Saturday, July 24, 2010

Soul Searching: The Catholic Church and Human Rights in Cuba

Soul Searching: The Catholic Church and Human Rights in Cuba
by COHA Research Associate Bethan Rafferty

Last month's visit of the Holy See's foreign minister, Monsignor
Dominique Mamberti, to Cuba highlighted the historically uneasy
relationship between the Cuban government and the nation's Catholic
Church. However, it should be recognised that overall, relations between
Havana and the Church have been continuously improving, creating
opportunities for some political dissidents held in Cuba to gain their
freedom and have a greater opportunity to come forth with ideas that are
counter to those preached by the Cuban government.

A Troubled Past

According to a 2005 BBC report, 56% of Cubans identify themselves as
Catholic, which although a majority of the population, is modest in
comparison to other countries in the region (Mexico 89%, Brazil 85%). In
pre-revolutionary Cuba, the Church was seen by island nationalists as an
elitist foreign institution, the remnants of Spanish colonialism. Cuban
authorities treated the church with chilly contempt in the years
following the 1959 revolution, and Fidel Castro formally declared Cuba
to be an atheist nation. The new government banned members of religious
organizations from joining the Communist Party; 80% of priests residing
on the island ultimately left the country and hundreds of religious
schools were closed. For the general public, belonging to a religious
group was a risky affiliation.

However, an opening occurred in the Church-State religious dialogue in
1985 when Brazilian priest Frei Betto wrote his book, Fidel and
Religion. The now famous work consisted of interviews Betto conducted
with Fidel Castro, in which Castro talked about his religious upbringing
and the place of religion in a communist society like Cuba. A huge
success in Cuba, the book revealed that Castro did not necessarily share
Karl Marx's view of religion as "the opium of the people." The release
of Fidel and Religion demonstrably improved daily life for Cuban
religious communities. In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) lifted
its ban that had prevented those with religious beliefs from becoming
members. A 1992 constitutional amendment transformed a previously
atheist Cuba into an officially secular country. In 1994, the Vatican
consecrated former political prisoner, Archbishop of Havana Jaime
Ortega, as a Cardinal. Christmas was reintroduced as a national holiday
in 1997. Fidel Castro met with Pope John Paul II during an official
visit to Rome in 1996, which led to a papal visit to Cuba in 1998. John
Paul II was the first pope to visit Cuba in its 400 years of
Catholicism. His trip to Cuba seemed extraordinary at the time, as Cuba
was the only Latin American country that he had not yet visited in his
then twenty-year papacy.

Papal Visit Leads to Freedom

The acceptance of the Castro government by religious leaders has
continued to benefit the cause of human rights and free expression on
the island. Although the easing of religious restrictions following
Fidel and Religion had shown some progress, the first time the improving
Church-State relations directly benefited political prisoners was after
the departure of John Paul II. Cuban authorities proceeded to free three
hundred political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. In contrast to the
previous role of the Church, which focused largely on the plight of
religious communities on the island, the Church began to take on a
slightly more prominent role in broader Cuban human rights issues
following the Pope's departure.

During a mass he gave in Jose Marti Square in Havana, the Pope hinted at
concerns he had not only about Cuba but also about the United States:

"On the other hand, various places are witnessing the resurgence of
a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person
to blind market forces and conditions the development of peoples on
those forces. From its centres of power, such neoliberalism often places
unbearable burdens upon less favored countries. Hence, at times,
unsustainable economic programmes are imposed on nations as a condition
for further assistance. In the international community, we thus see a
small number of countries growing exceedingly rich at the cost of the
increasing impoverishment of a great number of other countries; as a
result the wealthy grow ever wealthier, while the poor grow ever poorer"

Pope John Paul II did not specifically condemn nor commend the USA or
Cuba during his visit, meaning that Cuba could continue to ease its
defenses against the Church with little to fear from recidivism.
Although the Cuban government did not necessarily have a new ally, it
knew that the Catholic Church would not automatically or overwhelmingly
side with Washington.

Black Spring – A Relapse?

The progress made since 1985 has been overshadowed by the 2003 crackdown
when seventy-five dissidents were arrested and jailed. Although none of
them were imprisoned for their religious beliefs, Cardinal Angelo
Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State at the time, wrote a letter to
Fidel Castro asking to "make a significant gesture of mercy towards the
condemned." This mercy, however, has not been granted to all. According
to a 2009 Amnesty International report, Cuba has fifty-eight prisoners
of conscience, who were in jail solely for expressing their political
views. However, other sources such as the Cuban Human Rights Commission,
an unauthorized but tolerated human rights organization based in Havana,
estimate that the total number of political prisoners could be as high
as 167.

The Catholic Church: A Diplomacy that the United States Might want to

Some critics would point out that human rights violations in Cuba are
not only committed by Havana, but also by the United States. At the same
time that Cuban authorities were imprisoning dissidents in 2003, the
Bush administration was introducing regulations to end academic
exchanges between the United States and Cuba. According to Human Rights
Watch, a non-governmental organization that researches and advocates
human rights, part of the excessive U.S. travel restrictions violate not
only the right to return to one's home country, but also the rights to
family unity and freedom of movement. Although the Obama administration
reversed some elements of the U.S. embargo towards Cuba that the Bush
administration had originally incorporated, it needs to do more. The
U.S. government would automatically improve some of its human rights
violations in Cuba by totally eliminating its travel restrictions on the

The Catholic Church and the United States government are two formidable
institutions at work in Cuba; however, their policies toward the
Castro-led regime could not differ more. The United States' policy of
hostility and isolation has led to the deterioration of the basic rights
of Cubans, whereas the Catholic Church's more open and accepting
attitude has allowed for some tangible progress to be made. If United
States authorities pursued a constructive approach, similar to that of
the Catholic Church, then there would be a possible improvement in the
lives of both Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Although during the Cold-War
era the United States could have claimed that policy towards Cuba was
formed with national security considerations in mind, this attitude has
been made obsolete by events, with the post Cold-War United States now
claiming to have the same objective as the church in striving to improve
the lives of the Cuban population.

Mamberti's Visit

In the days leading up to Dominique Mamberti's visit, Cuban authorities
moved twelve dissidents to prisons closer to their homes and families.
In addition the government released Ariel Sigler, a paraplegic dissident
who was arrested in the 2003 crackdown. The actions came as a result of
talks between President Raul Castro, Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega,
and head of the Cuban Bishops' conference, Dionisio Garcia. Small steps
like these are not trivial, as they demonstrate the willingness of the
Cuban government to cooperate if approached with new initiatives. During
Mamberti's stay on the island, he met with senior figures including Raul
Castro, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez, and Vice President
Esteban Lazo. Progress could be seen shortly after Mamberti's departure
when Cuban officials released political prisoner Darsi Ferrer, the
director of the Juan Bruno Zayas Health and Human Rights Center in
Havana. It also shows how influential the Catholic Church has become in
the sphere of human rights observance in Cuba. Cardinal Tarcisio
Bertone, Secretary of State for the Holy See, was the first foreign
official to meet with President Raul Castro after the latter became

The Future of the Cuban Catholic Church

The relocations of prisoners and the release of Sigler have had an
impact on the global reactions to evolving Cuban political realities.
Following Mamberti's trip, there was talk of a possible 2012 Papal visit
to Cuba. The visit would mark the celebration of the 400th anniversary
of the first appearance of the Virgin of Charity, patron saint of Cuba.
In general, the Catholic Church seems to be satisfied with current
progress regarding church-state relations in Cuba, and although there
have been no brilliant changes in policy, the recent goodwill gestures
of the Cuban government have moved relations towards a more open
political environment. A recent Associated Press report stresses that
the current number of political prisoners on the island is at the lowest
level since the Castro brothers came to power at the end of 1959.


Since the 1959 revolution, the Cuban Catholic Church and government have
moved from sharply strained ties filled with suspicion, prejudice, and
tension to one of mutual respect and shared goals. In Cardinal Ortega,
the Church now has a powerful voice on the island, which has benefitted
the welfare of Cuba's general population as well as political prisoners
and defenders of the revolution.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos arrived in Cuba on the 5 July,
2010, to participate in ongoing talks between Cardinal Ortega and Raul
Castro and played a significant role in inviting all of those scheduled
to be released, along with their families, to seek a safe haven in
Spain. On 13 July, seven of the fifty-two soon to-be freed dissidents
arrived in Spain with their families. According to The Guardian, the
remaining prisoners will be released in the next three months and have
already been offered asylum in Chile and the U.S., in addition to Spain.
In retrospect, the Church has played a fundamental role in the release
of prisoners of conscience, and if the Obama administration decided to
capitalize on the current momentum created by the recent church-state
dialogue, U.S.– Cuba relations may be improved, to the benefit of both

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