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Catholic Church plays politics in Cuba

The church's role has changed abruptly. Will it help facilitate the release of political prisoners?

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.”