United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Interview with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana

To anyone paying attention to what is happening in Cuba today, Cuban or foreigner, it is clear that we are experiencing one of the most unique moments in our history. However much we insist on the contrary, there are uncertainties in the economic, political, cultural and even religious aspects impacting our national life. To all this, we should add the place of the Church in the midst of Cuban society: while some people think that it says too much, others think that it says little.
In this interview with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, New Word presents not only a timely perspective from our archbishop and pastor in regard to the moment we are living, but his words, reiterating once again, the Church's call for dialogue and reconciliation among Cubans. --Orlando Márquez
Palabra Nueva: Your Eminence, recently the national media gave wide publicity to a meeting attended by pastors and leaders of virtually all the religious denominations present in Cuba with President Raul Castro, Mrs. Caridad Diego, Head of the Office of Religious Affairs, other senior Cuban officials and the Brazilian Dominican friar Frei Betto. But there were no bishops or representatives of the Cuban Catholic Church at this meeting. This has generated many doubts or questions about the Church's position regarding the Cuban government. Why was the Catholic Church absent in these events?
Cardinal Jaime Ortega: For this event we received an invitation at the level of auxiliary bishops like me and other members of the clergy and certain religious orders, but declined to attend because it was a commemoration of two events not directly related to the Catholic Church. One is the anniversary of a meeting held by President Fidel Castro twenty years ago with the Cuban Council of Churches, in which the Catholic Church is not a member. The other event commemorated was the publication in Cuba of the book "Fidel and Religion" by Frei Betto. He did not directly involve us as a Church, although this book contains a number of useful responses from Fidel that have value even today with outstanding issues regarding church-state relations, including various aspects of Catholic education. But we did not judge as appropriate to the Church this broad gathering of various religious faiths, representatives from syncretic cults, spiritualists, and even leaders of Freemasonry, the latter which is not a religion.
I think the only thing they have in common, these religious manifestations, animists and other associations, is being treated all the same by the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. But this office, which provides services to various religious groups or associations in Cuba, is not a kind of governing body that meets with the same purpose with all the various groups that are under its authority.
PN: At that same meeting were evoked the words of former President Fidel Castro in an interview with Frei Betto twenty years ago and described in the book you mentioned, specifically its call for a "strategic alliance" between Christians and Marxists to deal with Latin America's ills. But now the "strategic alliance" would be a permanent alliance between Cuban Christians and the authorities in Cuba to work, he said, for the good of society. As the Catholic Church was not in that encounter, what is the response to the invitation to establish a definitive strategic alliance with the government for the good of society?
CJO: Indeed, at that time there was talk of a strategic alliance with the Cuban state to oversee the well being of the people, by the various groups gathered there. I have never accepted these terms as describing the actual role of the Catholic Church in society and its relations with the powers of the State, because they have military or political resonances that are not appropriate for developing relations between Church and State, such as the possibility of acting in society, to serve men and women living in our country, not depending on an explicit or implicit social pact between Church and State
The action of the Church in society belongs to the order of rights, and the right to religious freedom is clearly recognized by the Constitution in force in Cuba. It is within the constitutional framework itself, as in its identity and own way of proceeding, that the mission of the Catholic Church in Cuba is deployed towards the common good. In pursuit of the common good the Church could link official or private institutions with international aid agencies, etc., which can assist the general welfare of the Cuban nation; but either vertically or horizontally the action of the Church is not founded on a partnership but springs from the right of the church body to present the love of Jesus Christ in the world today, according to its own mission.
PN: When the Church speaks of the common good, it also speaks of a series of favorable conditions for the integral human development of the person living in society. In the difficult conditions facing the country today, how can the church help in finding the common good for society?
CJO: Our country is in a very difficult situation, probably the most difficult we have experienced in the twenty-first century. In the Cuban media there appear all kinds of opinions on how to find solutions for economic and social difficulties at this time. Many talk of socialism and its limitations, some propose a reformed socialism, others refer to specific changes that must be done to leave behind the old Stalinist-type bureaucratic state, others talk about the lack of enterprise of workers, the low productivity, etc. But there is a fundamental common denominator among almost all discussants: there is a need in Cuba to promptly make the necessary changes to remedy the situation. I believe that this opinion reaches something of a national consensus and postponing it produces impatience and uneasiness among the people.
The international financial and economic crisis made its appearance just at the time that three hurricanes affecting Cuba were leaving huge losses.
These new realities, together with the long lasting embargo by the United States, are added to the perennial economic problems of Cuba which flow from the limitations of the kind of socialism practiced here, and all these create sometimes a grim situation.
PN: Pardon ... Do you think really that the conflict with the United States makes a mark at determining the life of Cubans?
CJO: I believe that a Cuba-US dialogue would be the first step that is needed to break the cycle in which we find ourselves.
At the beginning of his administration, President Raul Castro suggested to the United States dialogue without conditions, and on all issues, including human rights, and has repeated his proposal in more than one occasion.
In his presidential political campaign, Barack Obama also said he would change the style used so far and will seek above all to talk directly to Cuba.
At that time there were growing expectations about a possible meeting between the two countries. However, after coming to power, the new American president has repeated the old pattern of previous governments: if Cuba makes changes regarding human rights, then the United States will lift the embargo and open up space for further dialogue.
While important steps were taken to modify some unwise measures imposed by the previous government, in time the pre-election proposals were altered. Once again the old politics prevailed: start at the end. I am convinced that the first thing must be to get together, talk and as the dialogue advances some steps would be taken that would improve the difficult situations or overcome the most critical points. This is the civilized way of dealing with any conflict.
PN: In recent weeks the situation has worsened, specifically from the death of the prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo due to a hunger strike. At least one Cuban citizen has joined this kind of protest, the wives and mothers of political prisoners are demonstrating on the streets for their loved ones, to which the Cuban government responds with firmness ... All of this further thinning the environment. Is it possible to have a dialogue in these conditions?
CJO : The tragic event of the death of a prisoner as he was on hunger strike has resulted in a verbal war by the media in the United States, Spain and other countries. This strong media campaign contributes to further exacerbating the crisis. It is a form of media violence to which the Cuban government responds in its own way.
In the midst of this, what can the Church do for the common good? Certainly the Church’s mission prevents her from simply joining one of the two warring parties, on the one side political goals of destabilization, and on the other the consequent defensive retrenchment. What belongs to us as the Church is to invite all to sanity and wisdom in order to pacify the spirits.
We know that a call to peace is historically irrelevant in the midst of war. But it is the call that the Church has always repeated in every time and in any conflict. Pope Paul VI coined a phrase that here has all its validity: "Dialogue is the new name of peace." Because amid the crossfire of words and arguments are the people, tired and anxious for a more peaceful present and a more prosperous future. If our voice was heard, it necessarily would contain a call for dialogue.
The bishops of Cuba made this call in our note lamenting the tragic death of Orlando Zapata, in which we asked "from the authorities who have in their hands the lives and health of prisoners to take appropriate measures so that situations are not repeated, and, at the same time, to create conditions for dialogue and appropriate understanding, to avoid reaching such painful situations that do not benefit anyone and cause suffering to many." This conciliatory provision, although it seems unfruitful, is what we repeated in the case of Guillermo Fariñas, the other Cuban citizen who has joined this mode of protest, asking him to abandon the hunger strike.
PN: In this action-reaction environment, we have seen increased among us the reactions of some form of violence against those in Cuba who have expressed their disagreement or demands, specifically in the highly publicized case of the Damas de Blanco. What do you think of this?
CJO: This is not the time to stir passions. That is why it is so sad to see the acts of repudiation to mothers and wives of several prisoners, which are now joined by another group of women, all known as the Ladies in White.
After the painful acts of repudiation that occurred during the exodus from Mariel in 1980, we thought that they would not return again to our national history. At that time, the bishops met with a senior government official who, after hearing our opinion of these acts, said, "You can relax, these acts will be over and very soon." Indeed, the acts of repudiation disappeared shortly afterwards. But we saw with surprise that some time later these actions began to appear again on the national scene, and among Cubans in South Florida against other Cubans of different thinking, and artists from Cuba, etc. Such verbal and even physical intolerance should not continue in our history as a people, as a characteristic of the Cuban person. In fact they are always a few who staged these events that do not indicate the feeling of the majority.
P.N.: Returning to the political prisoners. I remember that following the arrests and summary trials of 2003, both the Vatican and the Cuban bishops asked the authorities for a significant gesture of clemency, for humanitarian gestures with individuals who had received long sentences and were sent far from their homes. Does the Church continue expressing its interest in these people? Is there anything new about it?
CJO: With respect to prisoners held for political reasons, the Church has historically done everything possible for them to be released, not only for those who are sick but also others.
With the collaboration of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the United States in the 80s, there came out of jail a significant group of prisoners, and together with their closest relatives they left for the United States. Taken together, prisoners and their families, there were more than one thousand who left Cuba on flights paid for by the American bishops. Only those who had committed heinous crimes did not receive visas to the United States or other countries. At the request of Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba, also a good number of prisoners were released and those who received visas from various countries also emigrated, with the same reservations by recipient countries about those who had committed serious crimes.
This is what the Church always does with prisoners and every person affected with them such as their families. The same has been done with respect to the five Cubans imprisoned in the United States at the request of their families, making arrangements, so far unsuccessful, at least so that two of the wives who for nearly ten years haven’t seen their husbands may visit them. With respect to anyone who is in such deplorable situation, without analyzing the causes or grounds for their conviction, the mission of the Church has always been one of understanding and compassion, working discreetly but effectively so that the situation of those people affected be overcome for the good of themselves and of their relatives, although we have not always achieved the desired results.
In summary, in this difficult time, the Church in Cuba calls for prayer and action from all believers so that love, reconciliation, and forgiveness prevail among Cubans here and elsewhere.

[Thanks to http://internalreform.blogspot.com for the english translation!]