MIAMI Monday, March 19, 2012 - Former Polish President Lech Walesa has written to Pope Benedict XVI urging him to "take up the defense of those Cubans who are demanding freedom" during his visit to the communist-ruled island next week.

"I beg Your Holiness to intercede for those who are in prison because of their convictions," wrote Walesa, a former dissident who headed the Solidarity labor movement that helped oust Poland's communist government.

"I implore Your Holiness to take up the defense of those Cubans who are demanding freedom at the risk of persecutions and humiliation," he added in the letter, dated March 8 and made public Monday by the Lech Walesa Institute in Warsaw.

In his letter, Walesa also recalled that Pope John Paul II's visit to his native Poland in 1979 had a powerful impact on the strongly Catholic nation, under communist rule since the Soviet military occupation that followed World War II.

The visit "not only awakened in us, the Polish people, the hope of change but above all freed our will to take action," he wrote.

Within a year of the visit, Solidarity was founded at the Gdansk Shipyard. Solidarity later became the only independent labor union in the Soviet Bloc, and claimed about 10 million members just before the communists lost relatively open parliamentary elections.

"I have no doubt that without the words of the pope, without his presence, the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible," Walesa wrote to Benedict.

John Paul also visited Cuba in 1998. But analysts agree that unlike Poland, his visit brought about few political changes on the island. Five years later, 75 peaceful dissidents were put before summary trials of one and two days that sentenced them to up to 28 years in prison. The last still in prison were freed last spring.

"Today, we Poles are free. However, the communism and tyranny that went bankrupt in the majority of European countries continue to be imposed in many countries," Walesa added. "Around the world, millions still suffer because of human rights abuses.

"Cuba is one of those countries," he said. "Its society is not enjoying the civic freedoms that other societies enjoy in Western countries."

"The people in Cuba who speak out in defense of the irrevocable and fundamental human rights, and demand social justice, wind up jailed and persecuted," he added. "Cuban authorities do not want to speak with their own people.

"Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that Your Holiness' visit will contribute to positive changes in the life of the Cuban nation," Walesa said. "I trust that (the visit) will open a new chapter in the history of Cuba and that authorities there will start a dialogue with Cuban society."

Benedict will visit Cuba for three days next week to help mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the tiny statue of the Virgin of Charity, floating in Cuba's Bay of Nipe, that is Cuba's patron saint and rests in the Basilica of El Cobre.

Lech Walesa Institute staffer Agniezka Gratkiewicz said the March 8 letter was not made public until Monday to allow the pontiff time to receive, read and reply to the letter. No response has arrived yet, she added.

Vatican officials have made it clear that the pontiff does not plan to meet with Cuban dissidents.

(Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald at