Cubans Get Good Friday Holiday for the First Time in More Than 50 Years

Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage brought the change, but will it be permanent?

Pope Benedict XVI and Cuban President Raul Castro speak during a farewell ceremony as the Pope leaves Cuba after a three day visit on March 28.
Pope Benedict XVI and Cuban President Raul Castro speak during a farewell ceremony as the Pope leaves Cuba after a three day visit on March 28. (photo: Sven Creutzmann-Pool/Getty Images)

In Cuba, today is the first Good Friday being celebrated as a national holiday in over 50 years, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI.

As a result of the Pope’s request to the Cuban regime when he met President Raul Castro last week in Havana, the government has declared a day off for the solemnity that marks Christ’s crucifixion, explaining in a statement that the decision honors the Pope’s “transcendental visit.”

Cuba’s Council of Ministers, its highest governing body, will decide whether to make the day a permanent holiday in the future.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, considers this news “a very positive sign.”

“The Holy See hopes that this will promote participation in religious celebrations and happy Easter holidays, and that even after the visit of the Holy Father, continue to bear the desired fruits for the good of the Church and of all Cubans,” Father Lombardi observed in a statement.

Not positive were revelations of extensive human-rights abuses committed by the Cuban regime during and after Pope Benedict’s three-day pilgrimage.

On April 4, the independent Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission confirmed that at least 43 government critics were arrested following the Pope’s visit and remain in jail.

Commission leader Elizardo Sanchez described a “wave of repression” initiated by Cuban secret police that began during the Pope’s visit when hundreds of regime opponents were jailed or put under house arrest to prevent them from participating in the Pope’s public appearances.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “We call upon the Cuban government to release all peaceful civil society activists immediately.

“We particularly condemn that most of these arrests took place during the Pope’s visit and with the aim of preventing those arrested from attending public Masses that the Pope officiated.”

According to the Voice of America (VOA), Cuban citizens, ranging from artists to bloggers to priests, were harassed while Pope Benedict was on the island.  

VOA reporter Jerome Socolovsky attended an informal meeting of some of the individuals who were targeted, Including a Catholic priest from Santiago de Cuba, Father Jose Conrado Rodriguez.

Father Rodriguez described how his house was surrounded by police who were determined to keep him away from the papal Mass.

"In the Church, whoever prevents a priest or ordinary Christian from directly communicating with the Holy Father commits a grave offense," he said. He offered to share similar experiences with the papal nuncio.

According to one member of the entourage from Italy traveling with Pope Benedict, the Pope himself was aware of the tensions in Cuba.

Describing Pope Benedict as an “extraordinarily sensitive man, especially where matters of worship are concerned,” this source, who asked not to be named, said the Pope certainly felt the difference between the response of the jubilant Mexican faithful and the people in Cuba who were “curious but cautious,” possibly because many were instructed to attend Mass by their government employers.

Writing in The Miami Herald, political analyst Carlos Alberto Montaner consulted “ecclesiastical sources” and concluded that the Vatican is well aware of the crackdown on the island, noting, as well, a division among Catholic priests between those who favor more coordination with the Castro regime and those who favor more confrontational tactics to gain freedom.

‘Curiosity Is Killing Us’

Where there is no dispute regarding the value of the Pope’s visit to Cuba is among American pilgrims who participated in the historical event: There are hundreds of wonderful stories from pilgrims whose souls were touched by the experience.

Manny Garcia-Tuñon, vice president of Miami-based Lemartec Construction and a commentator on Univision Spanish TV, was one of two Miami parishioners selected to receive holy Communion from Pope Benedict in Santiago de Cuba.

“It was a tremendous blessing and honor from the Vicar of Christ,” Garcia-Tuñon told the Register. “I quickly reminded myself that I could be receiving Communion from any Eucharistic minister, and it is still the real presence of Christ; that’s what’s most important.”

He continued, “But what made the experience especially powerful was being in Cuba. The altar was on a very high platform. When I started walking down the steps, I walked slowly, and I saw a sea of people worshipping the Eucharist.”

“Not only had I just received Communion from the Holy Father, but I was in Cuba for a Mass. Cuba was an atheist country, but communism lost the faith battle. The Church won. This is the most amazing reality.”

Garcia-Tuñon is a third-generation Cuban-American, the first generation born in the United States. His wife, Helin, who accompanied Manny on the pilgrimage, is also a Cuban-American Catholic, born in Miami.

“The topic of Cuba has so many raw emotions connected to it in Miami. There is an unwritten understanding among my generation to respect our elders and not travel to Cuba while the communists are in power, but curiosity is killing us, so the Holy Father’s visit allowed us to say: I will go for the Church. Only for this,” explained Garcia-Tuñon, who wrote about the experience on his blog

Garcia-Tuñon played guitar for a Mass offered by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski in the Havana Cathedral on March 27, while Pope Benedict met with President Raul Castro.

Archbishop Wenski received a standing ovation following his homily, delivered in Spanish, in which he repeated many of the Pope’s key messages including: “Ideological materialism, represented in this country and in those countries of what was the Eastern bloc, denied man's transcendence; it denied that that human person was created for more than just to die one day. As the Pope observed on his flight to Mexico, Marxism is a spent ideology.”

The archbishop added, “To people intoxicated with the love of power, the Church witnesses to hope by sharing with the world, and with the Cuban people, the power of love.”

Ana Rodriguez-Soto, editor of The Florida Catholic’s Miami edition, was in the cathedral for the archbishop’s Mass. She pointed out that regular Cubans were in the Church as well as the American pilgrims.

“I think the applause came not just because the American pilgrims were so grateful for all the work the archbishop devoted to organizing this pilgrimage” for two plane loads of Miami Catholics, but also because the Church’s message “really does resonate with the Cuban people.”

Although she was not able to file one story from the island because the Internet was “unreliable,” Rodriguez-Soto wrote a series of blogs about the trip, documenting personal tales. “Three hundred pilgrims, 300 stories,” she summarized.

Speaking about the Cuban-American pilgrims, Archbishop Wenski told The Miami Herald, “I think they’ve found the experience to be a very healing one for them.”

For Manny Garcia-Tuñon, the experience also revealed to him how much damage has been done to people who have been forced to become dependent on government.

He asked a taxi driver if he was now an owner as a result of marginal economic reforms introduced by the government allowing some private enterprise. The driver reported yes; he now owns two cabs and has seven employees, so what he had been doing illegally was finally legal.

Recalled Garcia-Tuñon, ”Then the driver told me, ‘The only thing we need in Cuba, at this point, is to let people travel.’ That was enough for him. He does not know how to be free. He thinks all he needs is the right to travel, but, otherwise, the government can still do what it wants.”

The driver had adopted the Cuban government’s message that gradual economic reform is satisfactory. 

As Ana Rodriguez-Soto noted, the most common refrain in Cuba is: "No es facil" (It’s not easy). And political change, which the regime insists is unnecessary, will certainly not be easy.

Oswaldo Paya, a well-respected Catholic Cuban who has bravely opposed the Castros, told the Register: “The gradual approach makes sense only if there are transparent prospects of freedom and rights. We Cubans have a right to our rights. Then the diaspora will cease being a diaspora because all Cubans will have rights in their own free and sovereign country.”

Paya made it to the papal Mass in Havana. He said receiving the Pope’s blessing, even from afar, gave him renewed strength. 

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.