Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Church and its voice

This editorial in the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical drew a lot of attention last week, and for good reason.

Our standard image of Cuba does not include independent publications explaining to the government that its actions are falling short. Or stating that the public, having waited with patience and generosity for the government to act, feels that the reforms lack “something big…capable of renewing life and banishing despair.” Or chiding the Communist Party for being “tied to dogmas that failed in other experiences, and stuck in a very vertical relationship with society.” (“Vertical” meaning “we give the orders.”)

The editorial applauds reforms made to date and acknowledges that the process should not be rushed. But some things, it argues, should not wait: authorizing private cooperatives and small and medium-sized enterprises, and allowing professionals to work autonomously, i.e. in the new and developing private sector. (These are among the steps that would do most to address the government’s goal of boosting productivity, boosting private sector employment, and cutting government payrolls.)

The editorials’s strongest point is political: that the Communist Party’s reform project will fail if it is not built on a consensus that reflects “the real country,” which is to suggest that the Party is not yet representing real public sentiment.

This is strong stuff, but it’s not unique in Cuba’s Catholic print media. The magazines Espacio Laical and Palabra Nueva, along with other publications and activities of the Cuban Catholic church, are pushing the Cuban policy debate forward. Some articles are analytical, others opinionated, and all tend to support the editorial line that reform will benefit the Cuban people – so let’s get on with it.

Consider just a few items from recent weeks:

An essay by Palabra Nueva editor Orlando Marquez calls for the government to fulfill its commitment to reform immigration and consular policies affecting Cubans in Cuba and outside, as a “matter of justice” and “a necessity for the future.” He writes: “It is obvious that in current regulations there are excessive and bothersome restrictions on…the freedom for persons to enter and leave the country, which is not just.” He argues that no external factor should be a pretext for delay: “There will always be hostilities, crises, enemies, differences, disputes, and unpleasant calamities, but the nation best prepared to face these and other challenges is the one that knows how to stand tallest, not physically but morally, when it acts as one and seeks growth in internal harmony, respect for differences, its capacity to accommodate them for the benefit of all…”

Then there is this essay (pdf) in Espacio Laical, “About the Press in Cuba,” by professor and former journalist Guillermo Rodriguez (also in English at Progreso Weekly.) He explains how Cuba’s media culture is built on principles developed by Lenin for clandestine media before the Russian revolution, hence its ingrained secrecy, control, and instinct that national unity requires limits on information. He wants more than the press Cubans have now, arguing that “in the press as a whole you cannot have only those criteria considered to be ‘official policy.’ There must also be evaluations that enrich thought and even help modify what today is the “official policy.” That is a value that society cannot do without, because it nourishes and develops it.”

Finally, on the critical policy debate concerning the authorization of private cooperatives – their creation from scratch, and their creation through conversion of small dysfunctional government enterprises into private units – Palabra Nueva published a long essay by University of Havana researcher Camila Piniero. She explains the origins of cooperatives in 18th century Europe, their place in Latin America today, and their value for Cuba. Two types of cooperatives in the farm sector give Cuba a jump in creating a new law that would authorize cooperatives throughout the economy, she argues, claiming that the need for such a law is more urgent as layoffs proceed. All in all, it’s a thorough and forceful argument for cooperatives as effective engines of employment and development, and as a form of business that compatible with social equity objectives.

The Catholic media’s elevation of voices such as these in public debate is a natural counterpart to the private dialogue that Cardinal Jaime Ortega carries on with government authorities. (That dialogue is unprecedented in that it covers domestic policy, not merely Church business.) Both are part of the Church’s social mission of looking after the well-being of its flock and, by extension, the Cuban nation. So too are the Cardinal’s role in facilitating the release of political prisoners, and the Church’s nationwide charity work.

The Church’s effort to push the economic debate seems political, and it is. The Church is not an opposition party, but it is performing a function that a political opposition often plays: It is holding the government and Communist Party to public account for their promises, and presenting ideas that it believes to fit public sentiment and the national interest. Unlike the dissidents who are little known and sometimes harmed by outside assistance, the Church is a national institution, its reach is nationwide, and its connection with the Cuban people is close.

It is little wonder that the Pope seems poised to announce a visit to Cuba next spring. The visit will surely be billed as a pastoral visit to tend to his local Church. Which it surely will be.

And it will be very different from the last papal visit.

In 1998, people outside Cuba expected that John Paul II would be a catalyst for change in Cuba. The mere embrace of this beloved anti-communist cleric, the thinking went, would move the Cuban people to do things they had not done in decades.

In 2012 I doubt that the expectation will be the same. Benedict is not the same public figure as his predecessor. It’s perhaps a less interesting Pope, but it’s a much more interesting Cuba – one where the government has indicted its own policies and declared the need for change, the government and public are wrestling with that challenge, and the Church is involved in a big way.

Having taken Cardinal Ortega’s resignation letter and stuck it in a drawer, the Pope is preparing to give him a bigger, more public gesture of support.

If no one looks to Benedict to change Cuba, and if his visit puts more spotlight on the debates and struggles of Cubans, all of them, then that’s a good thing. It’s their country, after all.


Looking ahead to next year, National Catholic Reporter has an interesting reflection on the Pope, the poor, and his view of the Church’s role.

1 comment:

brianmack said...

Thomas Merton, a great writer and
Trappist Monk, converted to Catholicism after his 1940 trip to Cuba. He attended Mass at The Church of St. Francis in Havana. I no longer attend Mass but after seeing the congregants in the churches of
Cuba and if I lived in Havana, would be going daily. The Church in Cuba, under Cardinal Ortega, has been the brightest star and light since the birth of Christ. I might not be a believer but seeing the transformation of this religion and its effects on the policy changes of a stubborn regime, makes me reconsider.