HAVANA TIMES, June 23 (IPS) — The talks between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government are unprecedented in several respects in this socialist island nation, and this should be taken into account by the international community, experts say.
“One important new precedent is that internal actors are accomplishing more than international pressure has achieved,” Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born scholar on international relations and Latin American politics who lives in the United States, told IPS on a visit to the island last week.
The Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at the University of Denver, Colorado said both the U.S. government and the European Union should follow “the signals” sent out and “keep their ears open” to what Catholic archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega, for example, might have to say.
Cardinal Ortega and the president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, Dionisio García, met for more than four hours with President Raúl Castro on May 19 — a meeting that marked the start of what the Church hopes will be an ongoing process.
In the talks, the Church leaders asked the government to improve the situation of political prisoners and their families. Since then, one dissident has been released on parole and 12 others were moved to prisons closer to their hometowns.
The 13 form part of the original group of 75 dissidents handed lengthy sentences in 2003 on charges of treason for conspiring with the United States to destabilize the government, 52 of whom are still in prison. (The Cuban government does not recognize the existence of political prisoners and says all dissidents are mercenaries in the pay of Washington.)
Jorge Domínguez, a Cuban-born Latin American studies professor at Harvard, said the truly novel aspect of the dialogue between the Church and the government does not have to do with the bishops, but lies in the attitude of the authorities.
Domínguez and López-Levy were in Cuba as the result of an invitation to take part in a Jun. 16-19 social forum organized by the Church in Havana.
What is new about the dialogue process is that the government made it public, which means it is prepared to continue using this channel in the future, and that there might be a “coincidence of interests,” Domínguez told IPS.
In his view, publicizing the process is, first and foremost, a signal to the governing Communist Party, but also to the world. He said that since the talks, the tension and external pressures triggered by the death of prisoner Orlando Zapata after a more than 80-day hunger strike have begun to ease.
Among other positive signals, the EU agreed on Jun. 14 to postpone until September its decision on the “common position” that has governed the bloc’s relations with Cuba since 1996.
The common position, which has the stated aim of encouraging a gradual, peaceful transition towards a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and basic freedoms in Cuba, is seen by the Cuban government as meddling in this country’s internal affairs and a hurdle to the full normalization of ties with the European bloc.
“I have always believed Raúl Castro is a practical man who tries to solve problems,” Domínguez commented, speculating that it was along those lines that the government decided to accept the Church leadership’s suggestions with respect to the humanitarian measures for political prisoners and a halt to public hostility towards the Ladies in White, a group of wives, daughters and mothers of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003.
Political scientist Rafael Hernández, the editor of the Cuban cultural and political magazine Temas, clarified to journalists that the Church is “contributing to a dialogue,” but is not “mediating” between the government and the opposition.
“I believe that what is happening is a very good thing, which has had objective, concrete results, and that the Church is doing it very effectively. But it is not mediating in a political conflict,” Hernández told the press on the last day of the social forum organized by the Church.
On the same occasion, Havana Auxiliary Bishop Juan de Dios Hernández said the dialogue would “take time” and that not only the results should be taken into consideration, but also the different aspects and the process itself, which he said would not come to a halt.
“In things like this, it’s good to be patient, otherwise there is a risk that the process will be aborted,” he underlined.
As part of the contacts between the government and the Church hierarchy, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, visited Cuba last week, and met with President Castro Sunday.
This year is the 75th year of uninterrupted ties between Havana and the Vatican. According to Mamberti, one of the Pope’s aims is to “bolster dialogue” between local churches and the authorities in different countries.
Relations between the Church and the government were extremely tense for years after the 1959 revolution. But the tension began to ease in the 1980s, and today Church-State relations are in the midst of a process of overall improvement.