Over the last decades, the Catholic Church has moved from the margins in Cuba’s national life to a more influential role.
This progress has been mostly defined by decisions taken in Cuba. But it has also been propelled forward by Pope John Paul II’s trip in 1998 and now by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI this week.
We were in Cuba as the Pope journeyed from Santiago to Havana. We spoke to scores of Cubans. Disappointment was hardly the prevailing sentiment, and we dissent from the view expressed in some news accounts that the Pope’s trip to Cuba failed to meet expectations.
In our view, this is what the Pope’s trip to Cuba accomplished.
First, it served a pastoral purpose, “I came here,” the Pope said, “as a witness to Jesus Christ.” He spoke to a Cuban congregation that is a fraction of the island’s population, but his very presence reminded them they were not forgotten.
Second, the trip is likely to lead to larger spaces for the faithful to worship. David Adams, writing for Reuters, said the Pope “used the trip to deliver a shopping list of requests in talks with Raul Castro…including official recognition of Good Friday – barely a week away – as a national holiday, as well as pressing for greater access to the media and the right to open religious schools.”
Third, the visit touched Cubans beyond the community of Catholics. His visit received extensive coverage on Cuban television. Many Cubans we saw in the Plaza of the Revolution – especially younger Cubans –did not come to fulfill a religious purpose, but were drawn to the historic presence of the Pope because they wanted to hear and participate in something historic.
Fourth, Pope Benedict and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, during their homilies in mass and other public appearances, pressed on issues that the larger Cuban community does not get to hear discussed, regardless of their beliefs.
The Pope said these and other things with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, who attended two of his masses, seated in the front row. Even some of his critics in the U.S. were forced to acknowledge his message “demanding dignity and freedom for all.
Fifth, the Pope’s visit was an occasion for reunification, reconciliation, and exchange for Cubans and their families from the United States. Archbishop Wenski led a pilgrimage of hundreds of Miami Catholics to see the pope. They included Cuban Americans who had fled the island, never returned, or rarely visited.
But, as the Associated Press reported, some of these pilgrims enjoyed the mind- and heart-opening experiences that can only take place through travel:
Lourdes Amorin, who left Cuba for Puerto Rico as a young girl with her family shortly after the 1959 revolution, said she grew up thinking she had nothing in common with Cubans on the island. “Our parents, our relatives got it into our minds that we have nothing to return to. I am going to go home to tell them we have a lot in common. We are human. We are all Cuban.”
This is progress. More is likely to follow.
As it updates Cuba’s economic model, cutting state employment, encouraging Cubans to take private sector jobs, cutting benefits and subsidies, the government is saying, as the Wall Street Journal noted this week, that the state cannot do everything for its people, and it is inviting the church to help fill the resulting void in both spiritual and material ways.
On the island, the church is the largest, most encompassing institution other than the state, and Cuba’s government acknowledges its reach by engaging its help in delivering social services and aid to the islands’ needy. At the same time, as Anya Landau French observed, the church is publishing “unvarnished criticisms of Raúl Castro’s halting economic reforms.” The church’s role is also political – it was involved in Cuba’s decision to release all of the prisoners that remained from the 2003 crackdown against dissidents.
This will continue, as Dr. William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert and the dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, told McClatchy, as demonstrated by the Pope’s last meeting in Cuba, with former president Fidel Castro. The meeting, he said, “sends a message to ordinary Cubans that Fidel is comfortable and supports the new relationship between the church and state.” This in turns will build acceptance of the church’s role among intellectuals and elites in the months and years ahead.
Some will never be satisfied. Senator Marco Rubio worried that the church had negotiated “political space for themselves in exchange for their moral imperative.” A spokesman for the exile community told the Miami Herald “The pope’s visit is part of a combination or strategy to confuse people.”
We’re not confused. This trip provided solace for the faithful, religious space for the church, reconciliation for Cuban Americans, a testament to the power of travel, and the promise of a larger role for the church during an era of economic and political change in Cuba.
We think this is pretty powerful stuff.
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on Monday to begin a much-anticipated three-day visit to the island. The visit, which had been framed by the Vatican as an evangelical pilgrimage, included masses celebrated by the Pope in Cuba’s two largest cities, Santiago and Havana, a visit honoring the island’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, and meetings with Cuban Catholic Church officials and President Raúl Castro. A brief, last-minute meeting with former President Fidel Castro took place on the last day of the Pope’s visit, reports Reuters.
As he proceeded through Cuba’s streets, the Pope was greeted by thousands of the faithful and well-wishers. Both masses were well attended, with the mass in Havana’s Revolution Plaza drawing an estimated 300,000 people, Reuters reports.
During his visit, the Pope called for a return to faith, for increased space for religion in Cuban society, for greater freedom on the part of the Catholic Church to establish its own schools and hospitals, and for Good Friday to be declared a national holiday, the Catholic News Service reported. The Pope also made several political comments – calling for “authentic freedom”, for the Cuban system to move forward, praying for those “deprived of freedom” (a reference to prisoners on the island), and condemning the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, the AP reports.
After comments made by the Pope earlier in the week, in which he stated that Marxism, as conceived, is no longer realistic in society, Marino Murillo, Cuba’s minister in charge of economic reforms, affirmed that “there will not be political reform in Cuba,” but assured that the government “would do everything necessary to update the economic model,” the AP reports.
Leading up to and during the Pope’s visit, dissidents reported mass detentions, cell phone service cut-offs and intimidation aimed to discourage them from attending public events. These actions prompted responses from international human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. During the Pope’s mass in Santiago, a man, identified as José Daniel Ferrer García, reportedly yelled “Down with communism,” and video footage shows him being promptly detained and led away from the mass.
Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, in Havana for the Pope’s visit, was quoted saying:
For the Catholic Church in Cuba to have the Pope’s blessing now – with the role it is playing, engaging with the Cuban government – is really huge. For the American audience, this is an important opportunity to give a broader U.S. public a lesson about the extent of religious freedom in Cuba and the willingness of the Cuban government to give the Pope a platform to talk about his aspirations for the Cuban people – these things are not anticipated or understood given how cut-off Americans are from the complicated realities of Cuba.
The Washington Post and the AP provide stories of Cuban Americans who traveled to Cuba for the Pope’s visit, many visiting the island for the first time since their arrival in the U.S. Channel 6 in Miami covered the return of the pilgrims.
Finally, Paul Haven for the AP provides this excellent analysis of statements by the Pope and by Fidel and Raúl Castro during the trip, stating:
Often, the polite octogenarians at the heart of this religio-political drama appeared to be talking past each other, the pontiff using biblical parables about cruel, long-dead kings, the Castros their customary language of revolution and defiance to American dominance. In his respectful send-off, President Raúl Castro acknowledged in the visit’s greatest understatement: “We do not think alike on all matters.”
Amnesty International has called on the government of Cuba to release brothers Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz, and has deemed them “prisoners of conscience.” The brothers, who are also journalists, were arrested on December 25, 2010 and charged with public disorder and insulting national symbols after carrying a Cuban flag while singing a rap song critical of the government at a local celebration. Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel were sentenced to two and three years in jail, respectively.
Cuba’s program to distribute idle land to small farmers and cooperatives as a part of the larger agricultural reform process is facing serious implementation challenges, EFE reports.
Pedro Olivera, the head of the National Land Control Center, stated at a press conference that the program has been “hindered and limited” by delays. He gave the examples of bureaucratic obstacles in the approval process, and state-run entities not declaring the full amounts of idle land that they are charged with administering. “Slowness and delay” in the actual exploitation of lands once distributed was blamed on a lack of “control and follow-up” as well as supply-side problems and a need for training for new farmers. About 26% of new farmers are under 25, and more than 70% do not have experience in agriculture.
According to Olivera, to date, more than 194,000 requests for land have been received, with about a 92% approval rate and more than 1.4 million hectares already distributed.
Cuba’s government hopes to build 13 golf courses over the next eight years in a bid to attract more tourists and offer more diverse experiences for the 2.7 million tourists that come annually, reports Bloomberg. In statements this week, Tourism Minister Alexis Trujillo said that the government aims to build theme parks and add 25,000 hotel rooms, adding that “They’re all in different stages of negotiation…It’s a program that includes the participation of mixed capital that’s now been in the country several years.”
Tourism to Cuba has increased steadily over the past few years, and relaxed travel restrictions under the Obama administration, which allowed for increased family travel as well as religious and cultural trips to Cuba, led to a 7.3% increase in tourists from the U.S. As a result of relaxed travel restrictions, it is estimated that over 300,000 Americans, of whom about 95% are Cuban-American, traveled to the island last year.
Occasionally, the logjam breaks.
Dozens of nominees have been confirmed for positions in the State Department and several other agencies following months of delays by members of the Senate, the Washington Post reports. A GOP source stated that the decision was made after “lots of discussion,” an agreement by Democrats to confirm Republican nominees, and an understanding that the White House wouldn’t make any further recess appointments.
Included in these confirmations was Roberta Jacobson, who is now confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, a position that she has intermittently filled after it was vacated by Arturo Valenzuela, who left the post last summer. Also confirmed was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Julissa Reynoso, ambassador-designate to Uruguay, who previously played an important role in the formulation of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Senator Marco Rubio, who had blocked Jacobson’s confirmation, indicated earlier in the week that he would allow the nomination to go through, according to the Miami Herald. One reason for the delay offered by Rubio was to pressure the Obama Administration into reviewing and placing more restrictions on its people-to-people travel policy. In a statement released last Thursday, Rubio said that while he still has “concerns about the entire program,” one of his conditions for lifting the hold was that the administration “at least enforce its own regulations and stop the more egregious abuses.”
The State Department has agreed to make changes to the application process…They will now require applicants to demonstrate how their itineraries constitute purposeful travel that would support civil society in Cuba and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission inquire about Cuba business
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sent a letter on Nov. 29 to the chairman of Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica, inquiring about the company’s Cuba business, the Cuba Standard reports. Also in November, the SEC asked for similar information from Priceline.com, Inc. (the company responded that it wasn’t aware of any business on the island).
Telefónica maintained a subsidiary on the island until 2005, and previously participated in negotiations for a stake in ETECSA, the Cuban telecommunications firm. Regarding those negotiations, Telefónica affirmed that “[n]o agreement was reached, and we do not currently have any proposed plans to pursue this or any other investment opportunity in Cuba.” Another Telefónica subsidiary, which operates submarine cables, held talks with Cuban officials in 2009, but that project is reportedly on hold until the U.S. provides a license, according to documents obtained by Spanish newspaper El País.
SEC, which regulates the U.S. stock exchange, has cited the U.S. government’s “state sponsors of terrorism” list in inquiring about relations with Cuba and other U.S.-sanctioned countries.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, USAID released a heavily redacted version of its 1999 contract with Freedom House, while refusing to release any other related documentation on the programs from January 2000 to December 2007, citing “privileged or confidential” information that covers “trade secrets and commercial or financial information.”
Tracey Eaton, a journalist who is investigating the USAID “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba, and attempting to determine the distribution of, and reasoning behind millions of dollars of funding, discussed the documents received and withheld on his blog Along the Malecón.
Among the data USAID kept secret are the identities and activities of aid recipients and partners in Cuba. Eaton notes that in such FOIA requests, USAID asks the private contractor (in this case Freedom House) to determine what information should be deemed secret, putting considerable control over available information in the hands of the private contractors themselves.
The State Department refused visas for two senior Cuban diplomats applying to travel to a panel discussion in New York, the Associated Press reports. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that they were not denied for political reasons, but on a reciprocity principle because U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba are routinely refused permission to travel outside Havana. The two diplomats, from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC, were requesting to attend a panel discussion on Cuba sponsored by the magazine Marxism-Leninism Today.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Panama is working with the governments of Ecuador and Colombia, as well as with Cuba’s government, to find a solution to the growing number of Cuban immigrants passing through those nations illegally on the way to the United States, EFE reports. Roberto Henríquez, Panama’s Foreign Minister, stated:
They are creating an unnecessary problem, because about 30-40 of them arrive each day, and they are monopolizing the existing shelters, which aren’t prepared to accept this quantity of people.
Through an immigration loophole, many Cubans arrive in Ecuador and then attempt to move to the U.S. Henríquez announced that he would be meeting this week with the ambassadors of Cuba and Ecuador in Panama to discuss a solution of “shared responsibility.” In addition, José Raúl Mulino, Panama’s Minister of Public Security, met this week with his Colombian counterpart Juan Carlos Pinzón, to discuss the matter.
Around the Region
El Salvador Monthly Report, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas
This report, by CDA’s Senior Consultant for El Salvador Linda Garrett, provides analysis on the most important stories coming out of El Salvador this month, including election results, an announced truce between gang leaders, journalist intimidation, and increasing concerns about militarization.
It’s time to revisit the Cuban Adjustment Act, Lisandro Pérez, the Miami Herald
The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, a way to fast-track the citizenship process for Cuban American “refugees” living in the U.S., was passed in 1966. Lisandro Pérez argues that it is outdated and needs to be revisited, especially in light of attacks by hardliners who want to curtail visits to Cuba by recent arrivals.
Power to the People?, Total Return Blog, The Wall Street Journal
This article tells the unlikely story of the Cuban Electric Company, an American company kicked out of Cuba soon after the Revolution. The company still maintains an annual shareholder meeting and a loss claim against the Cuban government.
Cuban medical school trains U.S. doctors, Andrea Mitchell Reports
This report on the Cuban healthcare system, medical cooperation and U.S. students studying in the U.S. features an interview with Gail Reed of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC).
Business in Cuba, Cuba: Forbidden Fortune, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, CNBC
“For decades, Cuba has been known as a forbidden country. It’s also a hidden treasure that if opened, could provide a massive boom to U.S. companies, many of which are ready, willing and, in some cases, already doing business with Cuba.”