HAVANA — The Church in Cuba is wondering if the short-term impact of the dramatic U.S. policy change toward the island nation will be good.
The Obama administration announced plans to allow Cuban-Americans unlimited visits to relatives on the island, as well as unlimited remittances Cuban immigrants can send to relatives in Cuba.
Moreover, the government has announced that these measures are only the first step toward a completely new policy that could end the 50-year embargo. In the short term, the White House is looking into the possibility of regularly scheduled commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba.
The Vatican’s policy has been to oppose the U.S. embargo. The policy was made especially clear by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the island in 1998 and was reiterated last year by the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, during his visit to Cuba to mark the 10th anniversary of the Pope’s visit.
In the U.S., Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the administration’s decision, calling the move “long overdue” and “an important change in U.S. policy towards Cuba.”
In an April 15 letter to Daniel Restrepo, senior director of Western Hemisphere affairs for the National Security Council, Bishop Hubbard wrote, “The USCCB has for many years called for relaxing the sanctions against Cuba. These policies have largely failed to promote greater freedom, democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba.”
He added, “Improving the lives of the Cuban people and encouraging human rights in Cuba will best be advanced through more rather than less contact between the Cuban and American people.”
Bishop Hubbard also described House Resolution 874 — known as the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act — as “welcome legislation.”
In Cuba, President Raul Castro and other officials welcomed the new trend and requested the Obama administration to “go all the way” and completely lift all sanctions.
The Church in Cuba, nevertheless, did not issue any official statement. Not even some of the new lively official Catholic magazines have commented on the news on their usually active websites.
Oswaldo Marquez, spokesman for the Catholic Conference of Cuban Bishops, told the Register that “the official position of our episcopate has always been consistent with the Holy See and the Holy Father, which is that the embargo must end because it is simply unjust.”
The words of Pope John Paul during his visit to Cuba “have become for years the motto of our Church: May the world be open to Cuba, and may Cuba be open to the world,” Marquez said.
“Obviously, in this context, the (United States’) change of mind is a significant step forward, but we hope that all the steps necessary are taken to reach the ultimate goal, which is the end of the embargo,” Marquez said.
Two other Church officials in Cuba spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity. Both agreed that, although the bishops in Cuba look favorably upon any U.S. move toward the end of the embargo, there are several reasons for anxiety about what the new policy will bring to the Church and to Cuban society.
One source said the bishops are hopeful the new policy on remittances may help ease “the permanent state of economic emergency that the Church in Cuba lives in,” but it will hardly be a panacea.
The source explained that “certainly the lack of cash is a dramatic factor that affects every Catholic ministry, but also the lack of goods and the government control make things difficult.”
A Cuban diocese, for example, can get a donation to expand or rebuild a church, to feed seminarians or to print newspapers. At that point, problems have just begun, the source noted. “Because of the economic crisis, the government keeps a tight control on all resources, from bricks and mortar to printing paper.”
But the biggest concern among bishops is the impact that tourism can have in a society that earns in Cuban pesos but must look for U.S. dollars to make ends meet.
Tourism from Europe has been a significant source of foreign currency for the Cuban economy and for many individuals. But it has come with a high social and moral price.
The End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism Network, a group of international organizations working to end child prostitution and pornography in the world, published “Child Prostitution and Sex Tourism: Cuba.”
According to the study, “in Cuba, the link between tourism and prostitution is perhaps more direct than in any other country that hosts sex tourists.”
“With mass tourism came a large-scale effective demand for prostitution. Since many Cuban people are currently experiencing enormous economic hardship, it is not surprising that a supply of prostitutes has emerged to meet this demand,” the report also says.
The network acknowledges that sexual exploitation of women and children has been a constant problem on the island but that under Castro the Cuban state “made a sustained and successful attempt to wipe out the organized basis of prostitution.”
But despite these efforts, informal prostitution and “jineterismo” have become a widespread practice on the island.
“Jineterismo” comes from the word jinetera, Spanish for a female jockey and Cuban slang to refer to those who are not prostitutes but courtesans who spend a day or more entertaining wealthy foreigners and offering sex tourists more than just sex.
Natasha Fatah, a reporter in Ontario who recently visited the island, said tourism can be thanked for creating thousands of jobs in the sex trade.
“While there are no beggars on the streets of Havana,” Fatah said, “tourism is breeding a nation of hustlers. The dignity of a people is being sold in the streets: cheap cigars, bootlegged rum and easy women for our consuming pleasure.”
One of the Church sources the Register spoke to said that “tourism is not a bad thing per se, but there is no doubt that easy money is having a negative impact on some of the younger generation, and this poses a great pastoral challenge to a Church that is already short on human and material resources.”
In April, the Cuban government announced an ambitious plan to build 30 new hotels within 24 months to be ready for American tourists.
“The government is preparing the infrastructure. We as a Church also need to gear up for the day,” the source told the Register. “And it is not going to be easy.”
Alejandro Bermudez writes
from Lima, Peru.