Thursday, August 31, 2006

Catholic Church can be safe space bridge-builder in post-Castro Cuba says expert

Catholic Church can be 'safe space,' bridge-builder in post-Castro Cuba,
says expert
By Agostino Bono

Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – The Catholic Church can play a positive role in Cuba
during any transition period after the death of ailing President Fidel
Castro, said a foreign policy expert on Cuba.

The church can provide a "safe space" for Cubans to work during any
transition period, said Julia Sweig, director of Latin American studies
at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the 2002 book, Inside
the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground.

The church "is an institution that is respected by the people in Cuba,"
she said during an Aug. 24 telephone news conference organized by the
Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York.

The Cuban and U.S. bishops could also form a bridge between the Cuban
exile community in the United States and the Cubans inside the island
nation, she said.

Sweig added, however, that the "ups and downs" in the relations between
the communist government and the Cuban bishops since the 1998 Cuban
visit by Pope John Paul II probably have weakened the role that the
church could play.

Before the papal trip, the Cuban and U.S. bishops and Castro all saw a
positive role for the church in promoting a peaceful post-Castro Cuba,
she said.

"There has been a lot of tension since the pope's visit," she added.

Although the government "opened up" its hold on the church, "the church
wanted more space than the government wanted to give," said Sweig. The
Vatican wanted a greater church influence in Cuban life, she added.

Cuban church officials have said that the church's uneven relations with
the government have often been tied to how tightly the government is
holding the reins on the entire society. When the government temporarily
relaxes economic and political control of society, things loosen for the
church, but they tighten again once the government reasserts control
over society, they said.

Sweig was commenting on the future of Cuba after Castro, who turned 80
Aug. 13. On July 31, after undergoing surgery because of intestinal
bleeding, Castro temporarily ceded power to his younger brother, Raul
Castro, head of the Cuban army and intelligence service.

The power shift interrupted 47 years of continuous rule. Fidel Castro
came to power on the Caribbean island Jan. 1, 1959, at 32 years of age
after leading a successful guerrilla rebellion against dictator
Fulgencio Batista.

Castro's turning over of authority has sparked much speculation in the
United States on the political future of Cuba and the possibilities of
improved relations with the U.S., which for more that 40 years has had
an economic embargo against the nation.

Sweig said the U.S. government "is not seen as a positive player" in the
current situation and has no influence inside Cuba. This is because its
policy of trying to internationally isolate the Castro government is
seen as a failure, she said.

The U.S. has "a misconception" that the revolutionary movements that
occurred in communist-ruled Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet
bloc can be reproduced in Cuba, Sweig said.

"You can't take the East European model to Cuba," she said.

Dissident movements inside Cuba are fragmented and weak, she said. The
movements are penetrated by Cuban intelligence, and any dissident who
"gets sucked into a relationship with the U.S." loses credibility, she said.

Castro still maintains a "folkloric, rock-star status" among Latin
American leftists because he "waves the anti-imperialistic banner" and
has been resilient in power despite hostile U.S. governments, she said.

"He has survived nine U.S. presidents," said Sweig.

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