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If political freedom remains viciously suppressed, the state of religious freedom is similarly imperiled. In February, government-organized mobs harassed and threatened dissidents who had sought safety in churches. In one incident, the archbishop of Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, had to intervene to help evacuate 14 women dissidents who had take refuge in a basilica because of reports that police were waiting nearby to beat them. The women were members of Ladies in White, which consists of the wives and relatives of jailed political dissidents. Nor can Cubans’ freely practice their faith. Despite the pope’s forthcoming visit, Cuban dissidents say that they are barred by police from attending mass and many are arrested on Sundays to keep them from going.
Raul’s economic reforms also fall short of credible change. Small-scale privatization efforts have led to optimistic suggestions that Cuba is pursuing the Chinese model of merging communist rule with a free-market economy, but even that seems to be an overstatement. The Cuban government has allowed some limited private enterprise and legalized self-employment in some 180 low-skill professions. But absent a true free market, access to the supplies and credit necessary to run a business remains a major challenge. Not surprisingly, most employment still comes from the government. Despite some cuts in the public sector, the government still accounts for 80 percent of Cuba’s jobs. It’s true that Cuba now allows more economic freedom than at any time since the introduction of communism, but that is a low benchmark for meaningful reform.
While Raul Castro has successfully sold himself as a reformer abroad, the consensus among many Cubans is that nothing will change as long as the Castro brothers remain alive. It would be a shame if the pope’s trip serves to give added legitimacy to a regime that continues to trample on the freedom of its people.
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