HAVANA, Cuba — One day before Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, arrived in Cuba for a six-day visit, communist dictator Fidel Castro announced his political retirement.
The 81-year-old Cuban president, who had ruled Cuba for 49 years, had earlier ceded control on an interim basis to his 76-year-old brother Raúl in 2006 following surgery for an intestinal ailment.
So what will Fidel Castro’s permanent departure mean for the Church in Cuba?
“This is certainly a significant change for our country and our people, but we are taking the news very calmly,” said Msgr. José Felix Perez, spokesman for the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“We are living this moment with serenity, unlike what people outside Cuba might think,” Msgr. Perez said. “As for any other event, the attitude of the Church is always that of trusting in God’s providence. We are very calm; we are doing the same things we do every day.”
But Catholics outside Cuba who are familiar with the Cuban situation think significant opportunities and challenges are in store, especially after Cardinal Bertone’s visit.
Father Joaquín Alliende, the spiritual director of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, describes Castro’s resignation as “a great opportunity for the Church.”
Aid the Church in Need has been providing significant financial help to the Church in Cuba.
“The time has now come in which the vision of Pope John Paul II about Cuba could be fulfilled,” Father Alliende said. “[He] prayed that Christians might live according to their faith and those who had lost this faith might regain it.”
The priest said the coincidence of Cardinal Bertone’s visit with Castro’s resignation is “a special gift of Jesus, since in this way Christians in Cuba will be able to better experience the support of Pope Benedict XVI.”
Expectations are even greater among political dissidents.
In fact, since Castro handed over interim control of the country in 2006, signs have appeared that Cubans are hungry for change.
In February, a video showed Cuban students grilling Ricardo Alarcon, the head of the National Assembly, on a range of government policies, mostly related to individual freedoms and the shortage of basic goods.
Last year, three military recruits took control of a passenger bus and rode into the Havana airport in an attempt to take over a Boeing 737, which activists saw as a sign of growing discontent.
Cuba’s most prominent dissident, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, founder and leader of the Christian Liberation Movement and a faithful Catholic, said Castro’s retirement should mark the beginning of an era of freedom and reconciliation.
“One man’s almost five decades of power has ended, and we have always said the successor of Fidel Castro should be the sovereign people,” Payá said in a statement. He called on Cuba’s National Assembly to “immediately work to transform the laws so that citizens may enjoy freedom of expression and of association, to transform election laws, hold free elections, and free peaceful political prisoners so that … in an atmosphere of reconciliation, the Cuban nation can begin a new phase in its life.”
The Church leadership in Cuba is far more restrained in its public comments.
In an interview broadcast by Cuba’s state-controlled radio, Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana praised the “slow but steady progress in the relationship with the government,” adding that “of course there is room for improvement.”
Cardinal Bertone, in an interview published the day before his arrival in Cuba by Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, stressed that his visit was “ecclesial, not political.”
Said Cardinal Bertone, “I am going to Cuba to visit the local Church that, despite the well-known difficulties, has great vitality.”
During his trip to Cuba, which included visits to several dioceses, meetings with bishops and lay leaders, open-air Masses and the inauguration of the first monument to Pope John Paul II built on public ground in Cuba, Cardinal Bertone met only briefly with political authorities.
Speaking to the Cuban bishops Feb. 21, Cardinal Bertone said that “a serious [i.e. well-organized], regular and widespread pastoral work” must be revived.
“I cherish the hope that the celebration of the anniversary of John Paul II’s visit in this blessed land will help give a new impetus to relations between the state and the Catholic Church in Cuba, so that, in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, the Church will be able to fully accomplish its mission, which is strictly pastoral,” the cardinal said.
Speaking later in the day at a Mass he concelebrated with Cardinal Ortega in the plaza outside Havana’s cathedral, Cardinal Bertone said “the Church wishes to expand without limits its radius of action to other fields, to contribute to the common good of the Cuban people.”
Many Cubans living in exile complain the Church leadership in Cuba has been too timid in denouncing Cuba’s one-party dictatorship and its massive human rights violations.
Comparisons with the actions of Catholic bishops in Poland during Soviet-era communist rule, and those of the bishops in Venezuela during the rule of current socialist President Hugo Chavez, are frequently cited in blogs and articles to challenge the way Cuba’s bishops have handled the Church’s relationship with Castro.
But Eduardo Mesa, a Cuban exile who runs the influential blog “Casa Cuba,” said the Cuban bishops have “nothing to be embarrassed of, and should not be compared to other episcopates.”
Said Mesa, “The Church was capable of surviving the dark years in which most of the Cuban population, out of ignorance or fear, supported the communist regime, and it was capable, since 1986, of moving from a survival mode to a growing evangelization.”
The year 1986 was when the “National Encounter of the Church in Cuba” was held, establishing groundbreaking strategies to renew the life of the Church on the island.
According to Javier Legorreta, the Cuban specialist of Aid to the Church in Need who visited the island a few days before Cardinal Bertone’s trip, the Vatican official’s presence “may play an important role in the political transformation of the country, helping this change of power to take place in peace and in a spirit of reconciliation within the country.”
“This is something the Catholic Church in Cuba has already long seen as her mission,” Legorreta said. “A particularly important challenge for the bishops, as for Christians in general, will be to work for a better understanding and collaboration between the Cuban exiles and the people who have stayed on in the country.”
An official from another aid organization helping the Church in Cuba, who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity, suggested that for the Cuban bishops to be effective in the process of reconciliation, they will have to undergo a process of “disengagement.”
“Past experiences in other countries in which the bishops have been perceived as too close to dictatorships have been negative,” he said. “So the bishops in Cuba, who have been wisely negotiating more space for the Church with the communist government, must realize that the system is crumbling and that they will have to stand and show a more critical stance at some point.”
Said the aid official, “I don’t know when the right time for that will be. But I think that there is not much time left.”
is based in Lima, Peru.