Cuba and religion, 12 years later
BY MIRTA OJITO
Twelve years ago today -- because of holiday deadlines I'm writing on
Tuesday, Dec. 22 -- I wrote a Christmas story of sorts. The story was
about how, for the first time since 1969, the Cuban government had
announced that Christmas was back, in preparation for the visit of Pope
John Paul II to the island in mid-January of the following year, 1998.
``Here is this old, frail man, the leader of the church, who is going
through the trouble of going to their country, visiting with them,
listening to their troubles, that has to mean something to them,'' said
José ``Pepe'' Prince, a sociologist from Queens who left Cuba in 1963
and had signed up to join the New York group that planned to travel to
the island for the Pope's visit. ``I think this trip will be of
psychological and symbolic importance. And I don't want to miss the
opportunity to witness that.''
Some of the people mentioned in that story of jubilation and hope have
since died, including Prince and the Pope himself -- now on the throes
of becoming sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church -- but the Castro
brothers, of course, are still alive and very much in charge. Cubans are
indeed free to celebrate Christmas, to go to church, read religious
publications -- there are about 40 circulating on the island now, I'm
told -- and even to listen to religious leaders in the
But beyond that, what has changed?
When the Pope gave his first Mass in Cuba on Jan. 22 in Santa Clara, I
stood in the back of the barren field where several hundred people had
congregated to listen to his words. The audience was subdued and a woman
approached me to ask me if I knew who was selling oranges and for how
much. She had heard a rumor and was hunting for food while the Pope from
the pulpit criticized divorce and birth control.
The Cuban people still lack food, housing, and, oh yes, freedom. The new
big idea of the government to face its economic woes is to go back to
the bag of tricks from the past: five-year plans. Planificación --
planning -- and proyección -- projections -- are again buzz words. The
United States is still the enemy. The embargo is still the culprit of
all (``The situation is worse given the unjust and counterproductive
U.S. embargo against Cuba, despite the initial hopes of change after
Barack Obama became president,'' concluded an editorial in Spain's El
País on Tuesday). And a couple of government thugs can still force two
people into an unmarked car and proceed to beat them up in the back seat
in the middle of Havana.
Yes, members of the clergy are allowed to visit prisoners and say Mass.
But there are still political prisoners in Cuba's jails. Yes, the church
is helping to feed people and contributes to the cultural and social
fabric of the country through a variety of programs that include
exercises, help to the elderly and even, in a modest scale, education.
Yes, members of the clergy are allowed to organize and join religious
processions, and to hold conferences and congresses, but it is all
controlled and subdued by the ever watchful government. It's like the
relationship between a parent and a toddler: you can walk alone, but
don't run, and even worse, don't dare cross the street or even get close
to the curbside.
Yet, María Cristina Herrera, a retired college professor who keeps close
ties with the Cuban church and follows the intricacies of its triumphs
and disappointments from her home in Coral Gables, remains convinced
that ``Cuba has not been the same since the Pope's visit.''
``The church has left the walls of the temple and has placed itself
squarely with the people,'' Herrera said. ``But not enough, not in the
way I know they would want to.''
The danger with such accommodation, Herrera said, is that the church may
compromise too much and back the government when it shouldn't in order
to keep the small space it's managed to carve out in the dozen years
since the Pope urged Cuba to open up to the world and urged the world to
open up to Cuba.
Curiously, both things have happened. Most people -- except those in the
United States -- have unrestricted access to Cuba as long as they can
pay a plane ticket. And the world -- again with the exception of the
United States -- has remained open and receptive to Cuba. And yet, it
hasn't been enough. Because in addition to some sort of breathing space,
a certain freedom to dissent, and a more liberal emigration policy, the
Cuban people need the legal and civic structures, common to all
functioning democracies, that would buffer and protect them against the
state. El derecho al pataleo, the right to complain, is not enough when
the individual has no one to turn to. It's like the proverbial tree
falling in a remote forest.
Many more trees would have to fall before the world notices the island
has been decimated.
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