On March 24–26, Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba. This is the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998. Many fear that while the pope’s visit will generate fervor among the Catholic faithful, it may actually be harmful to the prospects for greater freedom on the island.

Pope Benedict should not forget that Cuba in March 2012 remains “totalitarian” in nature, a one-party state run by General Raul Castro. It is a socialist/communist economy with a constitution that uniformly denies individual rights and suppresses human liberty. While a substantial movement of peaceful opposition has sprung up around the island, the regime seeks to dismiss it as a mercenary cabal orchestrated by the U.S. that lacks credibility or popular legitimacy.

The pope’s imminent arrival has sparked increased activity among the democratic opposition demanding an opportunity to meet with the pontiff to acquaint him with the reality of their conditions. Many on and off the island are encouraging such a meeting. Former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa urged the pope to meet with “the people in Cuba who speak out in defense of the irrevocable and fundamental human rights, and demand social justice, wind up jailed and persecuted.”

Thus far, the Catholic Church in Cuba and the Vatican are refusing to consider a meeting with the opposition. On the other hand, the Vatican took aim at the U.S. and its trade restrictions with Cuba and indicated that the pope would be available for a private meeting with Fidel Castro.

In advance of the papal visit, the Cuban regime is stepping up harassment and repression to keep dissidents at bay. On March 17–18, it arrested at least 50 members of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), who have for years marched in solidarity with Cuban political prisoners. The regime’s organs of internal security have reportedly warned that any acts of civil disobedience or protests by the Damas or others will not be tolerated.

These arrests promoted a surprisingly strong statement by the White House:

The detention of members of the Damas de Blanco…in the lead up to Pope Benedict’s visit underscores the disdain of Cuban authorities for the universal rights of the Cuban people. The quiet dignity of the Damas stands in stark contrast with the acts of those who are standing in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people. We call for the immediate release of all who were detained and for Cuban authorities to abandon their tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent.

Long-time scholar of Cuban affairs Jaime Suchlicki contrasts the militancy of the Polish Church in the 1980s in its clash with communism with a more passive, collaborative role of the Cuban Catholic Church. While the Catholic Church has helped broker the release of political and common prisoners, Suchlicki observed with considerable insight:

This policy of [Catholic Church] collaboration, after 50 years of Communist rule, has limitations. First, it is too timid for most Cubans that want to end the Castro era. Second, it lacks a clear and forceful rejection of Communism and its teachings. Third, it encourages the perception that the Church is more interested in its own survival than in the welfare of the Cubans. Fourth, it offends the memory of the many Catholics that died in the firing squads of the Castro regime proclaiming “long live Christ.” Finally, it antagonizes a large majority of Cuban Catholics, those living in exile in the United States.

Mary O’Grady is even more pointed:

Unless [Pope Benedict] has something up his sleeve, the visit may turn out to be a gross miscalculation. Cubans know that they are hostages in their own country. If the Pope is perceived as going along with this big lie [that Cuba is changing for the better], it will only heighten the sense of betrayal toward Cardinal Ortega [the Church’s leader on the island] and it will do nothing to strengthen the Church in Cuba.

Where does this leave Pope Benedict? In a dilemma! Either the pope conveys a message that what is occurring on the island under the Castros is acceptable and outside the purview of the Catholic Church, or he demonstrates genuine solidarity with those whose are demanding what are universal rights.

The Washington Post is correctly on target when it urges Pope Benedict to meet with the Damas de Blanco or other prominent dissidents, press the Castros to stop persecuting democratic activists, and urge the Castros to release all those who remain in prison, including American Alan Gross.