July 16, 2010


Church and State in Cuba

On July 7, the Cuban government and the Catholic Church in Cuba came to an agreement by which 52 political prisoners are to be freed. They are the remainder of an original 75 men who were arrested in March of 2003. The others had already been released.

This is the result of a meeting between Church officials led by Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Cuban President Raul Castro. This is the latest example that relations between the Cuban government and the Church are improving.

Earlier, in May, Castro and Cardinal Ortega came to an agreement whereby one prisoner, Ariel Sigler Amaya, was released from prison and 12 others were moved to prisons closer to their homes so family members can visit them more easily.

In our June 25 issue, The Criterion reported on a meeting in Cuba between Raul Castro and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister. The meeting occurred on June 20. The archbishop traveled to Cuba to observe the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Cuba.

Despite the fact that Cuba became officially atheistic after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, neither the island nation nor the Vatican broke diplomatic relations. Cuba’s Fourth Communist Party Congress in 1991 took the reference to atheism out of the country’s constitution.

Until then, Christians were forbidden to practice their religion in Cuba. Many priests were expelled by the government and those who remained said Mass and administered the sacraments secretly. In this respect, Cuba was similar to other communist countries, including those located behind the Iron Curtain.

Although the constitution was changed in 1991, it wasn’t until 1998—when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Cuba—that relations between the Church and the Cuban government began to improve.

While in Cuba, the pope said that the restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country were unjust and ethically unacceptable. In a call both to the Cuban government and to the rest of the world, he said, “Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba.”

The trade embargo by the United States against Cuba was first imposed in 1960, and is now the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.

As our article in our June 25 issue reported, Archbishop Mamberti said, after his meeting with Raul Castro, that relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government are on a healthy course. He said that bilateral relations “are cordial, continuing and on the rise.” The Cuban government, too, noted “the favorable development of relations between the state and the Catholic Church in Cuba.”

According to Human Rights Watch, after the 52 prisoners are released, there will still be about 150 political prisoners in Cuba. There is controversy, though, over how many of them are political prisoners and how many are actual terrorists.

An article in the July 4 issue of the U.S. Catholic weekly newspaper Our Sunday Visitor reported that “the Catholic Church has unexpectedly become a noticeable political voice in Cuba.” In the article, Maria de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda says that the Church’s voice is gaining strength.

Scaperlanda reported that, during his meeting with Raul Castro, Cardinal Ortega also secured permission for las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) to resume their weekly peaceful protest marches on behalf of their imprisoned husbands and sons. These women previously had suffered harassment and abuse from government-organized mobs.

While in Cuba, the pastoral nature of Archbishop Mamberti’s visit included participation in a five-day conference that examined the Church’s social mission in Cuban society. He also was present for a special tribute to 19th-century Cuban hero Jose Marti, visited various schools and the Belen Convent in Old Havana, and met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez.

During a joint news conference with Rodriguez, Archbishop Mamberti said, “The dialogue that is happening now makes us happy, and I hope that it will be strengthened through my visit.”

We join with the archbishop in his hope. We also think that it is past time for the United States to end that embargo. It is not doing any good, and its lifting would be beneficial to all.

—John F. Fink

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