Cuba: The Castro Regime, the Catholic Church and the Transition to Democracy

Antonio G. Rodiles and Alexis Jardines

The Cuban regime is fully aware that time is not on its side and so it has launched a final ascent, in an attempt to transmute its economic and political power. The country is mired in a suffocating inertia that doesn’t support even simple measures of survival. Cuban society is past the brink of exhaustion from so many failures and, although fear continues to be an effective method of control, the fatigue continues to grow.

At the same time and on a limited scale, social activism is flourishing; but its proponents definitely need some kind of lift-off for their demands to be heard, and for the broader society to be aware of their activities.
This back-and-forth between totalitarian power and democratizing forces is ever more apparent. In an adverse environment, with the regime’s vital ally – Hugo Chavez – in serious trouble, the governing elite need to rethink a scenario for their own future, using the resources currently at their disposal.

The government is now focused – as an immediate and practical outcome – on getting the United States to eliminate the economic and trade restrictions on Cuba, which would the allow the country to take advantage of substantial new investments in the near term. However, attempts to wrest unilateral concessions from the American government have so far failed, and the powers-that-be have now launched a campaign on all possible fronts to exert pressure for the immediate relaxation of some economic sanctions and a future lifting of the embargo.

Raul Castro’s precarious approach is to bring together the country’s ruling Communists, along with docile Catholics and exiles, in a humiliating pact to achieve these objectives while, at the same time, delegitimizing the growing Cuban civil society that is demanding a democratic transition.

Current priorities focus on academic, artistic and religious exchanges, pressure from the international arena, activism from supporters and militants, and economic “hooks” designed to attract investors who want to get in on the action early. The recent Summit of the Americas provides an example of the intense political lobbying already underway.

Within this strategy, some academics, artists and intellectuals, both on the island and from exile, have already drunk the Castro Kool-Aid that keeps them spellbound within the totalitarian bubble. Most significantly, the Catholic Church hierarchy is enthusiastically helping, in open collaboration with the government, to prepare the drink for these acolytes – who include the innocent souls here in Cuba who have always been believers. Thus, the Church itself is now lobbying for support and financing for Raul’s regime, under the false slogan of reconciliation among Cubans.
Meanwhile, in various Church forums, the supposition is being floated that the current Government is the only body that possesses the legitimacy and power to carry out the much-needed process of transformation, and, therefore, all actors should grant this government a blank check. In a recent well-publicized debate on the Island, the assistant editor of Espacio Laical – the journal of the Lay Council of the Havana Archdiocese – said that social actors in Cuba today can be divided into nationalists and anti-nationalists. The former, he said, have the right to be part of the debate now that “they show a political will”; but he went on to claim that anti-nationalists should continue to be excluded because, in not accepting the legitimacy of the Government, they demonstrate that they “don’t possess the spirit of dialog.”

The moves of the Catholic Church are visible and range from the creation of spaces which, although more open, avoid singling out the ruling elite as the principle cause of the national debacle, to the recent visit of the Pope, who declined to meet with any representatives of Cuba’s nascent civil society. So, for example, emerging from a recent United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was a pronouncement on lifting the embargo and asking the United State government to reestablish diplomatic relations with the Castro dictatorship.

That conference had been barely concluded when Orlando Márquez Hidalgo, director the Havana Archdiocese’s magazine, Palabra Nueva, sponsored a large and extraordinary event in Havana on the subject of emigration, with the participation of 60 academics from the Island and exile; once again, opposition voices were totally excluded. Almost simultaneously, Roberto Veiga González, editor of Espacio Laical appeared in the heart of New York, lecturing on Church-State relations in Cuba at CUNY’s Bildner Center.

It’s as if we Cubans haven’t suffered enough; an old political actor – the Catholic Church — once silenced itself, reappears, now disposed to support the government in silencing civil society.

In an event without precedent, the Church hierarchy was complicit in the wave of repression unleashed before, during and after the visit of Benedict XVI. A note in the official organ of the Communist Party written by Orlando Marquez, speaking for the Havana Archdiocese, declared open season on repression and guaranteed a concealing silence. The two elites, in the full light of day, are attempting to bypass civil society.

This dual image, of victor yet reformist, is what the Island’s Government is trying to convey to the world. But it can be read in another way: that the push of Cuba’s nascent civil society is forcing the octogenarian totalitarians to regroup, and forcing them to seek support from a previously humiliated and defeated actor whose rise to prominence stems from the manifest weakness of the ruling power structure’s own efforts to quell the outbreaks of civic activism.

But Cubans are beginning to find their place after a half century of political asphyxiation, and they are not turning back. Thus, the Catholic Church has not entered the arena thanks to a divine gift from the powers-that-be who suddenly find themselves wanting to share. It is there because the government recognizes the existence of a vibrant civil society, which it is trying to keep confined to its prisons, or under close confinement and surveillance in its own homes. In short, the government is trying to hold these truly independent actors hostage – in the best totalitarian style – so that they cannot conquer their own space: namely the truly public sphere. Should its members successfully act out their legitimate role, this civil society could tear down all the plans for a prostituted transition.

Anyone who knows anything about the theological-philosophical foundations of Christianity knows that God is not in the churches, but in the souls of the people, in individuals. And souls cannot but be rotten when they turn their faces away from the abuse and naked repression of all who differ, of “the other.” There is no religious precept that can justify the marriage between the Catholic Church in Cuba and the totalitarian state.

There is no shortage of those who exhort, from the diaspora, for the acceptance of some economic changes that would supposedly lead to a democratic opening. Such is the case with the Cuban- American businessman Carlos Saladrigas, who recently hosted a conference in Havana, by invitation from the magazine Espacio Laical.

The outcome of this naïve approach, particularly in light of the experience of China and Vietnam, has blatantly demonstrated that without democratic reforms, the transformation from State socialism only ends in the construction of a unique post-communist capitalism controlled by corrupt elites, who are capable of taking the nation to unimaginable limits to satisfy their desires for overwhelming power.

It is important that every Cuban understand that the disagreements of the western democracies and, in particular, of the United States, are not with our nationhood, nor with our country, nor with our citizens, but rather with a political-military elite that lives like kings at the expense of the lack of freedoms and the misery of its own people. The Revolutionary propaganda’s insistence on the figure of a foreign enemy, one that threatens the independence and sovereignty of Cuba, is simply a way for the political-military octogenarian caste to keep intact the patrimony it has stolen from the people over all these years, while seeking, at all costs, to negotiate new agreements over the heads of its citizens.

The only path left is that of political reform as the central axis of change. Of respect for all the individual freedoms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom of expression and association, a gesture that does not cost money (at least for the people), and that all the democratic governments in the world would unhesitatingly support for Cuba. The investment of foreign and Cuban-American capital would then flood this Island. The United States embargo would be lifted immediately, with all the implications this carries. It would put an end to the brutal and irrational repression against opponents and dissidents. And it would accomplish, on a solid and authentic basis, a true reconciliation between Cubans abroad and within the Island.

The military dictatorship can offer no guarantees, not for the small proprietors now trying in vain to get ahead, nor for the great mass of the poor and unemployed, nor for their own technocrats and State companies who live with one foot in the street and the other in a jail cell, given the uncontrolled corruption bred by the system itself.
Time is running out for all of us, for those who govern and for us who survive. If we want to be pragmatic and realistic, political reform is the best and most efficient investment possible.

In the scenario described here we have to decide: what is surplus and whose removal would be the definitive solution to a situation that has overwhelmed, without any justification, to several generations of Cubans. The Church has nothing to say here, when at one extreme of the problem we find an elite with more than 53 years in power and at the other a plundered people, deprived of the most elemental rights and of access to all the goods produced and enjoyed beyond our shores.

Absolutely no one, for the sake of a hypothetically organized transition, can attempt to silence the independent voices that cry out, from within and beyond the Island, for a fundamental transformation. Dialog is a resource for which there is no substitute, but only if it is transparent.

What transition can we be talking about, and towards what, when the most notorious change is the increase in repression and an asphyxiating lack of freedom, while the “economists” only concern themselves with the survival of the elite?