Pope in Cuba: Trip shows how church playing balancing act (+video)
The pope did not meet with dissidents. But his trip was about building on gains the church has won in Cuba, says guest blogger Anya Landau French.
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The Catholic Church in Cuba has for several years been working two fronts, trying to increase its ministry to Cubans’ spiritual and physical needs on a daily and individual level, and trying to increase space for dialogue, tolerance, and reconciliation. And while it has eschewed a more overtly political role, it’s been known to speak out on human rights and governance issues that affect the welfare of the population. It has succeeded in influencing the Cuban government into not merely ceding the increased space, but proudly celebrating that new space. For example, Raul Castro attended the opening of the church’s new seminary in Havana last year. What other nongovernmental group has such influence in Cuba?Skip to next paragraph
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In some cases, the church’s effort has meant getting directly involved in specific human rights cases, whether it concerned the increased harassment of the Ladies in White two years ago, or the release of Cuban political prisoners in 2010 and 2011 which church leaders helped negotiate. Many have criticized Ortega for his role in the releases, since dozens of prisoners and their families were first just offered freedom in exile (in Spain). Perhaps some of those dissidents didn’t believe that the government would truly let them go free in Cuba and surely others wanted to leave a country – the government sweetened the deal by letting them bring their entire extended families with them – that offered them little but bad memories. But about a dozen others refused that first offer and though they were the last to be released, they were all released and allowed to remain in Cuba, keeping to the agreement the church said it had with the Cuban government.
When it comes to drawing the church into politics, just how mighty is its influence with Cuba’s leaders? And where is the line between seeking refuge in a church and seeking political leverage at the expense of one? These are not easy questions, and they should not negate the very valid societal concerns that the group of dissidents wished to raise when they chose to occupy the church. The dissidents presented a list of improvements in rights and living conditions that surely every Cuban wants, but which the church could not possibly be expected to deliver (nor could Pope Benedict, with whom the group demanded an audience). The aim of the group, then, was to put the church in an impossible situation just days before the most important occasion for the Catholic Church in Cuba in over a decade. That – and, to be fair, to at least raise these concerns publicly, as news of a church occupation days before the pope’s arrival would surely do.
But the archdiocese felt it was being drawn into a political tug of war. “Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches,” said the Havana Archdiocese’s spokesman, Orlando Marquez. And even other Cuban dissidents were quick to distance themselves from the tactic of using a house of worship to achieve political aims. But they were just as, if not more, critical of the decision to turn the occupiers out. So if the tactic of occupying a house of worship was inappropriate, but eviction was not an appropriate response, how else might the situation have been resolved? I, for one, haven’t got the answer, and I haven’t heard any of the cardinal’s numerous critics come up with one, either.
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