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Cover story

Catholic Cubans nurture new freedoms

NCR Staff

An announcement was posted on the doors of the courtyard of the Cuban episcopal conference, located in Old Havana, the colonial section of this city.

"The archbishop of Havana informs you that neither the cardinal nor the auxiliary bishop nor any other official has any kind of access to the U.S. Interest Section. We cannot give recommendations for visas or for interviews ... or accept documents to be taken to the section," it read.

Inside a dimly lit sitting room under the solemn gazes of portraits of John Paul II and two Cuban archbishops, the archdiocesan communications director Orlando Márquez attempted to describe the role of the Catholic church in Cuban society.

It is a role reflected in part in the photocopied announcement as this small island, 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, begins to emerge from almost 40 years of socialist rule.

"We cannot be on either side, not with the government, not with the opposition. The U.S. supports anything that opposes the [Cuban] government. The Clinton administration has tried to understand the church as an opposition force, but the church is not an opposition party," Márquez explained in an interview in late May.

This struggle for a position of autonomy amid the polarities makes the vision of Catholics who have lived under socialist rule a unique prism through which to view Cuban society as John Paul II's January 1998 visit approaches. In the normal run of news coverage, Cuba divides easily into two competing camps: Catholics and the revolutionary regime of Fidel Castro. Márquez, however, presented a much more nuanced picture of the Cuban church historically and today.

Relations between the church and the leaders of the revolution were not always riven with tension, according to Márquez. The church, he said, initially supported revolutionary practices such as agrarian reform. Church officials spoke positively about the termination of violence that occurred with the 1959 triumph of the rebels and the departure of dictator Fulgencio Bautista.

Such a stance was possible for the church because the Cuban revolution, Márquez said, "was humanist, not Marxist, until 1961 after the Bay of Pigs, when Fidel spoke the first time about 'consolidating the socialist revolution.' "

Márquez recalled that it was the archbishop of Santiago, Enrique Perez Serantes, who intervened to save the lives of Castro and his coterie of rebels following their historic 1953 attack on the Moncada military garrison. As the story goes, orders were issued to trap and kill the revolutionary leaders following the siege. Perez accompanied the troops in their pursuit to assure that the lives of the rebels were respected. "He knew the military would slaughter them, so he got in a jeep and went there. He took Fidel and company safely to the garrison so they wouldn't be killed," Márquez said.

Tensions erupted, Márquez said, in the 1960s with the closing of Catholic schools and the expulsions of priests, a move that reduced the clergy "from 759 to 200 in one year."

A stigma became attached to religious affiliation, said Cuban Jesuit Fr. Nelson Santana. Those who openly professed their beliefs risked losing privileges such as university enrollment, employment promotions and scholarships to study outside the country. Catholic children, Santana said, were admonished at school, with authorities insisting their parents were caught in the "trappings" of capitalism.

New era for believers

Since 1992 the government of Fidel Castro has increasingly relaxed the official controls on religious practice in revolutionary Cuba. "All of this has ceased. Now it doesn't matter if you are a practicing believer. We are seeing an invasion of medallions and crucifixes, of the beads of santeria. ... People are returning to the church," Santana said.

Constitutionally, in 1992 the government redefined Cuba as a "lay" rather than an "atheist" state and lifted restrictions preventing believers from joining the Communist Party. Informally, too, according to Santana, "the social pressures against practicing the faith have been reduced. ... It's like they stopped squeezing our wrists."

Santana said he believes the Castro government is undergoing a "certain adaptation ... trying to catch up with political changes in the world." The Cuban people, he said, are also forming new impressions of the church: "They now see the church as humanitarian. Before they saw it as anti-humanitarian, priests as anti-scientific."

Márquez cites the Cuban bishops' 1993 pastoral letter, which called for "dialogue and reconciliation," as a turning point in establishing the church's credibility among the people.

"That was a bad time between the government and the church. The letter was poorly received. It was attacked in the official press. Journalists accused the church of being allied with imperialism. But it also raised the church's credibility. The church said in a loud voice what people were feeling here but were not able to express," Márquez said. An agricultural worker and proud member of the Communist Party in a rural cooperative outside Havana illustrated this change of attitude toward the church. He enthusiastically described the pope as "a man of culture who understands our problems." He said the January papal trip is a "significant international event" because "it has been a long time since such an important head of state has visited Cuba."

Interviews with other Catholics reinforced the view of the church as an institution attempting to make Catholic social teachings come alive in Cuba and to offer lessons learned under socialism in the context of a Latin America facing another extreme -- the free market. "Neoliberal" economic programs, representing a relatively unrestrained free market, have come under attack by the region's bishops because of the ways they say such policies exacerbate social inequity and impoverishment.

Considering Cuba's domestic and international experience in the light of Catholic social thought leads to some interesting twists that defy an easy either/or assessment of life in Cuba today.

"Every historical moment has its positive and negative aspects. There are no absolutes," said Dagoberto Valdes, a lay leader from Pinar del Rio, a tobacco and farming province in western Cuba. "We are not in heaven here, but we are not in hell. With socialism, we must ask ourselves what kinds of freedoms we have been afforded and which dimensions of liberation our people still need," he said.

Valdes was critical of the negative aspects of Cuba's political system. At the same time, he emphasized that certain values derived from socialism ought to be preserved, especially in light of the implementation of neoliberal strategies throughout the region.

Restraining free market

"Neoliberalism is not a solution. We must have a just society, not just distributive justice, but something that allows for participation in all of the processes of distribution," Valdes said. "The market economy should not be without ethical regulation. We must put the human person at the center of economic concerns, not technical production or trade."

Cuba, Valdes said, has made strides in this area. "Cuba has achieved development from the perspective of identity, sovereignty, by facing many centers of power. This is a liberating element," Valdes said. "But, while this sovereignty is very developed in relation to confronting foreign risks, I would like to see the same kind of development of the sovereignty of the person. We must have that same sovereignty within each of us to be able to confront things like tourism, to confront those people who want to use Cuba for dirty deals."

Valdes said Cubans must also preserve solidarity even as change occurs. "The biggest source of liberation is solidarity. We must value this more as the culture of individualism bombards us yet again, this mentality of the U.S. dollar, of possessing. We must not let our new economic situation fill us with individual selfishness but rather retain our Cuban personhood, which is humane, fraternal, upholding this over any culture of having or of power," Valdes said.

On the other hand, nearly 40 years of socialism has taken its toll on people's sense of individual dignity, Valdes said. In the early 1990s, he and other Catholics from his region began to realize, he said, "how our fellow Cubans were undergoing a process of depersonalization with the restrictions of freedoms of our system."

He said a small group, supported by Bishop José Siro González Bacallao, began to ask what the church could do to help Cubans "understand their rights, to know themselves freely and exercise their rights as citizens." That reflection led to the creation of the ground-breaking Center of Civic Formation in 1993 and the subsequent founding under its auspices of a magazine called Vitral, which means stained glass. These two projects, according to Valdes, were designed to "translate the social doctrine of the church into civic language" in a context where Catholics, non-Catholics, members of opposition groups and militant communists could come together.

"The objective was to experience in a small group that diversity and pluralism are not bad things, to learn that the objective of community is diversity, not uniformity, not theory. We wanted to get people together to see if that is possible, to dialogue about questions that interest all Cubans," Valdes said. "It's a lesson in democracy, and people can learn in a small group that democracy is enriching for all."

Valdes said people who have participated in the center's civic education workshops have built unexpected relationships. "One Catholic said that the workshop was the first time in his life he had really spoken with a communist, that he learned that fellow Cubans can think differently and discuss things without losing friendship and live together even though we think differently," Valdes said. "First time participants say they enjoy the climate of freedom where their opinions are respected, that they are discovering a sense of freedom they haven't been taught in a uniform society."

Since 1993, 1,500 people have received training at the center. Following the participative teaching methods of the late Paulo Freire, the cycle of 13 workshops begins with "We Are People," where attendees reflect on individual human dignity. They culminate with sessions on economics and politics.

Cathedral workshops

Maria del Carmen Gort leads workshops at the cathedral in Pinar del Rio on Tuesday nights. Before a workshop in early June, she explained the requirements for participation.

"People in the workshop cannot be wanting to leave Cuba, that cannot be their life project. If they have their hearts placed in another land, they are not really interested in what we are doing," said the energetic 31-year-old dentist. "We can resolve our problems here, in an authentically Cuban way, flowering here, where God has placed us."

Gort led a group of 10 participants through a three-hour reflection on political and economic ethics, anchoring the discussion in principles of Christian ethics that "put the human person first over economic priorities -- capital, in the case of capitalism, labor in the case of socialism."

"How do you regulate economics so a society doesn't plunge into greed?" she asked. A young man who said he was openly a member of an opposition party with ties to groups in the United States responded: by raising the awareness of individuals within the community "so they are not tempted by the extremes of neoliberalism."

The group then discussed lessons learned from the abrupt changes in Eastern Europe. One small group turned to a discussion of new service taxes being imposed in Cuba, a development that some find baffling.

Gort ended the session with a summary: "The ideal is that the needs of the society and of the individual go hand in hand, that the common good is provided for, that one doesn't dominate the other. Not economic freedom without justice, or economic planning that is just but denies freedom. A good government has to be the referee in that boxing match."

Valdes said this kind of dialogue is key to the future of Cuba. "If we don't open up these kind of spaces for dialogue within Cuba, we will be sucked smack into neoliberal economic schemes and we will lose what we have gained," he said. "We Cubans are in the best position geographically, economically and in the civic sense to give the rest of Latin America some hope, to offer alternatives. We know both systems. We know the pros and cons. But it's the Cubans that live here -- not the Cubans outside the country -- who must be the protagonists."

Valdes works today as a farm hand. He used to work as an agronomist, but when Vitral, the magazine he helped found, did not shy away from printing essays that were critical of government policy alongside articles on culture, faith and bioethics, authorities told him he could not continue to run the magazine and hold his government job.

"I could have received a salary from the church, but I wanted to maintain my independent status as a lay leader present to the world," Valdes said.

Vitral, published every other month, carries articles from people of all political persuasions, from opposition figures to Communist Party youth activists. Despite this plurality, the publication recently came under scrutiny from the government because of articles that "were not in accordance with the official version of things." High-ranking "ideological," religious and economic advisers came to Pinar del Rio in mid-May to discuss their criticisms with the magazine's directors and collaborators.

"It was a very frank moment. There was lots of laughter -- not at each other but together. It was a very positive exchange, constructive, transparent," Valdes said.

That first formal meeting with the government since the magazine began three years ago, he said, "opened up a new stage in which we are no longer complaining about one another."

Valdes said the government "told me we had to be responsible, because we create public opinion." Vitral, so named because "light finds no inconvenience in arriving at any space," is perhaps the only independent publication of its kind in Cuba.

The sessions with government officials, Valdes said, broadened the space for understanding and dialogue. "We can now sit down and talk about how we can improve Cuba, how we can all serve the country better from the depths of our Cuban identity, taking Cuba as our common point of encounter. We agreed to meet again to get past talking about the themes the magazine touches on to talk about the big themes affecting Cuban life. We agreed that no theme will be taboo."

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997