Cuba’s Catholic Church and Its Detractors

By Vicente Morin Aguado

Cardinal Jaime Ortega speaks at Harvard in April 2012. photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Days before the expected visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI in late March, a group of people without any special political affiliation occupied the “Basilica of Our Lady of Charity” in Havana, trying to remain in the church like asylum-seekers in an embassy.

At the same time, they demanded to present a list of demands to the Pope.

The Cuban Catholic Church didn’t accept the idea of a prolonged stay in the temple. According to the authorities, the occupants were “invited to leave by the police,” who didn’t threaten to formally charge them.

Upon being removed from the temple, they were taken to the nearest police station and subsequently returned to their homes.

The Pope came, held two Masses with massive public attendance, and returned to the Vatican. A letter was recently sent from the Holy See to Cuban President Raul Castro, from which I quote:

“I wish to express my thanks for the exquisite hospitality extended to me during the unforgettable days I spent in your country with a special remembrance in prayer, imploring the Almighty that Cuba continue advancing with determination along the paths of freedom, solidarity and harmony for the common good and a straight line of progress for all of its sons and daughters.”

“Freedom, solidarity, harmony and common good” – let’s not forget the words of the Bishop of Rome. Now it’s good to remember precedents, for forgetful minds, which seem to question what they know full well in advance.

The preceding year, Cuba went through the release of all of its “prisoners of conscience,” a process in which the Catholic Church served as a mediator. This should be highlighted, since there wasn’t any negotiation between, say, prisoners and family members on one side and the government on the other.

Obviously, not wanting to talk directly — since the offer was unilateral — the Church was the intermediary.

Also visiting Cuba during that period was the then foreign minister of Spain, Miguel Angel Moratinos. The prisoners were slowly emerging from prison, most traveling to Madrid, others to Washington, and a few (around 12 from what I understand) deciding to stay in Cuba.

It is an irrefutable truth that the Spanish foreign ministry demanded formal statements from the released prisoners about traveling to his country or any other nation saying there departures were completely voluntary.

Once again an “eagle flew over the sea,” as the current Pope made his Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre pilgrimage across the country, traveling more than 30,000 miles and being welcomed by millions of Cubans.

Then, before the Pope’s arrival, several people tried to take over the temple located in the Centro Havana neighborhood, a church specially dedicated to the patroness of Cuba (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre).

Certainly churches aren’t embassies in which one can ask for permanent refuge or political asylum. Likewise, courts are the sole institutions that have the power to declare people criminals or not, and sentence according to the punishable offense.

All Catholic churches belong to the same state: the Vatican. Each country, including this tiny territory, has only one diplomatic headquarters in any other nation. It’s not often that the offer is made to exercise the “right of asylum,” which requires a serious analysis before it is granted.

This is reiterative, but it’s necessary to repeat that the Cuban Catholic Church is not a party of the opposition. On this matter Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega Alamino has said:

“The Cuban state does not have an ally or an enemy in the Church. The Church doesn’t expect any privileges. In any case, for itself, the recognition of its right to freely fulfill its mission.”

What are the opponents demanding from the current government when they say or imply that the Catholic Church in Cuba is in agreement with the Communist Party or that it works for it?

Throughout the drawn-out process of the release of Cuban political prisoners, which took months and involved more than a hundred of them, neither the secular nor ecclesiastical authorities of the country nor the foreign diplomats heard any complaints about pressures being applied against those individuals on their way to freedom.

It was a difficult moment, but the history of Cuba reveals several similar situations where those engaged in struggle felt their dignity affected in some way and they expressed their disagreement without fear of possible reprisals. I won’t cite cases, preferring not to offend anyone. Like the popular saying goes: What we know, we don’t question.

Regarding the Church’s position on Cuba, nothing has changed in the past fourteen years since, when before boarding his plane, Pope John Paul II said:

“All Cubans are called upon to contribute to the common good in a climate of mutual respect and with a deep sense of solidarity.”

Yet for now, the debate remains regarding certain controversial expressions made by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Days will come and with them new clarities. Yet there’s one thing I’m sure about right now: God’s law doesn’t allow cheating.


3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Catholic Church and Its Detractors

  • The RCC goes along to get along.

    The RCC sent birthday greetings to Hitler on his birthday.
    It forbade its priests from joining the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua where Somoza’s rule was so bad that after he was in exile in Paraguay (?) a few years his car was bazooka-ed and he was blown to pieces.

    It’s how the church operates.i

  • As an “intermediary” it would imply that the RCC in Cuba would need to have a balanced relationship between the opposition and the government. By my recollection, I have never seen a photo of Cardinal Ortega and Yoani Sanchez, or Berta Soler or any other public opposition figure. Such a photo would give immeasurable credibility to the opposition effort. On the other hand, Ortega appears quite comfortable rubbing shoulders with President Castro, both in public and in private. On appearances alone, the RCC in Cuba seems biased toward the government.

  • Cuban authorities arrested dissidents Vladimir Calderón and Julio Beltrán on April 28. Their crime? The two men were accused of passing out anti-government flyers and organizing an anti-government march on May 1. Both men were publicly beaten as they were arrested.

    If anyone should be held responsible should something happen to Calderón and Beltrán while in custody, I point a finger squarely at Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

    The crux of this story lies in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the island. Dissident groups saw an opportunity to have this self-proclaimed man of peace intercede with the government for them, or at the very least acknowledge them. Many Cuban dissident groups are Catholic, including the country’s best known opposition group, The Ladies in White.

    Calderon and Beltrán’s group, the Republican Party of Cuba, is small and mostly unknown. They meet and pray together on the 13th of every month at the Church of the Virgin of Charity in central Havana, a crumbling neighborhood of tremendous poverty and crime just outside the city’s tourist belt.

    When they learned of the Pope’s impending visit, they prepared a list of demands they hoped the pontiff would discuss with President Raul Castro. The demands included freedom for political prisoners, a stop to the repression of dissidents, freedom to travel, freedom of association, economic freedom, access to private property, internet access, wage increases, more food for children and a dialogue between the government and its opposition. Pretty standard stuff, at least for those of us living under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    Their idea was to deliver the list to the Pope via the Church of the Virgin of Charity. But when presented with the document, the parish priest refused to accept it, thus setting off a complicated back and forth between the dissidents and the archbishop’s office. The dissidents, fearing they’d be victims of a government rapid-response mob outside the church, refused to leave until a church official came to talk to them.

    And what did Cardinal Ortega do? He requested that members of the national police force enter the church and forcibly remove the group of 13 men, women and children, sanctuary be damned.

    The Pope came and went from Cuba, salsa dancing with the excommunicated Fidel (in 1962), saying not a word about, nor once acknowledging, never mind meeting with, any of the dissidents.

    And then the Cardinal went to Harvard.

    Ortega said the entire incident, which he described as the “occupation” of the Church of the Virgin of Charity, had been a plot planned by Miami exiles against the government.

    And the dissidents? “They were a group that – this pains me a lot – all of them were former delinquents,” said the Cardinal. “There was a former Cuban prisoner who had been returned to Cuba, he had been in prison for six years and was one of the excludable people who were sent to Cuba […] among them were people without any cultural level, some with psychological disturbances.”

    The Miami Herald broke down the background of group’s members. They are mostly working class people (one survives by fixing lighters), but several have a college education and professional careers, including Calderón.

    The extraordinary thing, to me, in the Cardinal’s declaration, though, is his use of the word “delinquent”: a government favorite to discredit its critics.

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