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Why these Catholics plan to protest at pope's Cuba visit

A group of Catholic protesters were arrested in Havana less than a week before a visit from Pope Francis to Cuba. The protesters say the Catholic Church should do more for their political cause. 

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The Ladies in White hold flowers as they march during their weekly anti-government protest in Havana Sunday. Cuban authorities detained about 50 dissidents a week ahead of Pope Francis' visit.

Enrique de la Osa/Reuters

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Pope Francis plans to visit Cuba on Saturday, and a group of Catholic women are ready and waiting – with a protest. When the pope visits, some Cubans will be focused on whether Cuba will change its restrictive political policies in the wake of a renewal of diplomatic relations with the US. These are Cubans who have been unhappy with their government – and the Roman Catholic church which they say has failed to stand up to it.

More than 50 people were detained Sunday during a protest after mass. Activists walked around the streets of Havana holding photos of political prisoners. The mostly Roman Catholic group, Ladies in White, was among the protesters, and the women left for the protest from the Santa Rita Catholic Church, Time reports.  

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This protest comes just three days after the Cuban government announced Friday the release of 3,522 prisoners as a gesture of goodwill before the visit from the pope. The prisoners were selected based on their behavior while in prison and the type of crime they had committed, according to Cuba's state-run newspaper Granma. Many of those released are over age 60 or under 20, and some are foreign, but most did not commit violent crimes or "crimes against state security." 

Similar protests by Ladies in White occur almost every Sunday, but the women were detained this time after they left their authorized route and walked down a side street, Reuters reports. Dissidents say about 100 people are detained every Sunday, and August saw a particularly high number.

The Ladies in White plan to protest during the three-day visit of Pope Francis to Cuba. 

The Ladies in White and some of their dissident allies say the Roman Catholic Church is too friendly with the government. They direct much of their criticism at Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a friend of Pope Francis who has risen to greater influence under Raul Castro.

"The Church should be concerned about this or any time human rights are involved," Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, told Reuters. "It is their duty," he said. He was handcuffed and detained for an hour on Sunday. 

The Ladies in White began protesting in 2003. At that time the women's group marched in white to protest on behalf of their husbands and relatives, who were imprisoned for political activism, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The protests became a weekly event, as women who had left politics to the men now took to the streets.

Cardinal Ortega helped negotiate for the prisoners' release, but he angered the Ladies in White by refusing to support them as an opposition group afterward, Reuters reported. 

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Cuban officials claim funding for the Ladies in White comes from right-wing political groups in the US that want to destabilize the Cuban government, reports the BBC. 

In the same month that Cuba welcomes the pontiff, the country announced that doctors who deserted the country while working abroad may return from exile, the BBC reports. Some 25,000 doctors from Cuba work in government programs for healthcare in other countries. Critics say these doctors are underpaid, as the government pockets the profits, but the government insists much of the care is free to needy countries in Latin America and Africa. 


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