By a Special Correspondent in Santiago de Cuba
Last Updated: 1:04pm GMT 26/02/2007
Every Sunday after Mass in Havana's western suburb of Miramar a group of
women marches up and down the pavement in front of the church to raise
the plight of the political prisoners jailed by the regime for voicing
Known as the Ladies in White, the wives and mothers of some of the 75
people imprisoned in a fierce purge of dissidents in March 2003 walk
silently carrying stems of gladioli to demand their release.
Their action, the only visible form of regular protest on an island
where few dare to defy the authority of Fidel Castro's regime, has been
made possible by the Catholic Church, which is working quietly to
prepare Cubans for life after their leader has gone.
"Although the Catholic Church hasn't publicly supported our cause they
did condemn the crackdown of March 2003," said Miriam Levia, one of the
women who has marched since her husband, an economist, was jailed for
criticising the regime's economic strategy three years ago.
"Most importantly for us, despite the sensitivity of the issue, the
Church has opened their door to us and given us a meeting place," she
said. "There are a number of open-minded priests and bishops who provide
great support to those who look for it. They at least allow us to be free.".
The Church, which claims that 70 per cent of the population are
believers, now enjoys a reasonable level of autonomy, providing some
free-thinking individuals with a platform to promote change.
In the southern city of Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of Castro's
revolution, rows of chairs were laid out in a shady courtyard beside a
small clapboard church. Later in the afternoon, people started to
gather, not to pray but to talk about their daily problems and to
discuss their hopes for the future.
In the rest of the world such interaction is a part of the mainstay of
everyday life but most residents of Cuba cannot conceive of gathering to
discuss important social issues outside government control.
"We are living in a repressed society," a priest explained, referring to
the limitations placed on individual freedom by the Communist regime.
But that is changing as a growing number in the Catholic Church quietly
encourage Cubans to find their own voice.
"It is not enough to look after their spiritual well-being," said the
priest, who asked not to be named. "As their priest I feel I have a
responsibility to help them reconcile the past and look to the future."
Dagoberto Valdes, a 51-year-old lay preacher, has spent more than a
decade working to change Cuba from within and is the inspiration to the
priest in Santiago de Cuba. Working out of a cramped diocesan office in
the western city of Pinar del Rio, he publishes a magazine, Vitral,
aimed at introducing Cubans to such alien concepts as free speech and
freedom of association.
"The art of thinking has been damaged tremendously among Cubans. During
this half century we have been forced to think like one person," said Mr
Valdes, referring of course to Fidel Castro.
"Now we are teaching people again to think with their own head."