By Samuel Farber*
HAVANA TIMES, Feb 21 — On March 26, Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Cuba for a two-day whirlwind of religious ceremonies and meetings with the Castro brothers and other political leaders.
Fourteen years will have elapsed since John Paul II became the first pope to ever visit the country in 1998. Yet Benedict’s visit will have a substantially different meaning than John Paul’s.
Then, the Cuban Catholic hierarchy was in the initial stages of its approach to the Cuban regime in response to the island’s Communist Party having lifted, in 1991, its ban on religious practitioners joining the ruling party.
This ban had deprived active practitioners of Catholicism and other religions from access to the most desirable educational and job opportunities.
Since then, Cuba’s officially communist government and Catholic leaders have become improbable partners—sort of.
The Cuban leadership welcomed the Church and the Spanish government’s participation in the negotiations leading to the release of most Cuban political prisoners in 2010 and 2011.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, currently at the head of the church in Cuba, who ironically spent some time in the infamous UMAP labor camps when he was a young seminarian in the sixties, has traveled to the United States and Europe to act as an unofficial diplomatic bridge between the Cuban government and Washington, as well as with the European Union.
In return, the Cuban Catholic hierarchy has obtained a substantial number of institutional concessions from the Cuban government.
Some involve rights that would be taken for granted in any democracy, such as organizing religious processions like Cubans’ celebration of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, the island’s patron saint and authentic national icon for Catholics as well as for practitioners of the Afro-Cuban Santería religion under the name of Oshún.
Along similar lines, the Cuban government has allowed the Catholic Church to establish websites and electronic bulletins and—more important, in light of the very limited access to the Internet in the island—to publish dozens of small parish and group print publications, and 46 bulletins and magazines that reach about 250,000 people directly or indirectly.
Although less than 5 percent of the adult population reads them, these publications constitute the one significant exception to the Cuban government’s monopoly on the island’s media (publications of other religious groups are much less important).
The government has also provided material help in building a new Catholic seminary near Havana. The inauguration of the seminary, in November of 2010, was attended by Raúl Castro and other high-ranking government dignitaries, and Cardinal Ortega publicly expressed his gratitude to the Cuban government for its contribution.
Why has the Cuban government granted such recognition to the Church, allowing it to play an important role in the country’s political and social life? Cuba is not Poland, and Cuban Catholicism has been, even before the 1959 Revolution, among the weakest in Latin America.
According to the National Catholic Reporter less than half of the population identified itself as Catholic in 2006, and there is no reason to think that this has significantly changed since then. It is therefore unlikely that the Cuban government has behaved in this manner to accommodate growing popular support for the Church in the island.
Instead, Raul Castro has chosen the Church as a negotiating partner to implement his foreign policy designs, and he has done so because the Church is an important Cuban institution that is simultaneously part of an influential international organization.
In terms of his domestic policy, the Church is the most important institution on the island outside of the government’s control.
In addition, while the Church doesn’t enjoy overwhelming popular support, it does have a certain degree of moral authority that the government may attempt to harness as corruption—which Fidel Castro denounced in a widely quoted 2005 speech—corrodes the society, and as the political legitimacy of the regime declines, especially after the octogenarian Castro brothers inevitably pass from the scene.
The growing relationship between political and Catholic leaders runs parallel to broader changes on the island.
The economic changes approved at the Sixth Communist Party Congress of April 2011 point to a turn toward the establishment of a Sino-Vietnamese model— political authoritarianism combined with a state capitalist economy—and invite similar changes in other Cuban institutions.
In the case of the Cuban Church, this has already involved the establishment of a program teaching Business Administration, in association with the Catholic University of Murcia in Spain, and the training of self-employed workers, an important activity from which the Cuban government has been notably absent.
Supported by the Vatican, it appears that Cuban Catholic leaders see tactical collaboration with the Cuban government as part of a long-term strategy to strengthen its position and influence as the regime decays and recasts itself.
Meanwhile, it has disciplined and tried to isolate Cuba’s more militant priests, like José Conrado Rodríguez, and laymen, like Dagoberto Valdés, who have dared to go beyond the hierarchy’s very mild diplomatic criticisms of the government’s dictatorial practices, while ignoring and sometimes rejecting outright the vitriolic attacks directed at it by the Cuban hard right ensconced in South Florida and its supporters in the island.
WHAT DOES THE VATICAN WANT?
The Church is hoping to achieve a growing ideological influence that can translate into concrete institutional gains such as restrictions, if not the abolition, of abortion.
It is very unlikely that such a change would have broad popular acceptance except among the minority of practicing Catholics who are, after all, the principal constituency for the Catholic hierarchy.
But the biggest prize is the one it has been unsuccessfully pursuing for well over a century, long before the 1959 Revolution: the incorporation of Catholic teaching in public education.
The real political differences among Catholics on the island may end up helping it in its pursuit of these goals, as they have the unintended effect of allowing it to cover all bases and even hedge its political and ideological bets.
Thus on one end Palabra Nueva, the website of the Havana archdiocese, clearly voices a more conservative perspective reflected, for example, in the occasional pronouncements of Orlando Márquez, the official spokesperson for the Catholic archdiocese of Havana.
On the other hand, the Lay Council of the same archdiocese publishes Espacio Laical Digital, which functions as one of the few available forums for the expression of non-Catholic liberal, social democratic and even leftist criticisms of the government, thereby earning some credit for Catholicism among Cubans of those persuasions.
More recently, in September of 2011, the government allowed the Church to open the Félix Varela Cultural Center, named after a pro-independence priest who lived in the early part of the nineteenth century, in Havana.
At the time of the opening, Cardinal Ortega declared that the facility would offer studies in philosophy, sociology and psychology and hold art expositions, film screenings, concerts and other cultural events.
The Center is bound to increase Catholic ideological and cultural influence, although it’s too early to tell the kind of political impact it will have.
As international media breathlessly highlight Pope Benedict XVI’s trip in late March, remember this: The visit should be understood as the Vatican’s recognition and reward to the Cuban Church and government for their partnership, and also as the Cuban government’s reward for the Cuban Church’s diplomatic role and loyalty.
Undoubtedly, the Cuban people will come out to greet Benedict XVI. But appearances can be deceiving. The Pope’s visit is an operation carried out by the Cuban religious and political establishments entirely for their benefit, as the island’s government attempts to renovate its rule from above.
*Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and has been involved in socialist politics for over fifty years. He has written numerous articles and books dealing with that country, including his most recent, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books, 2011).
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of In These Times.