A number of Catholic churches in Cuba were occupied yesterday by Cuban citizens who apparently demanded that Pope Benedict see them when he visits Cuba later this month.
The Catholic church strongly rejected their tactic and demanded that they leave church premises.
A statement from the Archdiocese of Havana said that a group of persons “who identify themselves as dissidents” in one Havana church (the Basílica Menor de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad) had a message for the Pope and a “series of social demands;” they “refused to leave the church,” the church was closed, and they remained inside, “frequently” placing and receiving calls on their cell phones. Church authorities told the group that the message would be delivered, but they declined to leave. The statement also noted that the church communicated with Cuban government authorities, “who agreed to take no action at all” against the protesters; that similar protests occurred in other churches across Cuba but those involved departed the premises; and that as part of a “prepared and coordinated strategy,” some dissidents and others were encouraged to occupy churches but “declined to do so because they considered it to be ‘an attitude of disrespect to the church.’”
The statement, signed by Archdiocese spokesman Orlando Marquez, said these acts were “illegitimate and irresponsible,” and argued that “no one has the right to convert places of worship into political trenches.”
Radio Marti’s story identifies the dissidents as members of the Partido Republicano de Cuba.
On its website, the Partido Republicano de Cuba says its work includes supporting the internal dissidents, supporting the U.S. embargo, and strengthening Radio and TV Marti. It also prints a statement from its members who were in the Havana church, naming the protesters and listing some of their cell phone numbers, and it posts a recording of the statement made from that church. It says churches were “occupied” by its members in Las Tunas, Holguin, and Pinar del Rio. The statement calls for formation of a provisional government “with the objective of creating a legal framework for the functioning of the rule of law.” It asks the public to enter a “national strike and to go into the streets to demand their rights.” This Miami website notes the events in Holguin, and the local bishop’s rejection of the protest inside a church there.
Miami blogger Emilio Ichikawa reports that dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez Antúnez, in an appearance on Radio Mambi, called the Partido Republicano de Cuba “a creature that nobody knows.” He paraphrased Antunez saying that the organization was made “by people outside of the island and has been absent” from opposition activities in Cuba. Ichikawa reports further that one of the Havana protesters was on Radio Mambi this morning complaining that the church is not feeding them and is thereby forcing them into an “involuntary hunger strike,” but nonetheless they are “prepared to carry on toward the ultimate consequences.” We’ll see about that.
Radio Marti’s story includes audio from Martha Beatriz Roque, who expresses her “disagreement with using the Catholic church in any way for political purposes.” Yoani Sanchez calls the protests “invasive and disrespectful.”
AP reports today that the group in the Havana church is no longer demanding to see the Pope, but rather that he act as mediator and take up their demands with the Cuban government.
I have no idea if this Cuban “occupy” movement and its day of protests was hatched in Miami or by activists in Cuba. But my bet is that opponents of the Cuban government will continue to distance themselves from it. The protesters have every right to request of the Vatican whatever they wish. But the Pope, Cuba’s church, and Cuba’s Catholic laity are also entitled to celebrate a pastoral visit as they wish. The protests accentuate the image of a movement focused more on actors outside Cuba than within, and they do the cause of opposition to the Cuban government no favors.