HAVANA, Cuba — By reputation, Pope Benedict XVI is known as an ecclesiastical conservative, a man who hews close to church doctrine when it comes to matters of faith and Catholic tradition.
Benedict's earthly politics are more of a mystery though, and when he arrives from Mexico to Communist-run Cuba on March 26 for a three-day visit, it will be a chance for Cubans — and the rest of the world — to see how he navigates the island's ideological obstacle course.
The stated purpose of Benedict's visit will be a spiritual one: to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Cuba's patron saint Our Lady of Charity. Less clear is what his message will be to the Cuban people or Raul Castro's government, which has never broken diplomatic relations with the Vatican but still imposes tight controls on the church and other religious institutions on the island.
Cuba's church isn't allowed to run Catholic schools or have its own television or radio broadcasts. But things have come a long way since the height of Soviet-era persecution in the late 1960s, when many priests were expelled from the island and religious believers were sent to “re-education” labor camps.
Today church-Castro relations are better than they have been in decades and, in 2010, when church leaders opened the first seminary on the island since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Raul Castro was there in attendance.
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Such improvements are credited to Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, a well-known anti-communist who nevertheless made a groundbreaking trip to the island in 1998. He met with Raul's brother and former head of state, Fidel, and famously urged for “Cuba to open to the world and for the world to open to Cuba.”
The March 23 to 28 trip to Mexico and Cuba will be Benedict's first papal visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America (He went to Brazil in 2007.) It won't leave much time for Cubans to get to know Benedict, who, compared to John Paul, is still something of an enigma here. The 84-year-old German pontiff's fragile health is blamed for the short itinerary.
“I don't really know him. I've seen a few clips of him speaking on TV but that's it,” said Lazaro Embade, 52, a devout Catholic in Havana's Cotorro neighborhood who still catches himself referring to the late John Paul as “The Pope,” and his successor simply as “Benedict.”
“He's only going to be here for what? Two or three days?” said Embade, sounding a bit disappointed.
John Paul stayed five days during his 1998 visit, traveling the length of the island and drawing huge crowds.
That trip is widely viewed as the pivotal moment for the church's comeback in Cuba, though the portion of Cubans who are practicing Catholics is still estimated at less than 10 percent.
While Catholic devotion in Cuba was hardly as strong as in Mexico or elsewhere in the region, the island's churches went mostly empty in the decades after Cuba's Communists took power.
Still, the church hierarchy remained, and today it is the only major independent institution on the island that isn't controlled by the government. Cuba's church has played an increasingly prominent political role in recent years, helping to free jailed dissidents and gently prodding Cuban authorities to accelerate economic and political reforms.
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Church officials say the pope is coming to show support for that role, but there are other clear advantages for the Vatican to another high-profile Cuba visit. In Europe, church attendance continues to plummet, and it has fallen to Pope Benedict to try to repair the immense damage and shame brought by sexual abuse scandals involving its clergy.
Cuba, in contrast, is a place where the Holy See can project a far more positive image — as an advocate for reform and reconciliation, and a mediator between Havana and Miami, Havana and Washington, and among generations of Cubans split by bitter political divisions.
A trip to Cuba can also help Benedict push back against the explosive growth of evangelical Christianity on the island, as well as the widespread practice of Afro-Cuban Santeria, whose adherents blend African spiritualism with Catholic saint-worship, which the church frowns upon.
The Cuban government also potentially stands to gain much from Benedict's visit. Cuban authorities will be looking for him to publicly criticize the 50-year-old US trade embargo, which the Vatican opposes.
“The Vatican has always said that the embargo is not positive or useful, and it causes suffering for the Cuban people,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said at a recent press conference in advance of the pope's trip.
Other interested parties will be looking for something from Benedict too.
US officials want him to criticize the Cuban government and push for faster and broader reforms — a more robust embrace of John Paul's entreaty to “open to the world.”
They also hope he'll nudge Castro to release Alan Gross, the American subcontractor who is serving a 15-year prison term for trying to set up clandestine communication networks on the island.
Castro opponents abroad and Cuban dissidents will also be hoping for a boost.
After all, it was local church leaders on the island who intervened to stop the government from a harsh crackdown on the Ladies in White ("Las Damas de Blanco") dissident group in 2010.
Formed after a 2003 roundup that jailed their husbands and sons, the group turned to church leaders for help. The church opened a “dialogue” with the Castro government that eventually led to the release of the Ladies' family members, as well as all of Cuba's internationally recognized political prisoners.
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The Ladies in White continue their protest marches every week in front of a Havana cathedral, saying that more political prisoners remain. When the group attempts to protest elsewhere in Havana, Cuban authorities typically detain them, as they did Sunday.
Other Cuban dissidents and Castro opponents in Miami say the church has been too soft on the Castros, urging the pope to cancel the trip. The Vatican has said that a meeting with Cuban dissidents was not on the pope's agenda — but Benedict will be available to meet with 85-year-old Fidel Castro.
In several Cuban cities this month, small groups of government opponents staged protests by attempting to occupy Catholic churches, some demanding to meet with Benedict.
The clergy in Cuba appeared angered by the tactic, calling it “illegitimate” and “irresponsible” for attempting to convert religious temples into “political trenches.”
The occupation of a Havana cathedral by 13 protesters was brought to an end last week after 48 hours when church authorities asked Cuban police to remove the group.