Cuban Bishops Striking a Delicate Balance

Thanks to a visit from Pope John Paul II in January 1998, the Catholic Church in Cuba is now experiencing something of a rebirth. Part of its new “awakening” is being able to offer a safe environment for political dissenters who wish to express their opinions.

For example, prior to the papal visit, painters and sculptors had to express themselves within a framework of “socialist realism,” as dictated by the Castro regime. Now, however, they can move beyond these boundaries by entering Church-sponsored art contests and exhibitions. Also, writers and poets whose works do not glorify the “achievements” of socialism can now publish in the growing number of Catholic publications such as Vitral, at present the most respected cultural magazine on the island.

In a similar way, the recently gained right to celebrate open-air Masses has attracted a significant number of participants, among whom can be found many political dissenters along with the communicants. Of course, wherever the dissenters go, security police follow.

Recently, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Pedro Meurice, urged both government agents and dissident groups to respect the religious nature of liturgical celebration and avoid using them as political fields.

Archbishop Meurice aired his concern after security government agents and members of dissident political groups exchanged insults and even physical aggression during two recent religious celebrations.

In El Cobre, on Sept. 8, during the celebrations in honor of Our Lady of the Charity, the patroness of Cuba, the police arrested several dissidents who were deploying banners of protest even as the consecration was taking place.

Another incident took place Oct. 4, during the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a very popular saint in Cuba, but no arrests were made.

“Everybody is welcome in the house of God, believers and nonbelievers,” Bishop Meurice told the Mass attendees. “But any participation must be respectful and in accordance with the nature of liturgy, which cannot be distorted by any political or ideological content. I beg you all to be respectful during the celebration and to avoid causing an ugly situation in which I will have to openly eject someone.”

Church leaders in Cuba often express their sympathy to peaceful dissenters looking for a democratic transformation on the island. Yet the bishops must keep a door open to the regime as a way to gain more room for the Church and, as a consequence, more room for individual citizens as well.

At the very top of the bishops’ wish list are the right to create and administrate Catholic schools, and the right to have a voice in the state-controlled media. These rights, which the government has not yet turned down openly, would certainly mark a new stage for the future of evangelization in Cuba.

In order to obtain these rights, the bishops need to maintain with Castro's regime the relationship opened by the Holy Father. Of course, many, especially in the Cuban diaspora living in the United States, ask whether the Cuban bishops are not betraying principles in the name of achievement. The bishops do not believe so. They know that an open denunciation of the regime would be not only worthless, but also would jeopardize the real, if limited, room won by the Church and, indirectly, by civil society.

At the same time, the bishops have not shrunk from making their voice heard when a situation demands it. Recently, for example, they called for partial prisoner amnesty and greater access to prisons as a Jubilee Year gesture by the Communist government. They also requested the government to respect the human rights of political prisoners, and openly expressed concern for the approval of legislation that created new motives for political repression.

Moreover, Vitral, the cultural magazine of the Diocese of Pinar del Rio, has openly expressed its support of professor Sergio Lazaro Cabarrouy, dismissed from the local university for expressing his Christian faith and his criticism of the lack of freedom of conscience.

Nevertheless, the bishops also know that combining a timely denunciation with a policy of negotiations with the regime requires a great deal of balance. Thus, some of their decisions will find disfavor with either the regime or the Cubans in exile.

The human, pastoral and financial support now provided by sister Churches, especially from the Catholic community in the United States, is helping the Cuban bishops achieve their balancing act; they're clearly excited to be making plans for the next millennium and the post-Castro era. Just as importantly, they are thankful for the help that flows to the general Cuban population through local Catholic relief services.

This flow of material help is perceived by the government as “a Catholic way” around the embargo and, therefore, as an achievement that deserves some sort of compensation.

So, if the steps taken by the Cuban bishops in the short term look small to some, that is because they must be viewed in perspective. The bishops believe that a balance in the relationship with the government and the political dissenters is the best way to prepare for the future.

It is good to know that, in this process, the Church in America, with its unconditional support, is responding accordingly.

Alejandro Bermudez is the Register ‘s Latin America correspondent.