we see the rifts still visible today.”
Replacing the cardinal will be one of Francis’ most complicated and important tasks. He will travel throughout the island, meeting different bishops and church figures. It should allow him to make a personal evaluation of the next potential leader of the Cuban church, though analysts do not expect a decision soon.
“There are not a lot of bishops in Cuba,” said Gianni La Bella, an expert in Latin American Catholicism and a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a liberal Catholic group active in international affairs. “It is not easy to choose the right man for the place.”
That choice will help define the position of a church that some Cuban Catholics say is already divided between the leadership and a small but passionate cadre of priests, many of them missionaries, who are focused on the poor.
“There are two visions on the role of the church,” said Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, editor of a Catholic magazine, Convivencia, speaking by phone from Cuba. “One that looks inside, and one — which is Pope Francis’ — which looks outside itself, into the peripheries.”
He added, “I think that our church in Cuba is still looking too much into itself.”
But Francis has unique advantages in Cuba, given that he is a native Spanish speaker bearing a popular message of social justice and the pitfalls of capitalism. Cuban officials have already signaled their approval. During his last trip to the Vatican, Raúl Castro joked that Francis might even convince him to return to church.
Few expect that a Cuban government still so firmly in power is going to roll over, no matter how popular the pope may be. And those government critics, especially in Miami, who want Francis to publicly rebuke Mr. Castro are likely to be disappointed. The toughest negotiations will likely happen in private.
“Cuba is his hardest task,” Mr. Hare said. “He will know that he has to engineer a new path in Cuba and he has the best opportunity yet with his rhetoric, background of social activism and lack of stuffiness to open the key to the Cuban door.”
Jim Yardley reported from Vatican City, and Azam Ahmed and Victoria Burnett from Mexico City.