Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Onward Christian Cubans

May 7, 2007

To appreciate just how worried Raul Castro is about the staying power of the Cuban dictatorship, look no further than the silencing last month of the small Catholic magazine, Vitral, by a newly anointed Cuban bishop. There can be little doubt that in shutting down Vitral the Church has yielded to state pressure.

Catholics, working in dissident groups such as the Christian Liberation Movement led by Oswaldo Paya, are a clear and present danger to the regime and, despite a harsh crackdown on them since 2003, are showing no signs of retreat. The magazine is a symbol of this unyielding dissent and thus it has to go.

What is more troubling for Catholics, both inside and outside the country, is what the gag order says about the Church's leadership, which has long been accused of preferring collaboration over confrontation with the dictatorship. Considering what happened in Poland, many had hoped the Church might lead the Cuban people to freedom. But now Catholics on the island are expressing a painful sense of betrayal. Whether out of fear of or sympathy with the regime, the Church seems to have capitulated.

Americas columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady discusses the closure of a Cuban, anticommunist Catholic magazine by the church.
Launched in 1994 in the western province of Pinar del Rio, Vitral (Spanish for stained-glass window) has a circulation of a mere 10,000. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in influence. It is one of very few published voices independent of the government, and it has not been afraid to speak in favor of change. At a time when the Cuban faithful have bravely adopted the advice given by Pope John Paul II during his 1998 visit to the island to "lose your fear," Vitral has served to both inspire and encourage thousands of Catholics.

Vitral had flourished under the guidance of lay editor Dagoberto Valdes and provincial Bishop José Siro González, who also oversaw the diocese's Center for Civic and Religious Formation.

Both the magazine and the center reflected the view of Bishop González -- aka Bishop "Siro" to his flock -- that the Cuban state violates daily the Cuban people's God-given right to human dignity. The Vitral Web site describes the Center's tasks, including that "the Catholic Church must contribute to the education of Cubans as free persons," and that it seeks "to create spaces for dialogue and democratic participation." You can guess why Bishop González was not a hit with the politburo. But by the time he retired in December at age 75, he was arguably Cuba's most beloved pastor.

Under Bishop González's care, Pinar del Rio became a problem for the regime. The diocese regularly prayed for the many political prisoners on the island, and voiced open concern about the country's wretched economic circumstances. The bishop also protected Mr. Valdes who, writing in Vitral, broached touchy subjects like democracy and plurality. In his parting shots in the April edition, the Vitral editor complained about Cuba's "anachronistic economic measures," the "violation of worker rights," and the isolation of the people, who are not permitted to travel around or leave the island.

There was one more thing Bishop González did in Pinar del Rio that did not ingratiate him with the owners of the slave plantation known as Cuba. He openly supported Mr. Paya's Varela Project, which accumulated more than 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for free elections. This linked the province's Catholics to the island's wider Christian movement clamoring for peaceful, democratic change. The movement grew even stronger last month when Mr. Paya and dissident leader Marta Beatriz Roque, who had been previously estranged, signed a unity pact, along with other opposition leaders.

Raul knows full well that the island is a cauldron of discontent and that when his brother passes on, the power of Castro charisma will go with him. He also knows that, inspired by Christian tradition, the dissident movement has been growing bolder in recent years. This explains the wave of reprisals against it and also why bringing the Church in line is an urgent task for Raul.

It's pretty clear that Cuba's highest Church official, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, made a decision long ago not to speak truth to power. As an example, while he has remained silent on the plight of the political prisoners, he has prayed quite publicly for the ailing old dictator. Now Cuban Catholics are worried that he has made a new accommodation with Raul and that the decision to muffle Mr. Valdes is part of it.

The string of events surrounding Vitral supports this theory. On April 9, Easter Monday, Vitral announced that the magazine's future was in doubt due to lack of funds. On April 10, the diocese confirmed the dismantling of the civic center and that it had prohibited prayers for political prisoners, their wives (Women in White) and democracy in Cuba during the Good Friday Stations of the Cross. On April 11, an outcry among Catholics erupted over the closing of Vitral. On April 17, Pinar del Rio's newly appointed Bishop Jorge Serpa released a statement saying that the magazine would not close but would have to change its editorial line: "I have asked that Vitral magazine keep to the truth based on the Gospel and the church's social doctrine, without falling into aggressive and argumentative expressions."

Pinar del Rio Catholics read this as backing away from the Christian calling to defend human dignity before a dehumanizing state machine. The faithful are reportedly circulating a petition asking for the magazine's editorial stance to be preserved.

A kind explanation for Bishop Serpa's decision and Cardinal Ortega's attitude toward the dissident movement is that the Church recalls the mass expulsion of 131 clergy in 1961 and the roundup of others who were sent to concentration camps. Perhaps the Church is trying to preserve its small space in Cuban society. Yet with the faithful risking everything for liberation, the Church is looking cowardly at best. And with the Cuban government so obviously fearful, now would seem to be the right time for Church leaders to stand up for the Cuban people.

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