In Cuba, there have been few priests who have bended their knees on the ground with the poor and persecuted, like Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop assassinated in 1980. Or the Peruvian, Brazilian, Colombian and Spanish Jesuits who, in 1972, founded the Theology of Liberation.
This defense of the most underprivileged and those repressed for their ideas, was outstanding during the Republican period (1902-1958). And almost nil in the 53 years of government commanded by the olive-green Castros. Before the War of Independence, the Catholic hierarchy was in favor of the Spanish metropolis.
Although there were exceptions, such as Spanish or Cubans Fray Bartolomé de las Casas; Antonio María Claret, Archbishop Emeritus of Santiago de Cuba; Prebístero Félix Varela; Juan José Díaz de Espada, Bishop of Havana; Evelio Díaz, Bishop of Pinar del Rio; Ismael Testé, pastor of the Church of Pilar, Archbishop Pedro Meurice and Father José Conrado.
Among the most significant are Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal and Enrique Perez Serantes (Pontevedra 1883-Santiago de Cuba 1968), Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and Primate of the Catholic Church in Cuba. In the 50s, Perez Serantes maintained strong links with the July 26th Movement, a political organization that turned into an armed organization to fight against the Batista dictatorship, from the coup of March 10, 1952. Santiago Archbishop not only denounced the violence in the country, if not openly collaborated with the rebels, in whose ranks were many devotees of Catholicism.
But on the island practicing Catholics were never the majority. For a long time, the leaders of the Archdiocese have looked dog-faced the growing influence of Afro-Cuban, Protestant and evangelical religions among the citizenry. After Fidel Castro, with his holy war in the 60’s, turned Catholic schools in barracks and expelled a third of the Catholic clergy.
Sunday Masses are given in empty temples. The cleric champions weathered the storm as they could. And in the 90s, by government strategy, the door was opening to Catholicism. With the regime standing and the priests on their knees.
It is good that the church struggles to expand its minimum spaces. But they should not discard the Bible so quickly in their negotiations with the autocracy. While they dialogue with fine wines in the capital and other provinces, the slums have tripled.
Today, Cuba is among the five countries with the highest prison population in the world. The future is a bad word. There are so many prostitutes it’s scary. And psychotropic drugs are as common among adolescents as drinking rum.
The escape valve from the precarious life is not exactly to go to Catholic churches to hear sermons. People prefer to take refuge in witchcraft or other, sometimes bizarre, beliefs. When young people don’t find a spiritual response, they throw themselves into the sea in a rubber boat, at the risk of becoming a snack for the sharks.
Also of concern is the absence of mulattos and blacks in the Catholic hierarchy. In a largely mestizo nation, the message sent has racist overtones. If the national church has not been a refuge for Santeria, babalaos, and other cultivators of the Yoruba religions, imagine it for the beleaguered dissidents.
In mid-March, allowing the political police to go into a temple in Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega slammed the table with his authority and conveyed a message loud and clear to the opposition that they are not welcome at this meal. The clergy forget something. Under any circumstances, present or future, we must have dissent. He achieved nothing except to exacerbate passions.
Externally, Cardinal Ortega has done a commendable task. In 14 years, two Popes have made pilgrimages to one of the least Catholic nations on the continent.
At the Pope’s Mass in Santiago de Cuba, on Monday, March 26, a Cuban screamed “Down with communism!” Hitting him they took him away. So far, we do not know his identity and whereabouts. At Mass on Wednesday 28 in Havana, there were no incidents, but some Cubans dared to express their opinions to the foreign press.
Benedict could not spend ten minutes taking a picture with the Ladies in White, who for nine years, since April 2003, have been attending Mass every Sunday in the Church of Santa Rita. Or five minutes to give a rosary to a representation of the opponents who have professed Catholicism their whole lives. But in his busy schedule he had half an hour with Fidel Castro. Perhaps, as Juan Juan Almeida wrote, the meeting between the Pope and the ex-leader, also served to give the last rites to the one responsible for the endless nightmare of the Cuban people.
What the peaceful opposition in Cuba has suffered for half a century, far outweighs the bitter accusations and expulsions of priests and nuns by Fidel Castro in the 60’s. In five decades, dozens of opposition members have died in prison due to ill-treatment, executions and hunger strikes. And hundreds have been banished or forced into exile.
In their humid galleys, almost all political prisoners had a little Bible and found praying before sleeping a comfort. Many received pastoral visits and more than one converted to Catholicism while in prison. If Jaime Ortega disappointed anyone with his rudeness, it is the dissent that worships Jesus.
The Archbishop should pressure the government to engage with the opposition. Sit down and negotiate inescapable rights such as freedom of expression and association, which allow independent groups in society, whether or not they are protesters. It’s a positive that the church will continue to increase its pastoral and social spaces. And hopefully one day Cuban children will study in Catholic schools, similar to those existing before 1959.
Jaime Ortega should have more tact in dealing with dissent. While in Cuba, by tradition, the Catholic hierarchy has always rubbed shoulders with the power, the Cardinal could rethink their strategies. Keeping the smiley face just for those in power, the Church of Christ will lose more members. Cubans continue to baptize their children at home and keep the images of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Charity. But prefer to bet on other religions. This is what is happening.
Side comment from Tania Quintero:
The Pope’s visit has been a shame and a great putting on of an act. The regime, to seek publicity and hard currency, and the Vatican, to get a slice the totalitarian cake, with the complicity of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
Given the attitude of the Cuban diocese toward the dissent, which they know well is peaceful, and not violent or is not walking around with guns like Fidel Castro, and does not attack military barracks nor place a bomb in a cinema, the least Catholic opponents can to is to not enter a Catholic parish again. The Ladies in White should stop going to church on Sunday in Santa Rita, in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. If they really believe, pray at home.
One way or another. Reply with less Catholicism, more agnosticism and atheism. Or go to Baptist churches, Protestant, evangelical or any other where the dissidents are welcome. Or become followers of Spiritualism and Afro-Cuban religions, in the end they are more indigenous than the Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquistadors, the same people who decimated the Indians. The best example of dignity and rebellion is found in Hatuey, the Domincan chief who moved to Cuba and preferred to die burned at the stake before accepting the imposition of a religion that had nothing to do with him.
We do not yet know the name, where he lives or what he does, the person who, during the Cuban Pope’s Mass in Santiago de Cuba, had the courage to shout Down with Communism. Apparently he is not a dissident, but it is a sign of the least expected, the anger that is inside people, can explode. When writing as a freelance journalist from Havana several times I said: the real dissent are not the public opponents, it is the thousands of Cubans who are silent for 53 years, holding it in, swallowing bitter mouthfuls. Until one day. There is no evil that lasts a hundred years, no body stand it.
Watered down, like everything of this German pope, was the request that the regime allow Good Friday as a holiday. But he doesn’t know that if the regime did that, on that day Cubans would go out with their bags into the street to try to find something to eat. And if they get a piece of pork they will eat, and if by some miracle they get a piece of beef steak they will eat well. Few Cubans on the island know the Catholic tradition, that on that day they should be abstinent and not eat meat, because it allegedly was the day Jesus was crucified on Golgotha, between two thieves. Those who eat fish or cod croquettes are the same Catholics as ever, like all Good Fridays they will go to their churches, to hear the Liturgy of the Passion. And if in 2012 the regime authorized street processions, they will also go.
I hope that once the Alitalia plane leaves heading to the Vatican, the authorities immediately release all the opponents arrested and the beggars, drunks and street vendors rounded up in Havana and Santiago so as not to make the city “look ugly.”. And let us not fail to be aware of that Cuban who shouted Down with Communism, because although the Vatican authorities have interceded for him, it is more likely they will judge and condemn him. (Tania Quintero).
March 29 2012