Pope in Cuba: Trip shows how church playing balancing act

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.

Osservatore Romano/REUTERS
Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate a mass at Revolution Square in Havana March 28. Pope Benedict, speaking from Cuba's biggest stage, urged Cubans on Wednesday to search for "authentic freedom" as their country changes and pressed the island's communist government to give the Catholic Church more liberties, including the right to teach religion in schools and run universities.

Whereas Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba nearly 15 years ago was in itself a historic moment – coming as it did at the end of a dark period for church-state relations in Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island this week was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society, and about gaining more such space.  Those who hoped this pope’s trip would have profound impact on the broader political and human rights context on the island were surely disappointed by the pope’s decision not to meet with Cuban dissidents who asked to see him. 

To some extent, it’s hard to imagine what prominent figure really could sway Cuba’s leaders off of their course to rebuild the economy and leave the one-party political system in place. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I tend to think the Cuban people themselves will be the protagonists of that evolution, even if it takes much longer than some, or many, wish.

But given the ground the Cuban Catholic Church lost decades ago, the ground it has recovered in the past decade, and its priorities for the future near and far, creating more space for those goals must have been the driving factors in the pope’s trip. And perhaps that increased space in society – whether it is the Cuba Catholic Church’s publication of unvarnished criticisms of Raul Castro’s halting economic reforms, or the hoped-for reopening of private Catholic schools in Cuba one day, or Pope Benedict’s request to add Good Friday to the Cuban State’s official calendar – perhaps these advances, and reaches, by the Catholic Church and its offices and members in Cuban society at a crucial time of generational change may help usher in other social and political openings.

That is the road the church has chosen for itself in modern-day Cuba.  Rather than serve as a force for opposition, it looks for opportunities for constructive engagement with the government in ways that it feels can benefit the Cuban people. 

Many observers were aghast when, just before the pope’s visit, Cuban Catholic Church leaders requested that government authorities remove 13 dissidents who had been “occupying” a Havana church for several days. (Accounts differ about how peaceably they were evicted from the church.)  I’m certainly no expert in religious affairs, but many saw this action as the church siding with the oppressor and refusing sanctuary to these dissidents (as houses of worship often do, though usually in situations when someone is fleeing armed conflict). Considering the positive role Cuba’s Catholic Church has played specifically on human rights in Cuba in the past several years, I thought there might be more nuanced views of the cardinal’s decision than I’ve read so far. 

Whatever the Cuban Catholic Church’s failings, let’s remember that it was one of Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s letters to Raul Castro seeking an end to harassment of a peaceful protest group, the Ladies in White, that helped reinstate the group's weekly marches, which had been suspended by the government, and led to a face to face ongoing dialogue with Raul Castro, and the release of all of Cuba’s political prisoners in the following months.

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?

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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