HAVANA TIMES, May 22 (IPS) — Talks between the government of President Raúl Castro and leaders of the Catholic Church in Cuba may alleviate internal tensions and lead to the release of political prisoners, although the dialogue should be extended to include other social sectors in the country, religious leaders and analysts told IPS.
Castro met Wednesday with the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and with the head of the Cuban bishop’s conference, archbishop Dionisio García, to discuss “matters of common interest” and the “favorable development of relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban state,” according to official sources.
The meeting, requested by the Church, went on for over four hours, and touched on topics like conditions of prison inmates and the Ladies in White, who hold a peaceful protest march every Sunday demanding the release of their husbands and sons, who they consider political prisoners.
In early May the cardinal successfully interceded with the authorities for the silent protests to be allowed without hindrance.
At a press conference Thursday, Ortega said the conversations “got off to a magnificent start” and “must continue soon.” He confirmed that the issue of the prisoners is being addressed “seriously” and said it was an ongoing issue, which the Church hoped would be favorably resolved.
In Cardinal Ortega’s view, the meeting with Castro implied support for the Church’s efforts as a mediator, as well as “recognition” of its role as an interlocutor.
Urgent need to open paths of hope
Among the expectations aroused by the meeting, some religious experts are already saying that it could be the start of a series of meetings that could be joined by representatives of diverse sectors of Cuban society.
“There is an urgent need for efforts that contribute to opening up paths of hope, and I think the ‘mediator role’ of the Catholic Church between the authorities and the rest of civil society is very positive,” Cuban anthropologist María Ileana Faguada, a scholar of religions of African origin, told IPS.
However, she pointed out the risk of excluding groups in society. In order to prevent this the participation of other mediators is essential, and “would be the only valid way to attempt to listen to as many voices as possible, in a society that urgently needs to progress towards pluralism,” she said.
In fact, the Cuban Council of Churches, made up of most of the country’s Protestant churches, asked Castro for a similar meeting, which could take place very soon, Enrique López Oliva, secretary of the Cuban chapter of the Commission for the Study of the History of the Church in Latin America (CEHILA-CUBA), told IPS.
López Oliva said that about 20 years ago, then President Fidel Castro met with leaders of Cuban churches and ecumenical movements, and subsequently with representatives of the Catholic Church, although there was no follow-up to these talks, as some religious sectors had hoped.
But “the present context is different, both domestically and internationally,” and the need for exchanges of this kind is becoming pressing, in order to foment a new national consensus and begin a new phase in the search for solutions to serious national problems, López Oliva said.
Baptist pastor Raúl Suárez, who 20 years ago founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre, a multi-faith organization of Christian inspiration, told IPS that any effort to strengthen unity among Cubans helps the movement towards a society with more justice and human dignity, “which we all want.”
“We’re glad that the country’s leadership and the Catholic Church have had this friendly meeting, with prospects for improving and strengthening relations,” said Suárez, who has been a member of the Cuban parliament for the past several years.
One of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003 on charges of conspiring with a foreign power (the United States) to destabilize the Cuban state, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who is on conditional release from prison on health grounds, told IPS that “all Cubans of goodwill, whether believers or not,” should support the efforts of the Catholic Church leadership.
According to reports from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, headed by dissident activist Elizardo Sánchez, there are 200 people imprisoned for political reasons on the island. The government claims that all dissidents are mercenaries in the pay of Washington and does not recognize the existence of “political prisoners.”
Dissident Guillermo Fariñas — not a detainee — has been on hunger strike since Feb. 24 to demand the release of at least 26 political prisoners whose state of health is poor, but the government has said it will not give in to blackmail or similar pressure.
Fariñas began his fast the day after imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata died on the 85th day of a hunger strike.
At the press conference, Ortega said that two priests, Ramón Suárez and José Félix, twice visited Fariñas in hospital in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, where he is in intensive care, and asked him to have confidence in the Church’s efforts on the prisoners’ behalf.