As the Pope prepares to travel to Cuba, the Vatican is drawing on its experience as a protagonist in Poland’s peaceful transition from communism to democracy, Victor Gaetan writes in Foreign Affairs. “But the analogy is weak because the Cuban Church has failed to foster an authentic grass-roots democracy movement,” he notes, and in a post-communist Cuba, it may “find itself castigated for having made a pact with the devil.”
When Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba next month, he will once again reinforce a strategy that the Vatican has allowed the local Catholic Church there to pursue for more than three decades, diligently avoid any political confrontation with the Castro regime, collaborate with Havana to combat the U.S.-led embargo, and support the Cuban government’s incremental economic reforms. In exchange, the Church has been able to maintain a certain amount of autonomy on the island, allowing it to rebuild its presence and position for the possible post-Castro economic boom times to come.
It is a controversial balance: Cubans in the exile community vigorously criticize the Church because they think Church leadership on the island should challenge the dictatorship. But the Vatican takes the long view. Rather than overtly push for change, the Church has come to pursue a strategy of “reconciliation.” …….
Orchestrating the visit is Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, the 75-year-old archbishop of Havana. …..Ortega’s most intense struggle of late came in 2010, after the death of Orlando Zapada Tamayo (left), a political prisoner who had been on a hunger strike for 85 days. Zapata’s death galvanized the opposition in Havana, including the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of female relatives of many political prisoners…….After Zapata’s death, the Damas enlarged the protest to downtown streets, where thuggish mobs (suspected of being government connected) assaulted, shoved, and spat on the women. When the Damas returned to their silent protests, the mob followed and blocked them from walking. What had started out as a small, daring public testimonial to private suffering had morphed into a gender-based riot. Then more prisoners joined the hunger strike. Projected around the world, the images suggested a Cuba on the verge of violent change.
Ortega stepped in. By his telling, he wrote a letter to Raúl Castro in May asking that the Damas de Blanco be allowed to march peacefully. Just three days later, government officials called him to arrange a meeting with the women, and the Damas had a chance to request their sick relatives either be released or moved closer to home. Ortega continued to negotiate with the government until July, when he announced he had struck a deal with Castro to release prisoners.
But in the end, Ortega diluted the opposition’s victory with some tough rhetoric. Not long after the prisoner release announcement, he visited Washington to receive a $100,000 prize from the Knights of Columbus. In his acceptance speech, he astounded Cuba watchers by referring to the jailed democracy activists as ”convicts,” who were — in words that were clearly soothing to ears in the Castro regime — “considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.”
Then he did the rounds in Washington. ….. Ortega argued that prisoner release should pave the way for closer U.S.-Cuban relations, including lifting the trade embargo. Within six months after his visit, the White House had lifted restrictions on travel for academic, religious, and cultural groups. Through the end of the year, Havana set free more than 100 political prisoners — provided they accept exile.
Playing the role of holy reconciler has afforded the Vatican three advantages. The Church has gained physical and operational space to expand its presence on the island. Second, Ortega has brokered conflict, which fulfills the Church’s mission (“Blessed be the peacemakers,” the Bible reads) and gives it a recognized role, both in the country and outside. And lastly, and perhaps most important, in taking the long view, the Vatican is laying the groundwork so that it helps facilitate a nonviolent post-Castro transition.
According to Vatican sources engaged with Cuba, the Church remembers its experience helping to steer a peaceful transition from communism to democracy in Poland. That process was a negotiation between the regime, the Church, and its allies in a daring lay Catholic movement, the Solidarity movement, which was the trade union at the vanguard of political change.
But the analogy is weak because the Cuban Church has failed to foster an authentic grass-roots democracy movement. Since the late 1990s, a devout Catholic, Oswaldo Paya, has led a democracy movement inspired by the Polish example called the Varela Project. Some even call Paya “the Walesa of Cuba,” alluding to the Polish visionary Lech Walesa. Paya has been received by John Paul II and awarded the Sakharov Prize for human rights by the European Union. Yet despite his growing reputation, the Cuban Church has done nothing to support or encourage him or his movement.
The risk the Church runs in a post-Castro future is that it will be castigated for having made a pact with the devil. After the democratic transition in Poland, some 15 percent of the clergy were accused of cooperating with the communists. They were subsequently sidelined. Likewise, the next generation in Cuba might not take the time to acknowledge the Church’s sacrificial role. On that score, the Church will have to reconcile its own position.
This is an extract from How the Catholic Church is Preparing for a Post-Castro Cuba.