April 29, 2007
Pinar del Rio, Cuba · In a small Roman Catholic church the other night,
an unusual gathering of Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics, Marxists,
barbers, electricians and lawyers discussed how to change the hearts of
a society in perpetual limbo.
A moderator, who feared to be named, interrupted with transcendental news.
"The church has just announced that limbo doesn't exist," he said. "The
church has admitted that in another era, it had invented the concept of
limbo as a place where unbaptized children went after death. They didn't
suffer like in hell but they weren't entirely happy like in heaven. It
meant they were nowhere."
Indeed, the Vatican recently dismissed the medieval notion that
unbaptized babies are condemned to eternity in limbo. But some Cubans
believe the Catholic diocese in the western city of Pinar del Rio has
destined an acclaimed magazine to such a fate.
The controversy erupted earlier this month when Vitral, the most
prominent of two or three alternative voices in a country where the news
media is controlled by the communist state, published an editor's note
in its April edition saying it was shutting down.
"Because of a lack of resources, the editorial council of Vitral informs
its readers that it can no longer guarantee the magazine's publication,"
the editor, Dagoberto Valdes, wrote in a brief note.
The news immediately put in doubt the future of Vitral and the diocese's
much-heralded Center for Civic and Religious Formation, which offers
parish-based classes on civic participation.
Within days of the announcement, the diocese's new bishop, Jorge Serpa,
issued a statement denying that the magazine would close but alluding to
a clash with Valdes and the publication's tone.
"I have asked that Vitral magazine keep to the truth based on the gospel
and the church's social doctrine, without falling into aggressive and
argumentative expressions," Serpa wrote.
Tuesday night, ordinary Cubans who attend the weekly civic classes here
began gathering signatures on a petition asking the diocese to keep
Vitral the way it was.
"A voice has been taken from us," said Marilei Castro, a 29-year-old
lawyer who signed the petition.
"The issues are taboo. But there are no other places in Cuba where these
things are discussed openly. People don't want to speak about them. It
makes them uncomfortable."
The magazine's readers and others, like her, who attended the workshops
are "confused right now," she added.
"We don't know what will happen."
Without attacking any Cuban leader by name and asserting that Cubans
must decide their own fate without outside intervention, Vitral has
regularly published articles calling for greater plurality and
The civic center's workshops include discussions about "empowerment,"
human rights and individual liberties such as free speech and freedom of
"This could be the hour in which those who hold the highest
responsibilities in government gradually and peacefully open up more
opportunities for the legal participation of all Cubans in greater areas
of democratic responsibility," read an editorial in the magazine's April
Valdes declined comment on the future of Vitral or the civic center.
In an interview, Serpa acknowledged having differences of opinion with
Valdes but insisted that both the magazine and the center would continue.
He said the "problems with resources and money," including paper on
which to publish the magazine's 10,000 copies, distributed throughout
the island, were real.
He also said existing church commissions would take over some activities
of the civic center.
"The church has every right to review its structures in order to find
ways to better serve the diocese and not some movement or a magazine,"
Of his differences with Valdes, who founded the magazine more than a
dozen years ago, Serpa said: "Dagoberto Valdes is not the whole. He is a
part of a team. If you want to make it all about him, that is another
Analysts and diplomatic sources said Valdes had long enjoyed the
protection of Jose Siro Gonzalez, a social progressive who retired in
December as bishop of Pinar del Rio.
Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
"There's no way to know if government pressure led the church to do
this," Cuba analyst Phil Peters said. "Like a lot of things in Cuba,
this is a black box."
At a civic center workshop Tuesday night, the moderator spoke of the
church's need to keep an open line of dialogue with not only the state
but with ordinary Cubans.
"The church cannot sacrifice civil society in order to maintain a
dialogue with the state," he said.
"How do you do that? It is difficult balancing act similar to what we do
here. Don't confuse this space with that of a political party. We don't
do political propaganda here. That is how you guarantee that the state
doesn't claim that we're taking Tuesdays to organize the Christian
Democratic Party or liberal party or God knows what."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at email@example.com.