Cuba’s Big Players: God and the Party

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Catholic Church in Havana. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, May 5 — Around 18 years ago the Cuban press aimed their canons at what an official maligner called “ecclesiastical ophidian knowledge.” The cause was a document made public with title “Bolero facil: el amor todo lo espera” (An easy bolero: the love everyone hopes for).

In it, bishops expressed their concern over the difficult crisis that was impacting the nation as they pled for dialogue and understanding between all Cubans in the interests of national reconciliation.

An attack against this appeared in the Granma newspaper (which publishes nothing without approval from the top echelons), which was read to the general public by announcers at every radio and television station, and published in all of the national and provincial newspapers.

Viewed at a distance, the document of the bishops was not spectacularly critical. It was not much more critical than things that are said or written today in the church media. But those were different times.

Although a truce had been struck since the end of the ‘80s, the ceasing of hostilities referred to “revolutionary” believers, but not to priests. Likewise, the early ‘90s was an exceedingly cruel period for the political class, which was unable to understand the reasons for the mess they themselves had caused.

In addition, this was when Archbishop Ortega y Alamino was preparing to become a cardinal, with all the fears that this implied. The love everyone hoped would come arrived at the least opportune moment, when one could expect anything except love.

But because of that eagerness for political metamorphosis, those with “ophidian knowledge” have become the best allies of the Communist Party. In his recent report to the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), the brand-new first secretary didn’t skimp on a single word in praise of the Catholic hierarchy.

Raul Castro at the recent Communist Party Congress. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Although he was careful in listing almost all the confessions and he began by mentioning the Council of Churches (an ecumenical initiative led by Protestants, but which turned out to be too pro-governmental to be credible for the recent political/humanitarian moves), it is unquestionable that the main course was the Catholic Church.

According to Raul Castro, the Catholic Church is a recognizable patriotic force and one that was appealed to not out of necessity but for understanding. Along with the party, the church could share the dubious glory for securing the release of dozens of political prisoners after they were convicted without consistent judicial procedures (mostly in 2003) and assist in exiling the immense majority of them, a seemingly compassionate ploy to which I will return.

In exchange, the Catholic Church has obtained — in addition to flattering references in the party congress — much greater visibility than in previous decades and new opportunities for action in society. That marks considerable progress for an institution that has accumulated the wisdom and patience of two millennia, and that only a decade and a half ago was compared to snakes: cold, poisonous and slithering.

Personally I congratulate them, as I have applauded them for serving as an intermediary in facilitating the prisoner release and succeeding at reunifications of family members in Cuba and abroad. As always, I have applauded freedom of worship and belief, and the prohibition of all types of discrimination against people for having (or not having) religious beliefs.

Not everything has been is a source of pride for the church

The Catholic Church has had to pay a price for its newfound visibility. Though its upper hierarchy must be sure that all of this will be forgotten when these pages finally go down in history, there are ethical voids that cannot be avoided, especially when it’s an institution that presents itself as the ethical quintessence of all societies and of all times.

Cardinal Ortega greets Jimmy Carter during his recent visit to Cuba. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

I’ve been carefully reviewing the pages of an archdiocesan magazine — Espacio Laical — whose existence and merits I’ve referred to on several occasions. This is a magazine that, like Granma, certainly doesn’t publish anything without the approval of the upper hierarchy.

What powerfully captured my attention was that in February of this year that magazine published an editorial on the “Pacto Social Pact” (Social Pact). In this, it bemoans the existence of “sectors that at this moment are not in tune with the government and that demonstrate enormous inability to recognize its legitimacy and to enter into dialogue with it…” On the other side it praises the general/president who “seeks to contribute to the extent possible to the articulation of a path to national reconciliation.”

The article is long and rich (and highly positive in many senses) but it’s enough for me to refer to a few lines to show how the church is obliged to treat the political situation as a caricature. It says that a key indicator of the host of problems suffered by Cuban society is because some small opposition group doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the government, and that because of this they don’t enter into talks despite the government’s willingness, which is at the least reprehensible.

The Cuban government’s tactics are very clear. It has to make a series of economic changes, ones that will inevitably shift the political chess board. The question is whether this move will be broad enough so that the economic measures work, but sufficiently restricted to avoid bringing into question its own authoritarian structure of power.

That’s why it is selecting the Catholic Church as interlocutor, a predictable institution that cannot seek political power and that for the time being is not interested in altering the rules of the game.

When the general/president appealed to the cardinal to mediate that conflict, he didn’t do it thinking of sharing laurels but of finding someone who could dialogue with groups and individuals with whom it would inevitably be necessary to talk.

Fidel and Raul Castro, April 19, 2011. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

This was particularly the case with the Ladies in White, who were not only exposing the government to the greatest amount of international discredit, but who were also disputing public space with their fragility as their principal weapon against the arrogant governmental omnipotence.

Having done this directly would have put into question the government’s non-recognition of the legitimacy of organizations and actions that had been labeled in official discourse as anti-national and mercenary.

The government’s alliance with the church is, according to Raul Castro, a guarantee of “the unity of the nation” in the face of the “mercenaries” (those who subvert the law and are at the service of “a foreign power”). For those “mercenaries” — an epithet applied to anyone and everyone who substantially contradicts the official line — there is no place under the Castroist sun.

But the church is also (I’m adding this and the general surely knows it) an invaluable support in moments when the battered social base of the system continues to narrow, from the class and generational points of view.

As for the clerical part, its benefit is in the public capital that could be won by it’s being a leading star of “reconciliation.” Even when that generates some present day setbacks, the church is not an institution that worries a great deal about distress in the present; it knows how to let time do its job.

Only the church, as Goethe said, is able easily digest ill-gotten profits. This is what it did during the past decade and a half when it stopped being ophidian waste matter to become the very safeguard of the unity of the nation (but let me make clear: always according to Raul Castro).

A game was played so that both sides would win, only that they played for different time periods: the generals for five more years and the Church for an eternity.


3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Big Players: God and the Party

  • May 5, 2011 at 8:52 pm
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    Haroldo this is good as always!

    I always wonder about the new relationship between the Cuban political elite and the church.
    It is know that Marx said

    “religion is the opiate of the masses”

    So I guess it is very convenient to have religion at hand to be able to subdue the masses with the religious opiate that otherwise could turn rebellious at any given moment without notice. Maybe that is the real reason for the good relations with the church. The more opiate the better for the political elite specially with the hard times.

    To think that at the beginning they threatened with the closing of churches and many other drastic measures. They have come around full circle. After all the church have existed for 2000 years, much longer than any regime and empire and certainly longer that the current cuban regime.

  • May 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm
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    It would be better to say Cubans among priests and bureaucrats… burying the revolution

  • May 5, 2011 at 11:12 am
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    Great again, my friend, really very good

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