Between the Gun and the Cassock / Miriam Celaya

Crucifixion. Work of Cuban painter Tomás Sánchez

A debate encounter sponsored by the Catholic digital publication Espacio Laical took place on Saturday, October 29th, 2011. The agency EFE, the leading Spanish news agency, reported the event in a very laudable manner, as published on October 30th on the digital site Cubaencuentro. The report states that “The new role that the Catholic Church in Cuba has undertaken has provided forums for dialogue where even a dissident or a controversial academician are able to exchange their views in public with a leading intellectual public official.” Additionally, it exposes details of the intervention of the founder of the Institute of Art and the Cinematographic Industry (ICAIC) and the director of the Latin American New Film Festival, Alfredo Guevara, who “gave a lecture on Cuba’s current challenges” by addressing issues of economic adjustments, the problem of bureaucracy and the need to understand diversity and tolerance in today’s Cuba.

Present at the event were Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the official academic Esteban Morales, the economist and former political prisoner of the Black Spring group, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, and a group of students, intellectuals, economists, foreign diplomats and “local and foreign journalists.” The press release does not specify who these local journalists were, but they are presumed to be representatives of the official press, since there has not been any editorial opinion about said encounter from independent journalists and bloggers.

Nor did the official media give coverage to such a significant event, though one of the topics discussed was precisely in relation to the limitations of the press in Cuba and “the concealment of information to citizens,” as discussed by dissident economist Espinosa Chepe, who was very positive about debates that are “civilized, not offensive, without exclusions or absurd prejudices, because ideological diversity does exist in Cuba”, and he indicated that it was enough just to walk outside to listen to people’s criticism. As part of his response, Guevara considered that secrecy had to end “radically”.

Another of the aspects that EFE’s report emphasizes is the opinion of many of the meeting’s attendees about “the new role being played by the Catholic Church, providing spaces for dialogue on issues of all kinds and incorporating diverse opinions” and it added that “Cardinal Ortega himself stated last Friday that the Church is experiencing a new relationship with the State and the people of Cuba, and he confirmed that the dialogue initiated last year with Raúl Castro and his government continues, and it affects all areas of national life, including the adjustment process to ‘update’ the socialist model.”

In reality, we must recognize that any debate space that opens up for dialogue in a nation so tense and fragmented as ours, will, indeed, be positive. However, it would be desirable that the intentions professed should correspond more consistently with the facts. Let’s say that no debate about the actual Cuban reality should be considered inclusive when among the participants there is barely one representative of the broad array of non-official opinion – call them dissidents — of all of society, when not one member is invited from independent journalism or from alternative civil society that has emerged ever so strongly in the past few years, and other numerous and young voices that have much to say and to which so many venues have been denied.

One of the notable absentees at this event is the Catholic layman Dagoberto Valdés editor of the magazine Vitral, for many years and current host of the group’s wonderful magazine Convivencia. There have been many cultural, literary and civic activities developed by this group of people from Pinar del Rio, led by Dagoberto, in defense of diversity, freedom, and Cubanism; however, they don’t seem to qualify to take part in the debate of Espacio Laical.

There were also no representatives from the Cuban Law Association to offer an alternative view on the new legislation that is being announced, and the decrees that have been introduced in the very highly publicized process of government reforms.

Neither the Catholic Church nor Espacio Laical can be considered “new spaces” as they offer just the stage where discussions are confined to the thematic framework of the same old speeches disguised as reform, dictated by the same old speakers that have thrived for more than half century in the high politics of the country, apparently without perceiving any errors in the system. If those are the guiding voices, we are not before what is new or innovative, but rather in the presence of an opportunistic mutation of the same and already long-lived deadly disease.

Cardinal Ortega’s approach also seems, at the very least, ambiguous, since the idea that the Church is experiencing a new relationship with the Cuban people and their “dialogue” covers all areas of national life, including so-called process of updating the socialist model. At least regular Cubans do not seem to feel the presence of the Church in their lives, full of all kinds of shortages and lack of places to express themselves. Monsignor Ortega is far from being considered a representative of the feelings of the Cuban people, and, so far, he doesn’t seem to have as close a relationship with them as he does with the General. Nor can I understand the relationship between the purple and the olive green dialogue or their intention to renew socialism. It would seem that the Cardinal might soon receive his Cuban Communist Party membership card.

In fact, this Espacio Laical event has been full of the same secrecy that was so criticized in the encounter: there were no calls to attend, no invitation to all active opinion sectors, or media coverage of the conference and debates, or transparency. It was as if it were a conspiracy to care for a sacred venue, safe from the sacrilegious agitators who make embarrassing pronouncements, who plant themselves, who demand rights, who express themselves respectfully but without hiding their opinions. Apparently, new parameters have been established that maintains tight departments or niches, neither more nor less than the feedback of a new sectarianism, now scented with wax and incense.

Espacio Laical has often published brave and honest editorials, and has, in more than one occasion, expressed opinions and put forth questions that reflect the concerns of thousands of Cubans, but, in this case, it must be recognized that in practice it’s losing the opportunity to demonstrate true commitment for dialogue, because one cannot ignore players who have been marking the beat on the transformation of Cuban public opinion long before the government is forced to occasionally temper its discourse or to implement –much to their dismay- the limited economic and social changes that seem to dazzle the press today.

The Cardinal, meanwhile, played a positive role as a mediator for the release of prisoners of conscience, but their freeing could not have been possible without the courage and perseverance of the Ladies in White, without the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas and without the ongoing activities of journalists and independent bloggers. None of them were invited to the event last Saturday, perhaps because the Catholic Church delicately does not allow itself the risk of offending the speeches of the holy hierarchy with the more legitimate civil claims, or because perhaps it considers the people of this country so inept that they can only be represented either by guns or cassocks.

Thus, I would argue that the real opportunities for dialogue have been taking place spontaneously outside of institutions. The Estado de SATS (where Art and thought converge) the groups OMNI ZONAFRANCA, the Blogger Academy, Voces digital magazine, the group Convivencia, some of these spaces are inclusive, where all opinions are welcome, where debates don’t have stiff moderators surfeited with authority, or require the previous dictate of some anointed official. Good for Espacio Laical if it decides to promote and maintain a new debate forum, albeit half-hearted, but – let’s be fair — the event this past October 29th was neither so unprecedented nor a dialogue.

Translator: Norma Whiting

November 11 2011