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Analysis: Catholic Church raises hopes of role in Cuban change
HAVANA (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic Church has won praise for securing the release of political prisoners in Cuba, raising hopes it can do more to broker reforms on the communist-ruled island and perhaps even help improve U.S.-Cuba ties.
Sidelined for decades by the communist authorities until Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998, the Church has now carved out a visible role as an interlocutor with the government, and as a possible catalyst of change.
Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega raised his voice earlier this year, asking President Raul Castro to accelerate economic reforms and end government harassment of the dissident group Ladies in White during their peaceful street protests.
His main accomplishment was meeting Castro and obtaining an agreement in July to free 52 political prisoners, 32 of whom have already left jail and gone to Spain in a deal with the Spanish government.
Two recent trips by Ortega to Washington to meet officials of President Barack Obama's administration also suggest that his role as a facilitator has gone beyond domestic matters.
The church publicly denies it is serving as a mediator between the two countries, but Ortega has said clearly that resolving the conflict with the United States is crucial to "break the critical circle" in which Cuba finds itself.
"A third party can help pave the way, to present another vision of the conflict between the two countries, another perspective," said Ortega's spokesman, Orlando Marquez.
"What the church wants is an improvement in relations between the two countries. Whatever it can do for this, it will," he told Reuters.
Hopes for a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, ideological enemies since the 1959 revolution that converted the island into a communist state, rose initially after Obama took office early last year.
The new American president promised to recast relations with Cuba and slightly softened the embargo which Havana blames for many of its economic problems.
But the changes have been timid and remain tainted by a continuation of the negative rhetoric -- albeit at lower volumes -- that has characterized ties since the Cold War.
"To resolve the problem with the United States is the golden dream of the Cardinal," said a Cuban dissident who asked not to be identified.
"NO BETTER MEDIATOR"
The mere fact Ortega and Castro have held talks suggests the church and government have overcome some mutual mistrust.
As a young man, Ortega, who is now 73, was confined in an Interior Ministry work camp during the anti-church campaign launched by the new revolutionary government soon after 1959.
Cuba's bishops were often highly critical of the government in the early- to mid-1990s. There were incidents of dissidents shouting "Freedom" and "Free political prisoners" during masses, with protesters dragged off by plain-clothes government agents.
A 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II began a slow warming and the government showed a greater tolerance of Church activities while the Church became less of a focal point for unrest.
In the latest sign of improvement, the church was permitted for the first time in decades to make a pilgrimage with the figurine of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, across the island.
The church's high-profile intervention has helped ease some of the international criticism of the government that followed the February death of hunger-striking political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the harassment in the spring of the Ladies in White by government supporters.
"In Cuba, there is no better mediator than the church," said Laura Pollan, leader of the women's group, who dress in white clothes and carry white flowers during their marches to demand the release of their political prisoner relatives.
Economist and former prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe believes the Church can do more at a time when Castro is opening up increased private sector activity in the depressed economy.
The government unveiled on Monday one of its boldest reforms yet by saying it would take half a million workers off state payrolls by March and move to create private sector jobs for them.
"The Church can play a still more important role ... to seek national reconciliation among all Cubans -- those who live on the island and those who live outside -- and also push for reforms to be done with the urgency the country needs," Espinosa Chepe told Reuters.
A Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the Catholic Church had played a role in mediating economic changes in other countries and could do the same in Cuba.
"The Church has been a valuable interlocutor and mediator with Cuba to provide Cuban solutions to Cuban problems," the diplomat said, adding that foreign governments hope it can play an even more important role.
But the Church's mediation is not welcomed by everyone.
Some Cuban dissidents feel marginalized by it and say the Church has taken on a political role it should not have.
They say, for example, that the political prisoner releases arranged by Ortega are in reality deportations because the government wants the jailed opponents to leave the country.
Oswaldo Paya, a Catholic dissident, complains that the dialogue between the Church and Cuban officials has all been conducted out of public view and with no other participants.
"We can't speak of a dialogue that doesn't exist with us (dissidents) or with the society," said Paya, leader of a group called the Christian Liberation Movement.
Marquez, the Cardinal's spokesman, defends the Church's actions, saying it must play a neutral role because its mission is ultimately about people, not politics.
"The Church is not, has not been and cannot be the party of legal opposition that exists in Cuba," said Marquez. "The issue for the Church is not political, it is humanitarian."
(Editing by Esteban Israel, Jeff Franks and Kieran Murray)
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