Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Benedict in Havana

Under strong morning sun and relieved by a cool breeze, many thousands attended today’s mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion. 

Pope Benedict XVI presided in Spanish, spoken clearly and in a strong voice, from a specially built shaded platform in front of the monument to Jose Marti.  To his right was an orchestra and very large chorus that provided music unlike what he hears in Rome, and more beautiful. 

Directly ahead of the pope were the plaza’s iconic images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos; if he turned to his right he saw a massive image of the Virgin of Charity hung on the fa├žade of the national library, and to his left the national theater bore a banner reading “Charity Unites Us.”

The crowd at mass was large but not overwhelming, the size impossible to tell from my ant’s-eye view.  It appeared to be a mix of the faithful, the curious, and some who attended briefly then departed.  Some were from abroad.  Crowds were calm, access was easy despite some closed streets, and traffic restrictions dissolved soon after the pontiff’s departure. 

The religious message in the scripture readings and the homily had to do with truth, revealed by faith and reason, as the only true foundation of liberty.

Benedict turned to church-state relations in his homily.  He expressed happiness at advances made in recent years, including in the church’s public expressions of religious faith, and he called for the church and authorities to continue on this path and to build on what has been achieved, “for the good of all.”  The church is “seeking no privilege” in its effort to gain greater space, he said, and seeks only “to serve its founder.”

Cuban television reported that a brief visit took place between the pope and Fidel Castro today.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pope Benedict's vote of confidence


It says something about Cuba that Pope Benedict XVI, at age 84 and traveling with difficulty, will spend three days on the island after visiting Mexico to greet the local faithful and meet bishops from around Latin America.

Benedict’s pastoral visit will cap Cubans’ celebration of the 400th anniversary of their patron saint, the Virgin of Charity.  Thousands greeted the statue of the virgin in its just-completed pilgrimage through every Cuban province, taking two months to make its way through the Havana archdiocese alone.  Cardinal Jaime Ortega called the celebration a “springtime of faith” that drew out a hidden but latent religiosity in a people whose government once stigmatized all faiths except that of the communist party.

When Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, Fidel Castro was in charge and many expected the presence of a charismatic pope to spark big changes. 

Today, Cuba is changing on its own.  President Raul Castro is leading a deliberate but significant economic reform that promises to move more than one million Cubans from public to private payrolls and has already expanded the ranks of small entrepreneurs by 200,000.  Government enterprises are to turn a profit or be dissolved.  “We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working,” he says.

Cardinal Ortega puts it a little differently.  The economic system is “bureaucratic and Stalinist,” he said in a 2010 interview, and “creates apathetic workers with low productivity.”  With a “national consensus” solidly backing reform, delays only lead to “impatience and dissatisfaction among the people.”

Castro and Ortega make an odd pair – a communist who served four decades as defense minister, and a pastor whom the communists tried to re-educate in a work camp in the 1960’s. 

Yet their relationship is respectful.  Raul Castro attended a beatification ceremony in eastern Cuba and the opening of a seminary outside Havana.  They have a regular dialogue that marks the church’s acceptance by the government as an interlocutor about Cuban domestic policies.  In his day, Fidel Castro always preferred to speak to the Vatican over the heads of the Cuban bishops.

Cuba’s Catholic magazines are pushing the boundaries of the reform debate with articles – written by clergy, Catholic laity, Cuban academics, and Cuban Americans – making the case for a greater economic opening and freedom to travel abroad, and for the communist party to embark on political reform. 

In a sense, the church is serving one function of a political opposition by pressing the government to form policies that serve the public good, and to keep its promises.  But the church is anything but a political organization, and its public policy voice derives from what it conceives as its mission to look out not only for Cubans’ spiritual needs, but for their general welfare.  As an editorial in a church publication put it, ideologies “should be at the service of the Cuban people, not the other way around.”

This role comes with its share of controversy.  The church’s good offices were essential to the release of 130 political prisoners serving long sentences – reducing the number of prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International to zero – but when all but twelve accepted an offer to leave for Spain with their families, the church was accused of weakening the political opposition and accommodating a form of government antithetical to Christianity. 

This argument will not be resolved.  The Cuban Catholic church has reached a prudential judgment that as a religious institution and Cuba’s largest civil society institution, it does best to use dialogue and debate to push for change from within, even if that change is incremental. 

That’s an unpopular posture among those who want all Cubans on the island to take on greater militancy.  But my guess is that Cubans on the island want changes that improve their daily lives and support the church or anyone else who promotes them.  Which is not to say that Cubans don’t cover the complete spectrum of opinions about the kind of government they would like to have and the kind of policies they would like it to adopt.  But they don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.  And militancy is easy from Miami.

Where does this leave Benedict, the “intellectual” pope described by Cardinal Ortega in remarks on Cuban state television? 

His visit will surely be more than pastoral.  One can imagine that he will seek greater space for Catholic religious or charitable activity, and make some requests of a humanitarian nature.

But Benedict is not likely to “open a new chapter in the history of Cuba,” as Lech Walesa predicted dramatically last week.  His embrace will be a vote of confidence in Cardinal Ortega and the Cuban church, and as the Vatican’s head of state he will applaud improved church-state relations in Havana.  But he will leave it to the Cubans to make their own history.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rene packs, Alan waits


Well, this is interesting. 

Both Alan Gross, the USAID contractor serving a Cuban jail sentence, and Rene Gonzalez, the convicted Cuban agent who completed his jail term and is now on probation, have relatives who are dying of cancer and each has requested a chance to return home for a visit.

Cuban authorities have not commented on Gross’ request.

The Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’ request on national security grounds, but a federal judge has now granted it – a two-week visit with a requirement that he check in from Cuba and return to finish serving his probation.

This might seem to set the stage for a reciprocal action on Cuba’s part.  But since the Obama Administration argued against the Gonzalez visit in court, it would be tricky for U.S. diplomats to take credit for the judge’s order and present it as a positive gesture. 

But try they might.  When Cuban officials are asked to commute Alan Gross’ sentence and let him come home for good, they respond that they are willing to talk about humanitarian gestures on a reciprocal basis.

One thing that stands out is that the United States trusts Gonzalez when he says he will come back after his visit.

Granma’s dry note on the judge’s order is here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

JFK vs. Fidel, Fidel vs. JFK


The Herald’s Glenn Garvin reviews Brian Latell’s new book on the Cuban intelligence service.  He zeroes in on a defector’s report that, owing to statements Lee Harvey Oswald made at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, Fidel Castro may have known in advance that Oswald was going to assassinate President Kennedy.  And thanks to a double agent, Fidel knew that JFK was after him.  Latell: “I don’t say Fidel Castro ordered the assassination, I don’t say Oswald was under his control.  He might have been, but I don’t argue that, because I was unable to find any evidence for that.  But did Fidel want Kennedy dead?  Yes.  He feared Kennedy.  And he knew Kennedy was gunning for him.  In Fidel’s mind, he was probably acting in self-defense.”

Odds and ends


  • AP: Dozens of dissidents were detained Sunday as they gathered for a march, and “by Sunday evening, many had been released and some driven back to their homes.”  Elizardo Sanchez’ group counted 604 such detentions in February.

  • The Herald reports on an effort to allow jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross to depart Cuba for two weeks to see his cancer-stricken mother.  His lawyer says he has a Treasury Department license that would allow him to return to Cuba after such a visit.  There is a parallel effort to gain permission for one of the Cuban Five, Rene Gonzales who is out of jail and on parole, to go to Cuba to visit his dying brother.  (The Justice Department is opposed.)  Alan Gross’ wife Judy sympathized with the Cuban’s request: “I fully appreciate Rene Gonzalez’ need to visit a dying family member. We need to remember that these are real people and real lives that are profoundly affected by these decisions.”

  • This podcast features a discussion of the Alan Gross case by editors and reporters of the Jewish Daily Forward, shortly after the February Associated Press story appeared.

  • Emilio Aranguren, bishop of Holguin, issues a statement (pdf) on the protest in the Holguin cathedral last week.




  • The Oakland A’s Yoenis Cespedes in the Sacramento Bee: “What they earn, they don’t receive. That’s what motivates Cuban players to leave.”

  • A number of Spanish-language blogs are linking to the 1937 papal encyclical (Spanish, English) on the “false messianic idea” of “atheistic communism,” mentioned here when Cardinal Bertone visited Cuba in 2008.