Catholic church seeks 'national dialogue' with changing Cuba

By Ecumenical News International
April 8, 2009

At a time of upheaval in Cuba's ruling elite and with international pressure mounting to break the long impasse in relations with the United States, the Roman Catholic Church on the island is urging a "national dialogue".

"Each Catholic, each Christian, each baptised person that makes up the Church has the same expectations as any other person," the recently-elected president of the Cuban Catholic bishops' conference said at the end of March 2009.

In an interview with Palabra Nueva, the newspaper of the Havana archdiocese, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago de Cuba described changes in Cuba as "necessary" and said, "The Church is part of the people."

Cuba's President Raul Castro - the brother of revolutionary leader Fidel who took power in 1959 - announced sweeping government changes in March that he said were aimed at making the administration more compact and efficient.

A delegation of US lawmakers visiting the Caribbean island at the beginning of April said the United States and Cuba should normalise diplomatic relations and then sort out their differences.

Earlier in March, the bishops' conference spokesperson, Orlando Marquez, had urged a "national dialogue" in Cuba, while saying that U.S President Barack Obama and Raul Castro would "send the world a good signal if they demonstrate that an understanding is possible".

Observers say the Catholic Church appears to be positioning itself as a powerbroker in Cuba, having moved away from a once confrontational stance to the Cuban revolution towards a policy of coexistence and later to constructive engagement with the government.

Unlike other religious groups, the Catholic Church through its bishops has at times openly criticised the government, at times being more critical than the Vatican.

Already in 1993, when Cuba experienced an economic crisis after the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe, the bishops issued a critical assessment of the revolutionary process in a pastoral letter titled "Love Hopes for All Things".

Ten years later, again in a pastoral letter, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, mentioned "a generalised fear about the future". He stated that "the widespread lack of hope in the possibility of a more comfortable and stable financial situation free of anxiety drives people to emigrate any way they can."

Meanwhile, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, during a visit to the island nation in February 2008, had pressed for increased opportunities for the Church. "The Church wishes to expand its action to other areas, without limitations, to contribute unwaveringly to the well-being of the Cuban people," said Bertone in a homily at a Mass celebrated in Havana's Cathedral Square.

At times uncompromising criticism is expressed by "unofficial" voices, such as by José Conrado Rodriguez, a priest from the Santa Teresita del Nino Jesus parish in Santiago de Cuba.

In an open letter addressed to Raul Castro in February, Rodriguez urged "a profound review of our criteria and practices, our aspirations and our goals". He warned that, "a nation cannot be established as one commands an encampment." This was seen as a reference to the increasing power of the military within the Cuban government.

Rodriguez also spoke about the sensitive issue of human rights violations, "reflected in the existence of dozens of prisoners of conscience and the battered exercise of the most basic freedoms: speech, information, press and opinion, and serious restrictions on freedom of religion and politics".

Analysts of the Cuban situation have suggested that the Catholic Church makes up the most significant civil society network on the island, with links to Afro-Cubans, women, and human rights groups, as well as the international community.

Local clergy have been active in organizing youth, cultural and educational activities and the Catholic agency Caritas, with thousands of volunteers, provides humanitarian relief in a situation where basic services have seriously deteriorated.

In recent months there have been some openings such as granting citizens access to mobile phones and personal computers, while also introducing measures to foster productivity. But observers say there are still no policies to allow Cubans to engage directly in the politics of their country through civil society organizations.

In his Palabra Nueva interview, Archbishop Garcia noted that the Cuban authorities now have "a more positive understanding" of religion. "We are not foreign agents to our people because we are also the people, the Catholic people," the archbishop said.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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