Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba today. Unlike the historic visit of John Paul II to the island in 1998, the visit of Benedict to the island has generated less discussion about the transformative possibilities of the papal visit than it has recriminations from democracy advocates about the relationship between the Castro regime and the island’s Roman Catholic hierarchy. In the exile community at least, the target of the greatest scorn has been the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Critics have accused the Cardinal, once imprisoned by the Castro regime in the UMAP reeducation camps that dotted the island in the 1960s and 1970s, of striking a tone of appeasement with the Castro regime while attempting to ignore or silence voices of protest on the island. In a move that infuriated many Catholics and critics of the Cuban government, Ortega recently allowed Cuban police to dislodge dissidents who had holed themselves up in a Catholic church in Havana demanding that the Pope address the issue of human rights on the island. In the aftermath of the removal of the dissidents, the Archbishopric of Havana issued a statement arguing, “no one has the right to turn churches into political trenches.” (“Nadie tiene derecho a convertir los templos en trincheras políticas”.)
Of course, churches have always been sites of political conflict and nowhere has this been more obvious than in Latin America. In the aftermath of the Medellin Conference of 1968, many Catholic churchmen took public stances against human rights abuses that often placed them in direct and public opposition to governments and guerillas. One need only recall the iconic image of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, sprawled dead beside the altar of the Cathedral of San Salvador after having been assassinated by a right-wing sniper, to understand just how much the words and actions of a priest can strike fear in the hearts of oppressive regimes.
But in stark contrast to Romero and others like him, who used their pulpits to speak bluntly and accusingly about matters of human rights and social justice, Cardinal Ortega has adopted a strategy in Cuba that reflects what we might call, to borrow a phrase from my days back in Catholic grammar school, “constructive criticism.” This position has infuriated the Cardinal’s critics but it may reflect both the historical role of the Church in Cuba as well as a calculated decision by Ortega to safeguard the small but important public space that the Church has managed to occupy in recent years.
At the end of the nineteenth century, as Cubans launched their third and final war for independence from Spain, the Catholic Church on the island was in dire straits. The Church had always depended on the largesse of the Spanish crown but throughout most of the century the Spanish authorities, influenced by anticlerical currents on the peninsula, were less willing to dig into their pockets to support priests and parishes. The church authorities struggled with tight budgets and against the perception that Cuba was a remote and unrewarding outpost that Spanish priests were wise to avoid or escape. Separately, as Cubans began to fight for their independence, the Church hierarchy—with its significant number of Spanish-born clerics—was loath to support the insurgent cause. The partisanship of the Spanish Catholic hierarchy was obvious. The deaths of José Martí in 1895 and Antonio Maceo in 1896 were each greeted with Te Deums in Cuban churches. The Spanish crown may not have been kind or supportive of the Church but in the face of an insurgent movement led by Cubans, the Church chose accommodation over confrontation with its imperial patrons. Not surprisingly, once the War of Independence was completed and Cuba was free of Spain, the Church struggled to significance on the island. The American military government not only challenged Catholic control over marriages and burials but it invited Protestant churches to enter the island and compete for souls.
In the years after the end of the American occupation of Cuba, the Catholic Church floundered. Most Cubans still considered themselves Catholic but the bonds that tied Cubans to the Church were weak. The Catholic Church became an institution for which many Cubans felt neither profound hatred nor devotion; their ambivalence toward it reflected a broader Cuban ambivalence toward religion, generally. As Jorge Dominguez pointed out several years ago, in the years before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, “most people simply were not concerned much with religion.”
The Castro regime, of course, targeted the Cuban Catholic Church as never before in the institution’s history. It railed against the hierarchy, accused priests of treason, and framed them as agents of foreign imperialism. In short order, Castro systematically expropriated Church schools and other properties, deported priests and nuns, and barred any public expression of worship. To be Catholic in Revolutionary Cuba was to risk political harassment, social exclusion, imprisonment and intimidation.
Yet by the late 1980s, the Church had begun to recover some ground in Cuba. The number Baptisms on the island rose and vocations began to increase. In the years that the Cuban regime refers to as the Special Period, the Church emerged as an important social safety net for starving and desperate Cubans. With the failure of the economic model espoused by the Cuban government laid bare and the collapse of Soviet Communism rattling the confidence of many Cubans, the Church offered weary Cubans spiritual respite and physical relief.
Several years ago, with the worst of the Special Period over but many Cubans particularly in the interior regions of the island struggling to eat, I witnessed first hand the life-saving work of the Church. Through friends I was able to secure a ride from Havana to the small Cuban towns from which my parents fled in the late 1960s. Before we stepped into the small van that would carry us into the interior, a group of young seminarians and I stuffed slabs of meat, cooking oil, and bags of vegetables underneath the van’s trunk-floor. All of this was done hurriedly and quietly because the food had been purchased illegally. After our hours-long trip into the interior we arrived at our destination. It was dark and the streetlights were off in order to conserve energy. In the heat and darkness we unloaded our contraband into a local church and from there I watched as a group of women quickly began dividing the meat and preparing dishes for distribution to the poorest corners of diocese. The next day, as I arrived at the church, I watched a discreet caravan of cars come and go, each armed with cantinas to feed the old, the infirmed, the forgotten. I don’t know whether the Cuban security apparatus, with its skillful and ubiquitous network of chivatos, was aware of the goings-on at the Church. If they were, they did little stop this clandestine network of aid.
What struck me most about this entire episode was the fact that these were Cubans helping other Cubans through a system that operated if not entirely outside the control of the Castro government then at least in that small but nebulous space called Cuban civil society. There are, of course, other groups in Cuba that also operate in these space. The Damas de Blanco, the bloggerverse led by Yoani Sanchez, the small organizations that risk beatings, detentions and intimidation every time they demand even the most basic recognition of their human rights. But the Catholic Church with its island-wide network of churches and priests, with its connections to the international community through the Vatican, occupies a special place. I too share the frustration of those who have watched Cardinal Ortega seemingly turn his back on Cuba’s dissidents, including remaining silent in the face of the increasing and violent repression of the Damas de Blanco, and avoiding virtually any opportunity to directly challenge the authority of the Cuban regime. I too wish for a more vigorous and public opposition in the model of Archbishop Romero. But my guess is that Cardinal Ortega is trying to safeguard the little space conceded to him by the Castro brothers. In doing that, he is betting he will be able to build a Cuban Church—one soul, one meal at a time—that will help to guide Cuba once the inevitable transition away from los Castro begins.