HAVANA TIMES — The upper echelons of Cuba’s Catholic Church made clear the limits of their alliance with Raul Castro’s government last Sunday when they demanded that the economic reforms that have been underway in the country since 2008 be accompanied by political change.
Twenty years ago, another pronouncement by the Church, titled “Love Conquers All”, sparked off an enormous crisis in the relations between Fidel Castro and the Catholic clergy. The negotiations that preceded Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998 paved the road towards reconciliation.
But it was only after Raul Castro entered office in 2008 that the Cuban State and Church managed to overcome their mutual distrust, to the point that the Catholic Church became the government’s interlocutor in the negotiations for the release of all political prisoners on the island and 3,000 common inmates.
Though this alliance has allowed the State and Church to gain considerable elbow room politically, the opposition faced by President Raul Castro within the communist leadership, and Cardinal Jaime Ortega among the island’s bishops, is far from insignificant.
In its pastoral letter, the Church expressed that “the hopes for a better future include the hope for a new political order,” adding that “we believe it is indispensable for Cuba to bring its legislation in the political sphere up to date.”
The request for such changes was clarified this Monday by the spokesperson of the Episcopal Conference, who stated that “it would be somewhat utopian to imagine elections in the short term, but we can ask the government to hear the voices of individuals who do not follow a specific political line or a strict official orientation.”
In other words, after calling for an opening-up of the political sphere, the Church made it clear it was not asking for multi-party elections but for broader dialogue among “groups and individuals who think differently than the government and whose opinions must be taken into count.”
The Cuban government may also be showing signs of coldness in its bilateral relations with the Church. Vice-President Miguel Diaz Canel’s presence at an activity organized by practitioners of Santeria, the island’s most widely-practiced Afro-Cuban religion, is certainly a sign of closer ties to other religious institutions in the country.
Relations between the Cuban State and the Church were tense following the triumph of the revolution in 1959. The clergy openly supported Castro’s enemies, to the point of collaborating in an operation that sent around 14 thousand children to the United States, without their parents. As for the revolutionary government, it ultimately expelled hundreds of foreign priests and marginalized all religions in the country.
Cardinal Ortega and President Raul Castro, however, seem to have found a way to benefit both of the institutions they represent. The Catholic Church internationally endorsed the Cuban government and, in exchange, the latter yielded to many of the demands voiced by the religious community.
The first personality welcomed by Raul Castro after entering office was a personal envoy of Pope John Paul II. Monsignor Bertoni became the first religious figure who visited Cuba and did not meet with the island’s dissidents.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, also distanced himself from Catholic dissidents, such as the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Paya, who accused the prelate of seeking to create a party ignoring the island’s dissident movement.
Ortega, however, never managed to secure the full obedience of his bishops. During the trial held to clarify the circumstances surrounding Paya’s death, the relatives of the dissident were taken to conferences with the foreign press in vehicles provided by members of the clergy.
Ortega’s Rumored Retirement
Within Catholic circles, it is rumored that Cardinal Ortega will soon retire because of old age and that the hardliners could take over the Church leadership, giving rise to a new era of conflicts with the government.
What’s clear, in any event, is that Raul Castro has very little else to offer the Church. He offered the Church access to jails and hospitals and opened the country’s doors to foreign nuns and priests, a decisive step for a religious institution that has always had a hard time converting Cubans.
Now, the clergy is demanding additional privileges, such as access to education and the media. It is very unlikely, however, that they will be permitted to create private Catholic schools or publish their own newspaper, let alone open radio or television stations, any time soon.
These issues, in any event, are not discussed exclusively in Cuba. Rome also has a big say in all such decisions. The limited number of Catholics on the island makes the Cuban Church more dependent on the Vatican, and the discipline of the clergy is comparable to that which exists within the Communist Party.
(*) Read Fernando Ravsberg’s blog in Spanish.