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Cuba’s Ladies in White have ‘tough’ meeting with Church official

A Cuban Catholic Church official told the Ladies in White on Friday they are no longer a humanitarian group and that the government is unlikely to let them go to the Vatican even if Pope Benedict XVI grants them an audience, spokeswoman Berta Soler said.

The lay spokesman for Cardinal Jaime Ortega, meanwhile, told a conference in California that the government must guarantee the rights of the island’s “political, cultural or religious” minorities and dissidents must abandon “verbal violence.”

Soler said Msgr. Ramón Suárez Polcari, chancellor of the Havana archdiocese, “has always been very receptive with us, but not today.” During the meeting between four Ladies in White and Polcari, she added, “there were tough moments.”

When the women asked for an audience with the pope, Soler said, the monsignor replied that if the government did not allow them to attend Benedict’s masses during his visit in March, it was unlikely to allow them to fly to Italy.

Polcari also challenged the purpose of the Ladies in White, founded by women relatives of 75 dissidents arrested in a 2003 crackdown to demand their release. All were freed by last summer, after Ortega interceded on their behalf.

The monsignor “told us that we are a political movement, that we have changed. We told him we are a humanitarian group, a human rights group,” Soler told El Nuevo Herald by telephone from Havana. Polcari was not immediately available for comment.

The women “reminded him why we’re continuing,” gave him a list of about 60 Cubans imprisoned for political motives and the names of the 60 Ladies in White arrested in March for brief periods to keep them from attending the papal masses.

Participating in the 80-minute meeting were Soler, Magalys Norvis, Odalis Sanabria and Laura María Labrada Pollán. Polcari’s title makes him a top administrator for the archdiocese of Havana.

Soler’s version of the meeting underlined the worsening relations between dissidents and members of the church hierarchy, especially Ortega, accused of forging a virtual partnership with Castro’s communist government.

The Ladies in White, who last met with Ortega in August of 2011, have been asking for a new meeting since March 7 but received no answer, Soler said. Last week, they again asked for a meeting with the cardinal, and Polcari agreed to see them Friday.

In comparison, Soler noted, the women asked Monday for a meeting with Msgr. Dionisio García Ibáñez, archbishop of eastern Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city. Less than two hours later, he agreed to see them Wednesday.

“He was very receptive with us,” Soler said of the 35-minute meeting, during which they also gave him the lists of political prisoners and women arrested during the pope’s visit. “We left very happy.”

García “was interested in what happened to the women when they were detained. He asked us, he said, ‘I want to know’” Soler noted. He added that at times he has admonished women for taking photos in church with their cellular phones.

The Santiago region has been a hotspot for dissident actions in the past year, with police detaining scores of women as they try to stage public protests after Sunday masses at the Santiago cathedral and nearby shrine to Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.

García, who is also president of the Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference, was in Havana for a meeting of the conference.

Ortega spokesman Orlando Marquez, meanwhile, told a meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in San Francisco that Cuba’s government should “pay more attention to minorities, be they political, cultural or religious … and guarantee their rights.”

The government also should speed up its economic reforms “and make citizens into participants,” Marquez noted in a lengthy presentation for the gathering of academics that specialize in hemispheric affairs.

His presentation also urged dissidents to abandon “verbal violence, disqualifications and scorn,” and noted that “not a small number of Cubans continue, and will continue, supporting the current government, even though they demand socio-economic changes to improve the quality of their lives.”

The government has never agreed to negotiate with dissidents, dismissing them as “mercenaries” paid by the U.S. government to try to topple the communist system.