Pope Francis praised Cubans' spirit in the face of adversity in a message broadcast ahead of his trip to the impoverished island. It does me a lot of good and helps me to think of your faith in the Lord, of the spirit with which you confront the difficulties of each day, the pope said in a message played on state television.
Francis arrives Saturday for a four-day visit to Cuba, whose economy has suffered through decades of isolation. I want to be among you as a missionary of compassion, he said in the taped message.
Rights groups and dissidents opposed to the Castro brothers' regime have called on the pope to urge President Raul Castro -- with whom he will meet Sunday -- to put an end to crackdowns on opponents and curbs on civil liberties.
The previous two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, each prodded gently for change when they visited Cuba, in 1998 and 2012 respectively.
The pope will give eight speeches or homilies during his four-day visit to the island and there will likely be at least a veiled reference to the state's crackdowns on dissidents and restrictions on civil liberties.
But members of Cuba's fractured and officially illegal opposition said they see little chance that the trip will bring significant change.
Pope Francis wants his visit to have a major impact, but he won't be able to work any miracles, because change depends on the Cuban government's political will. And it has none, said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights.
Jose Daniel Ferrer, another leading dissident, said he was not expecting any sea changes, but is hopeful that the pope will demand more democracy and respect for human rights from the government, even if he does it in private.
There is papal precedent on these delicate issues as Francis heads to Cuba Saturday, the third pope to visit the island in 17 years.
John Paul II called for greater respect for human rights during the first papal visit to Cuba in 1998, a historic trip that symbolized a nascent rapprochement between the Church and the one-time atheist state.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI criticized Marxism and spoke of the need for new models.
But Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, one of the island's most visible dissident groups, said she feared the issue of human rights would be eclipsed by talk of the pope's role in negotiating the recent thaw between Cuba and the United States -- the other country on the pope's itinerary for his eight-day tour.
”People talk a lot about the rapprochement (with the United States), but nobody says anything about repression, justice, freedom, said Soler.
She voiced frustration that neither the Catholic Church hierarchy nor the local Church have spoken out on repression.
In an act of goodwill before the visit, Cuban authorities released more than 3,500 prisoners last week, amplifying a gesture also undertaken for the previous papal trips. But dissidents complained the measure did not free any of the 60 political prisoners they say are currently in custody.
Cuban authorities dispute that figure, saying the 53 inmates freed in January as part of Havana's negotiations with Washington were the last political prisoners on the island.
Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote that she feared the visit would unleash a repeat of the repression seen during Benedict XVI's visit,” when 150 dissidents said they were preemptively arrested to prevent them from pulling any political stunts.