HAVANA, Cuba — For years, the Catholic Church has been a quiet presence in Cuban affairs, working carefully to regain a place in a communist-run system that formerly persecuted religious believers. Church leaders have succeeded largely by attending to Cubans' spiritual needs, not their earthly politics.
But that role has changed abruptly in recent weeks. A new dialogue has opened up between Catholic officials and the Castro government, elevating the church's role in Cuban society and raising expectations that it might secure the release of many jailed government opponents.
The conversations mark the first time communist authorities have engaged in talks about the island's problems with another Cuban institution, opening a path to a so-called "Cuban solution" that might ease the government's hard-line stance against dissent. The dialogue could also be a critical first step toward better relations with the Obama administration, which has conditioned changes in U.S. policy to reforms on the island.
Cuban authorities have long bristled at criticism and pressure from international human rights groups and foreign governments, especially the United States, but the island's Catholic leadership is homegrown. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, was once sent to a communist re-education camp in the late 1960s.
So far talks with the church have only produced modest gestures from the Cuban government. It has transferred a dozen inmates to jails closer to their families, and paroled one wheelchair-bound prisoner, Ariel Sigler Amaya. But church officials characterize the dialogue with the government as part of a "process" that has no timetable but whose goals include an improvement in conditions for Cuba's political prisoners, if not their release.
"We've always said that this is process, and like any process, it won't necessarily move forward at the same speed and along a straight line," said church spokesman Orlando Marquez at a recent Havana press conference. "The process has begun, and we hope it will continue," he said.
The Castro government hasn't commented on its plans, but it has long maintained that it holds no political prisoners. Many of the jailed dissidents given lengthy prison sentences were convicted of treason for engaging in political activities supported by U.S. officials and Miami exile groups that aim to topple the government. Amnesty International recognizes more than 50 "prisoners of conscience" on the island, while local activists put the number of Cuban political prisoners at about 190.
The new engagement with the church has already paid dividends for the Cuban government abroad. At a European Union meeting in Brussels Monday, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos reportedly told members that the Castro government would free more prisoners "in a week," as he successfully urged the postponement of a key vote on a Spain-led push to ease EU policy toward the island. The vote will now be delayed until September, in order to allow the church more time to continue its dialogue with Cuban leaders.
Moratinos' prediction of imminent prisoner releases may also be linked to an official visit this week to Cuba by the Vatican's top diplomat, Dominique Mamberti. His trip coincides with the "Catholic Social Week," and a church-organized conference in Havana that will bring together Cuban prelates and top Cuban scholars, including several from U.S. universities. Discussion topics include economic reform and national reconciliation.
Marquez, the church spokesman, said the conference would help inform the church's "social mission," not a political one.
Observers say the Castro government could gain other advantages by using the church as an interlocutor. The government may be looking to improve its image after triggering a wave of international condemnation when prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February after an 86-day hunger strike.
The church can also help the government soften its stance without appearing to bow to outside pressure. In turn, the Vatican may be able to nudge Washington at a time when a new bill in Congress proposes to lift travel restrictions on Americans visitors to the island. And Cuba continues to campaign vigorously for the release of the "Cuban Five," a group of Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in U.S. prisons who were sent to spy on anti-Castro militants in Florida.
"The church has always played a mediation role in Latin America," said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor and religion expert who teaches at the University of Havana. "The Cuban government needs an interlocutor, and the church is an ideal one. It has international stature, but it's a relatively weak institution here."
The church's role is not without risks, Lopez Oliva said. If the government fails to release a significant number of prisoners, it will add to criticism, particularly among Cuba exiles, that the church has been too accommodating and is helping the government buy time.
Still, for Julia Nunez, whose husband Adolfo Fernandez Sainz was moved to Havana last weekend from a rural prison 300 miles away, the church's intervention has brought results, and at least a minor comfort. Nunez is one of the Ladies in White made up of the wives and relatives of 75 dissidents who were rounded up in a 2003 crackdown. Fifty-two are still behind bars.
"It's a relief for me, but these are small steps," Nunez said. "Our main goal is to bring our husbands home. We won't be satisfied until then."