Cuba Opens Its Doors to Greater Church Life and Charity Services

Article excerpt

HAVANA -- On a hilltop across the harbor from Havana's main port a massive statue of Christ with his arms crossed looks down over the city.

"This is a Catholic country, so Christ is looking out for us," said taxi driver Juan Almeida, pointing to the statue. "But if you look closely he doesn't seem too happy."

Almeida's statement reflects the sentiments of many Catholics here. However, recent changes in church-state relations have begun to boost the spirits of Cuba's faithful.

Last year was a high-water mark in relations between Cuba's communist government and the Catholic church that culminated in President Fidel Castro's historic visit to the Vatican and Pope John Paul II's acceptance of an invitation to travel to Cuba, the only Spanish-speaking Latin American country he has not visited.

In describing the new church-state relationship, Castro said, "There have been differences and disputes between the Cuban church and the revolution, but today we must create a climate of confidence and good relations."

The climate of confidence and bridge building that Castro talked about is apparent at all levels of Cuban society, from the parishes on up through the politburo.

For example, the country's 11 bishops have softened their stance on several issues that were key before Castro's visit to Rome. The most telling is the change in their demand for Catholic-run schools on the island.

During an interview in December, following Castro's visit with the pope, Havana Auxiliary Bishop Carlos Baladron said that Catholic education was a second-level demand of the church, a marked change from earlier last year when the bishops were still calling for the government to return their parochial schools.

Even Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a long-time antagonist of the government, seems to be looking at things differently. In a homily given last September, Ortega said he was pleased with a government document on religious practices in Cuba that was released a few weeks earlier.

"I find it very interesting that the official document ... identified true religious faith with a series of categories that are truly Christian," he said. "If they stick to the letter of this analysis in terms of what faith means, there can be a new understanding of what the church really is."

The government, for its part, is pleased that both the Cuban bishops and the Vatican are condemning the Helms-Burton Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in March 1996 to increase the effect of the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba by extending its reach to other nations.

The bishops may complain about the Cuban government, as they did last year when Cuban fighter planes shot down two light planes piloted by the U.S.-based anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four U.S. citizens. But they never fail to criticize the U.S. blockade for making life unnecessarily difficult for Cubans.

Vatican connection

Key church observers, including the Rev. Raul Suarez, a Baptist and a member of Cuba's 500-member congressional body known as the National Popular Assembly, say the changes in the Catholic hierarchy are not all home-grown. Suarez believes the Vatican has had a hand in moving the bishops toward a kind of reconciliation with the government.

"It's hard to believe that the [Catholic] bishops have changed their position just because Fidel visited Rome. I think the pope is very interested in coming to Cuba and wants the bishops here to make things easier," Suarez said.

Brazilian Catholic priest and author Carlos Alberto Livanio Christo, known as Frei Betto, a longtime supporter of the Cuban government, thinks that the bishops and the government will play a "complicated game" in the coming years. He said that both sides have something to gain from improved relations -- the bishops can obtain more room to maneuver and the government can garner more support for its international campaign against Helms-Burton-style initiatives from Washington. …