Hope -- and controversy -- after dialogue with Church
The meetings between Catholic Church officials and Cuban leaders have
produced mixed results.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Five weeks after Cuba's Raúl Castro and Catholic church leaders held
unprecedented talks on political prisoners, the result has been some
modest improvements, much hope and lots of controversy.
Critics say the improvements have been purely cosmetic, that human
rights abuses continue and that Castro is talking to the church leaders
only because they are too weak to push for significant concessions.
Supporters say they hope for further improvements and argue that Castro
has effectively recognized the church, the country's largest
non-government organization, as a legitimate voice in Cuban affairs. A
leftist academic in Mexico even warned last week that Castro is playing
with fire, ceding power and maneuvering space to a Vatican bent on
toppling Havana's communist system just as it did in Poland.
Castro, who met May 19 with Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Mnsgr.
Dionisio García, head of the Cuban Bishops' Conference and bishop of
Santiago, no doubt has made some positive gestures -- though none were
reported in the state-controlled news media.
Wheelchair-bound political prisoner Ariel Sigler, serving a 25-year
sentence, was freed and Darsi Ferrer, a dissident jailed for 11 months,
was finally brought to trial and essentially sentenced to time served.
A dozen other jailed dissidents were transferred to prisons closer to
home and the Ladies in White have staged their Sunday protest marches in
Havana, without harassment from pro-government mobs.
What's more, the church last week held a series of panel discussions
that featured calls for economic, social and even political reforms as
well as religious freedom -- in a country that expelled scores of
priests and nuns in the 1960s and was officially atheist until 1991.
The gestures drew a cautious welcome from the Obama administration, and
the European Union postponed a vote on lifting its conditions on
relations with Cuba, hoping that Castro will make new ones by then.
Church leaders say they do expect more prisoner releases, but describe
the dialogue with Castro as a ``process'' and ask for time.
``In matters as delicate as this, it is good to have patience,''
Havana's Auxiliary Bishop Juan de Dios Hernández told reporters. ``The
term `process' implies time.''
Yet even supporters of the dialogue say the Castro gestures have come
``I believe there will be more releases, but since everything is in
short supply here, it seems they are doling out the releases with an
eye-dropper,'' said Laura Pollán, spokesperson for the Ladies in White,
relatives of 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown.
``But I am also convinced that not all will be freed, because they are
being held as trade tokens'' for U.S. or European concessions to Castro,
Pollán told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana. Cuba holds about 190
Enrique López Oliva, a Havana academic who specializes in church
affairs, agreed. ``We are living a moment of hope. There's hope that
these [Castro] gestures will be followed by others . . . yet I would
expect they would be very gradual,'' he said.
``I am hopeful because it's the best for Cuba and its people, but I am
concerned it may be too slow -- if Raúl dies or a hurricane hits . . .
and everything stops,'' added Uva de Aragon, associate director of the
Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Among the harshest critics of the dialogue, Oswaldo Payá, a Catholic
activist and head of the opposition Christian Liberation Movement, has
complained that church leaders are excluding dissidents from the talks.
``We believe Cubans should not remain mere spectators in this or any
other negotiation,'' he said in a statement. ``The dissident movement is
much more than an issue that government and church representatives can
discuss without listening to us.''
Castro is only talking to the church because of the condemnations of
Cuba sparked earlier this year by the death of political prisoner
Orlando Zapata after an 83-day hunger strike and several mob attacks on
the Ladies in White, said human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez.
What's more, church leaders have been too silent during 50 years of
totalitarian rule to now play an effective role in the talks with
Castro, said Dora Amador, a Cuban Catholic activist in Miami. ``The
hierarchy, the leadership, has betrayed its duty,'' she said.
Recent visits to Cuba by the Vatican's ``foreign minister,'' Archbishop
Dominique Mamberti, and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, head of the
U.S. Conference of Bishops, were seen as attempts to boost the island
church's standing in the dialogue with Castro.
But Heinz Dieterich, a leftist sociologist based in Mexico, argued that
the Cuban church and the Vatican -- along with human rights groups,
Washington and Europe -- are pushing Castro to adopt risky reforms to
overcome Cuba's economic, political and social crises.
If the Cuban government ``manages to fill the masses with enthusiasm
again with deep, swift and SELF-DETERMINED reforms, it could win. If it
loses its time with clowns and (the church), it will wind up like
Poland,'' he wrote in the leftist Web site Kaosenlared.com.
Others have a much less threatening view of the Cuban church, with López
Oliva noting that attendance at masses has been dropping since the spike
generated by Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998.