The Catholic Left and Changes in Cuba

Armando Chaguaceda

El seminario Católica en las afueras de La Habana.

HAVANA TIMES — In a post published in Havana Times a year and a half ago, I addressed the situation of Cuba’s Catholic Church, its similarities and links to the Communist Party and its contribution to the reform process on the island.

In that article, I pointed out that these two institutions share “pragmatic aims, where words and deeds don’t always go hand in hand” and in which “institutional inertia” and “the social commitments of the devout” are combined.

At the time, my hopes were set on the millennial religious institution, which I thought could contribute to “the creation of a better country, a country that should be governed, not by boots or cassocks, but by the secular and democratic consensus of all its citizens.”

With time, as is often the case, my enthusiasm has waned. Though it is true that the Church (or at least part of its leadership) has harbored, in whole or in part, different editorial, civic and cultural projects of relative importance (most notably the journals Espacio Laical and Palabra Nueva and the Felix Varela and Casa Cuba centers), as a general rule the Catholic hierarchy has shown itself far too cautious in its responses to the demands and processes stemming from Cuba’s reform process.

Sticking to the “two steps forward, one step back” logic (a logic which is sometimes inverted), in 2010 the prelates called for the release of political prisoners…and then turned their backs on dissidents who, under direct attack from the government, approached them for protection.

They have expressed support for the country’s economic liberalization and called for a much needed process of reconciliation, while at the same time ignoring, in their increasingly frequent public addresses, any mention of the “sinful structures” reproduced by the Cuban government’s penalization and censorship of peaceful civil practices.

With respect to the progressive standpoints which, within the context of different academic (economic, political, sociological) and ideological milieus (social-democratic, libertarian, Christian democratic), have been gaining ground in diverse media and forums closely linked to the Church, we can clearly discern a number of divergent postures within the religious institution.

One such posture, perhaps the most predominant, casts a conservative and apprehensive glance at the proliferation of new agents and discourses which, from its point of view, could work against ecclesiastical efforts to secure (with the government’s consent) broader spaces within the media, education and society in general.

Another tendency, less significant in terms of defenders and resources within Cuba’s contemporary Catholic institution, would want to turn the Church (and its publications) into a champion of the struggle against the government, within the coordinates of the discourse which combines different modalities of a liberal creed with traces of anti-communist sentiment.

The result of this is that valuable efforts to provide a space to nationalistic, progressive and center-Left proposals for change are not, in my view and contrary to the conspiracy theories woven by some sectors of the émigré community and opposition, a dominant position within Cuba’s clergy.

Quite the contrary: the survival of editorial projects and civil forums such as those impelled – with noticeable moderation and a sense of national commitment – by progressive, secular Catholics will depend on the sensitivity and pragmatic considerations of the government and ecclesiastical elites.

This means that the very existence of these projects hangs by a thread, which either of these two elites can cut at any moment, be it because of direct pressures from the Stalinists who are entrenched in the State apparatus (something which seems unlikely today) or as a kind of generous gift on behalf of high members of the Church hierarchy, desirous of gaining favor with those in power and shaking off the burden of their disaffected flock.

As the reform project makes headway, thus, we can expect the aggiornamento of the Church’s dominant sector, which will modernize itself to fit the island’s new economic and political model.

A liberalized economy managed by an authoritarian State will require a politically sterilized Church with a stronger social presence and closer links to the “new class” which is now gaining ground in the market and educational and cultural spaces.

Neither the structural problems of poverty and inequality (ignored by the traditional formula of charity) nor the issue of old or new sinful identities (such as LGBT subjects or followers of Afro-Cuban religions) will find an effective solution within this new covenant.

Under the newly-empowered clergy, sexual rights, secular thought and religious diversity will cease to be the proud achievements of a republican and revolutionary Cuba. Within the new conservative context, the Church and State will train devout businesspeople rather than active citizens.

From the pulpit, they will preach a kind of love that dissolves all differences and offenses for the “common good”, without thereby acknowledging the existence of daily social differences, violence and injustice. Their publications will look more kindly upon concepts of profit, efficiency and order than on those of justice, democracy and freedom.

What those who, pontificating about their “intransigence before Castroism”, discredit the work of progressive, secular Catholics should understand is that this work isn’t sustained by monetary privileges or pragmatic calculations.

I can personally attest to their humbleness, the moral integrity of their actions and the authenticity of their national and social commitments. I have been witness to their intimate and absolute devotion to their faith and Church.

The dogmatists in power would also do well to understand that the reforms being impelled by President Raul Castro cannot be decided within the confines of expert meetings, that they have to be nourished by a public debate able to steer them in the right direction.

Given its millennia of experience, what the Catholic Church ought to be aware of is that its actions and omissions today will be judged by people and by history. As per a logic of pragmatic calculations and compromises, what all authoritarian interlocutors respect is someone who demonstrates the capacity and confidence to sustain an independent posture before the dominant power.

Since Catholicism is a global institution, the changes being experienced within the Vatican today may have an impact on Cuban reality.

Pope Francisco, without exactly being a revolutionary, has demonstrated the decency and common sense needed to undertake reforms based on a broader notion of justice, and to condemn the shady dealings of the elite and the impunity of the powerful, both within and outside ecclesiastical circles.

Hopefully, these same winds of change will reach the members of and mentalities that abound in Cuba’s clergy, clearing the space for initiatives that respond to demands of social participation and justice, not mere strategic calculations.

We know, as Caribbeans that we are, how unpredictable winds can be. Thus, it would perhaps be wise to prepare ourselves – from the bottom and to the Left – to deal with this bureaucratic, technocratic and ecclesiastical chimera that delays the arrival of Cuba’s democratization.

Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.

2 thoughts on “The Catholic Left and Changes in Cuba

  • How can Canadians contribute to the cost of building this new Catholic Church. Catholicism is universal.

  • Armando Chaguaceda’s columns are thoughtful and carefully presented, reflecting his dedication to political analysis. And yet his above bio description in English (not the one in Spanish) states that he has a “dying passion for politics and social science.” Perhaps it should state “undying.”

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