The Crumbs That Pope Francis Will Eat in Cuba / Luis Felipe Rojas

Cuban prison. Photo from
Cuban prison. Photo from

Luis Felipe Rojas, 12 September 2015 — Joy came to 3,522 Cuban homes, this being the the number of prisoners serving sentences for (technically) common crimes who set to be released. Indeed, this calls for celebration, as jails certainly do no reeducate anybody, much less in the island’s repressive atmosphere.

Thus, the Cuban government has just offered another gesture to Pope Francis in advance of his visit to Cuba, which will begin on September 19. The Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed its gratitude, as no doubt many Cubans have done, but with no questions asked. As the saying goes, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And the meager crumbs scattered in recent months by the Castro’s tight-fisted military regime has left many people dazed and confused.

The twisted nature of Cuba’s leadership — stuck like a peg in the daily life of the island since 1959 — has taken the liberty of deciding which steps its countrymen must take without allowing questions to be raised. Rather than being a cause for celebration, the specific details of this phony amnesty are of a source of embarrassment and shame.

The internal gulag

There is something the intended audience for this “humanitarian gesture” — Pope Francis, Cardinal Ortega, the bishops, priests, laity and all the faithful mentioned in the message of thanks published in Thursday’s special edition of Gaceta de Cuba, issued by the Ministry of Justice — should know.

The first thing is that the sword of Damocles hangs over all the people covered by this amnesty. The legal actions brought against those who are imprisoned and the combined judgements handed down during their periods of incarceration are filled with irregularities and could only have been permitted in an authoritarian regime like the one in Havana.

The Cuban example is quite possibly the only one of its kind in the western world. The offices of the local prosecutor in every city across the country are physically adjacent to those of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR). So much for separation of powers. Arguing about such issues would be a waste of time considering the neighborhood police, investigators, deputies and department heads have lunch with officials from the prosector’s office every day, and even tend to their physiological needs in the same restrooms.

PNR department heads still operate like old-fashioned bosses. Their aides, advisers and trusted sources are still presidents of Commitees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), members of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and the president of the People’s Council, which assists local bosses through the Commission for Prevention. From this select group — the face of Cuban democracy — come recommendations on the application of the criminal threat law, among others.

The involvement of State Security in the trials of people hostile to the Revolution is one of the jokes of the Cuban justice system, one that will be difficult to eradicate from the public mind.

When Cubans are arrested for assaulting — verbally, that is — the “Revolutionary process,” the offense is immediately treated as a common crime, which in most cases refers to drunkeness, possesion of stolen goods, domestic violence and illegal economic activity, crimes that are laughable in a country where the destruction of wealth is presented as an accomplishment.

Once the investigators of the Department of Operations or the Criminal Investigations Unit are presented with the case of an individual accused of a crime — one that does not presumably pose a threat to state security — the file (containing accusations by friends of the accused, jokes about Fidel Castro, extravagant tastes in fashion and the like) is transferred to the cramped offices of the public prosecutor. Case closed.

Cases involving convictions for posing a threat to society (a crime defined as “pre-criminal dangerousness”), contempt (for the authority or the person of the commander-in-chief), assault (against authority) and resistance to arrest (which in most cases is arbitrary) are reviewed by those in Cuba who must approve all amnesties. These are granted as a show of respect for foreign visitors — whether they be popes or presidents — passing through Havana.

However, among the thousands of those freed, you will not see the names of human rights activists who have been sentenced or who are awaiting trial for civil disobedience, criminal intent or non-payment of fines, although they have been known to shout, “Down with Raúl! Down with hunger!” or “Freedom for political prisoners!”

Savoring the crumbs

Though the manipulation of the law — to say nothing of its proper application — is not changing, the little men in battle fatigues in the Palace of the Revolution are ever more aware they must offer some crumbs to promote the idea that “significant changes” are taking place in Cuba.

The Castro dictatorship changes at will the rules of the game it has agreed to play with the United States, the Vatican, the Cuban Catholic church and the collection of businessmen and foreigners who see a gold mine in the Caribbean Sea.

There were already more than 140 detentions in less than 72 hours, related to the wishes of opponents in the east of the Island to attend the mass in honor of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre. Out of that arbitrary action have been documented the following incidents: arbitrary arrests; beatings; tortures leaving visible marks on the gluteus and other parts of the body; cutting of hair to teach a lesson; threats of shooting detainees through the head; ripping off of clothing and the video-recording of such acts by the perpetrators themselves. The silence of the Catholic hierarchy was proverbial, and that of the puppets who who applaud the show by the generals in Havana, was shameful.

This week that remains before the arrival of the Argentine Pope to Cuba will bring other surprises. The Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party of Cuba, eternally directed by Caridad Diego, will expedite other construction permits for Catholic churches, settlements of religious orders in secluded places, perhaps–and it is a party that will not be interrupted by the noise of those who demand respect for human rights.

In the days prior to the pastoring by Francis in Havana, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba, it is expected that hundreds of peaceful opponents will be detained (as occurred in March 2012 upon the arrival of Benedict XVI), or they will be forced to remain under house arrest, until the Vatican leader leaves for Washington.

One month after this “historic” visit, Francis will comply with protocol, as required by the standards of Western civilization. He will send a message of thanks to the man who opened his arms to him in Havana–even while that man’s hands were stained with blood–but he would have asked for forgiveness, and would have received it, with a smile.

Cardinal Ortega, the bishops and the priests will frame the pastoral visit in terms no less sweet. When seated at the table, one does not speak of unpleasant matters. It could be that Cuba will have some.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison