Cuba Church Occupations and Marked Cards

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

HAVANA TIMES, March 20 — The recent occupation of several Catholic church buildings by opposition groups — including one which a dozen protesters maintained in the capital for 48 hours — is putting on the table another sign of how politics in Cuba is beginning to be played.

Likewise, the persistency of other disruptive acts that the government likes to describe as “unusual situations.”

I don’t believe that this incident in itself will attain long-term historical significance. An unknown opposition group calling itself the “Partido Republicano” (the Republican Party, a terrible name given its analogy) mobilized a couple dozen of its members to occupy four churches in the country, finally achieving that objective in one case – in the capital.

The Catholic Church reacted immediately by condemning the action while the government waited expectantly and lent space in the pharaonic Granma for the ecclesiastical authorities to make their opinions known and at the same time explicitly mention its romance with the political powers.

The opposition — almost in a bloc — also exhibited their disagreement with the church occupation. However this consensus was broken by anti-Castrist business people in Miami, who welcomed the occupations and made their traditional prediction about the beginning of the end for the Cuban government.

There are, of course, questions about this incident that will be disclosed in the future. The first of those is who is behind this Republican Party, which proved itself capable in its first public action of mobilizing two dozen people, an astronomical figure for an opposition that is fragmented, repressed and infiltrated by the police.

In this last sense, we can ask ourselves up to what point did the so-called organs of state security know about this action and simply allowed it to take place — or possibly encouraged it — in order to suddenly position themselves as worthy of the Church in this relationship of institutional romance where anything can be expected.

I say this because ultimately the sole net winner in all this has been the Cuban government.

Notwithstanding, I’ll leave these and other speculations for the future and to those who love conspiracy theories so as to focus myself on another axis of analysis.

This isn’t about assessing if this incident is currently pertinent or to enter into debates about whether it was an act that was respectful of an authority that supposedly deserves such reverence.


What I want to point now is that it is an act marked by the political interest of groups that are without a public voice, and that they are doing nothing other than trying to share as much of the visibility as well as the relative permissibility as that which is enjoyed by the ecclesiastical authorities.

It is a price that the government must pay when playing to the restricted opening that has benefitted the Catholic Church in exchange for public support. But this must also be paid by the heirs of Peter and Paul for trying to conserve a protected autonomous space in a society where no one has any of this.

It is, in short, something that will continue happening in this limited opening of spaces that signals the slow and unplanned transition from a totalitarian system to another authoritarian one. That’s to say, the transition from a non-democratic system that aspires to control everything to another one that is also undemocratic but only aspires to control the fundamental reins of power.

Without going into the differences of the two systems regarding the opposition, what’s fundamental for both is obviously unchallenged political power, an indispensable condition for the sweet bourgeois metamorphosis of the post-revolutionary elite.  

Up until this moment, the visit by Pope Benedict XVI had been evaluated as a sort of win-win game of luck in which everyone would come out on top.

The government was going to win by opening up an international door without conditions, while the Church was going to win by placing itself in the intense spotlight of the “pope-mobile” and solidifying its commitments with the government.

Even the Cuban nation was going to win with the new rapprochement between the diaspora and the insular community. Likewise, there was the opposition, enjoying the speculation about a supposed meeting with Pope Benedict, which whether he granted it to them or not would allow it to hoard political visibility.

But something accidental has occurred in this exacting game with marked cards: no one counted on the militancy of other small opposition groups that have also demanded there places in the sun.

Even if in the future it is confirmed that this incident was manipulated by Havana or Miami, the conclusion will be the same: Politics is fluid, like the economy.

This is something that Cuba’s leaders aren’t accustomed to because for half a century they have practiced politics that are controlled down to the smallest detail and have organized without any another communication between themselves than that which was authorized by their own political elite.

But that was an abnormal state that’s now changing. What’s happening now is that people are looking for opportunities wherever there are, like in the economy; so if churches offer that opportunity, that’s where the happy band will run.


There are visible costs in what has happened.

 The distance adopted by the opposition isn’t explained in and of itself; because this same opposition has also resorted to their own “unusual situations” over time and has requested support when its members have been attacked in public.

— The Catholic Church, in turn, has been obligated to speak out on this incident, though it has done this in a less than convincing manner, describing the action as “illegitimate and irresponsible” and condemning “all acts that seeks to convert the church into a site of political demonstrations.”

This is something incongruous if we keep in mind how costly this is for an institution — one which proclaims itself to be pluralistic — to condemn only one side in a game in which everyone is seeking to win space.

This is also coming from an institution that has always made its spaces (church buildings and even the pulpits) places for promoting politics – sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the bad.

 Only the Cuban Government has won, simply saying nothing or next to nothing. It limited itself to waiting on that same Church to ask it for an exercise in muscle that has wound up being exemplarily soft; at least it has ended up being consecrated as such. It has provided a public display of good sense, moderation, a spirit of collaboration and the willingness for an opening.

Certainly this is very distant from the way that this same government arrests, defames and harasses everyone who tries to use their innate rights to free expression. It is a tribute to the visit of Ratzinger at a time when the cameras are flashing on Havana.

I imagine that now the official allegations will come about the imperialistic conspiracy, the lawlessness of the occupants or how money from the Miami mafia financed everything. This will be an entire story for the poorly paid official bloggers, and it’s probable that it will be the total or partial truth.

But I believe that if indeed a group of citizens decided to occupy church buildings to demonstrate their points of view given their lack of opportunities to do so otherwise, then they are completely in the right.


It’s just like the Ladies of White marching up Fifth Avenue, the Estado de Sats presenting its colloquiums, bloggers writing their posts, the Critical Observatory imagining socialism in another manner and so many other people who are entitled to think that things can be done differently and better in the country where they were born.

Like the young fighters against the Batista dictatorship when they kidnapped the Argentinian race car driver Luis Manual Fangio, let’s never forget that the right that we deny someone else is the same one that will later deny us.

The impertinence that we attribute to someone is the same that they will then attribute to us.

I believe that the government as well as the Catholic Church should do a re-reading of this situation understanding that this opposition has come to stay, that one cannot open little parcels reserved for criticism and expect those who are excluded to respect them.

You cannot maintain a system that is so hard and so fragile without expecting a final catastrophe that concerns us all. I believe it’s time for the bishops and generals to definitively understand that the homeland is for all of us.

In any case, returning to a previous matter, I also believe that something good will come of the visit by Ratzinger to Santiago and Havana.

At this moment, the most visible thing is the repair of streets and buildings where the head of the Catholic Church will pass, which according to Cubans is a firm base for its future beatification. Well, they do say that Ratzinger can make miracles.

(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by