Friday, March 23, 2012

Cuba: Church & State, Alliances & Resentments

Cuba: Church & State, Alliances & Resentments
March 22, 2012
Fernando Ravsberg*

HAVANA TIMES, March 22 — Cuba will soon experience its second papal
visit, and many people are wondering why this small island is receiving
such a privilege from Rome if, after all, the Cuban Catholic Church
doesn't have the popular support that's seen in other countries of the
region and world.

It's even stranger because the historic leader of the revolution was
excommunicated in 1962 and still remains outside the Lord's fold.
Apparently the Vatican will not forgive Fidel Castro for his conversion
from Catholicism to a Marxist atheist.

Nonetheless, both the Comandante and John Paul II were able to get past
that dark detail of the past and made the first visit by a Pope to Cuba
(1998) an event that, in one way or another, benefited both parties.

Many of my colleagues who came here to cover that trip had enormous
expectations about its political implications, but they were overlooking
the facts that Cubans aren't Poles, they're not predominantly Catholic
and the only trade union that exists here supports the government.

I remember when I was broadcasting the arrival of John Paul II live for
BBC, my colleagues asked me to talk with some of the people who were
crowded along both sides of Boyeros Avenue, the route that connects the
airport with the capital city.

I chose an over 60-year-old woman who was standing with a group of nuns.
I gave here the cellphone and my colleague in London asked her why she
was there. "It's because I'm a member of the party and Fidel asked us to
welcome the Pope warmly," she replied.

The Comandante had previously spoke for six hours on the national
television calling for all party members to attend the Mass, and also
trying to clean up the image of John Paul II from the past references
about his involvement in the collapse of European communism.

Ultimately the visit was a success both for the Cuban government and for
the Catholic Church, though mutual distrust remained. Things changed
radically in 2008 with the official endorsement of Raul Castro as president.

The first foreign visitor received by this new head of government was
Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, who later attempted to
mediate a prisoner exchange with the US. The effort was unsuccessful but
two years later came the release of all Cuban prisoners of conscience.

Church-state relations are now at their best since 1959. They are even
better than during the visit by John Paul II, but the atmosphere isn't
the same, despite the welcome signs and the streets that lie newly paved
for the Pope-mobile.


The island's dissidents feel betrayed by Cardinal Ortega and the
laypersons around him, who they say are encouraging all parishioners to
support Raul Castro's reforms – thereby marginalizing the opposition
within the church.

In Miami, the exile press is criticizing the visit. They're calling on
Benedict XVI to meet with dissidents and have applauded the occupation
of the church buildings by government opponents, though those
individuals were eventually ousted by the police at the request of the
Catholic Church itself.

On the island, more than a few Santeria priests were offended by being
excluded from official activities around the visit. The Afro-Cuban
religions are considered to have the greatest number of worshipers among
the people and they believe that their being disregarded is a form of

Among Protestants, there are some who suspect that the alliance of the
church and the government will lead to the conversion of the secular
state to Catholicism, a religion that already has two journals of its
own and has the only center open for political debate.

The LGBT community sees the Vatican's dogmas favoring homophobia in Cuba
to the extent that it considers homosexuality a moral deviation,
prohibits same-sex unions and opposes transsexual operations.

There are also communists and revolutionaries who are concerned that the
government will give in to Catholic demands, allowing that church to
occupy a permanent space in the national press and, especially, that the
state will authorize them to open education centers.

To think that both sides will continue to make concessions to each other
seems logical since the alliance is continuing to strengthen. In fact,
many analysts believe that Benedict's visit to Cuba has as its main
objective to support the position of Cardinal Jaime Ortega as a negotiator.

The truth is that they (the church and the government) both need each
other. The Catholic Church has such a small social base in Cuba it could
only aspire to a leading national role by allying itself with the
government's power. Meanwhile for the government, it's essential to have
a partner with the international weight of the Vatican.

With a certain degree of humor in his words, a revolutionary-Catholic
friend told me that it isn't strange that the party and the church
understand each other so well.

He noted that both are top-down organizations led by leaders who hold
office for life and have a disciplined membership who consider
themselves the paradigms of all humanity.

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