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The Pope in Cuba

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By Emmanuel Yawe

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Why should the Pope who leads 1.196 billion Catholic followers the world over pay a visit to Cuba, a small communist country with a population fewer than 12 million people? Questions like this were asked repeatedly by those who oppose the policies of the revolutionary government that came to power in Havana 53 years ago. They have always advocated the isolation of Cuba, something they believe will cripple the tiny island economically, diplomatically and bring down the revolutionary government politically.
As the visit became imminent, some dissident groups within Cuba became more desperate and daring in their attempts to create an incident that would lead to a cancellation of the visit or, if it went on, manipulate it for their own limited goals. For instance, a group of 13 dissidents went ahead to take possession of and occupy the minor basilica of the Church of Our Lady of Our Charity in Havana a week before Cardinal Jaime Ortega called in the police to have them removed. Their intention was obviously to use the visit as a political tool.
It is to the credit Pope Benedict XVI that he ignored these antics and calls by going ahead with a three-day (March 26 -28) visit to the island in what has been universally applauded as a successful outing. The Catholic Church has had a long and turbulent relationship with Cuba. The country was ‘discovered’ by Columbus during his first voyage, on October 28, 1492. He took possession in the name of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, and named it Juana in honour of the infante Don Juan. The country was given several other names by its colonial impostors but the one that has remained is the one given to it by the original inhabitants – Cuba. It is from this background of being a possession of the Catholic monarchs of Spain that a complex history of relationship has developed between Cuba and the Catholic Church.
At the end of the 19th century, many Cubans viewed the Catholic Church as one of the primary enemies of the fledgling nation. There were two main reasons for this. The first had to do with the bond between Church and Crown. In exchange for the services that it provided the monarchy, the colonial Church received numerous privileges and exceptions. Priests were immune from prosecution in civil courts, church buildings were erected and clergy members were paid partly out of state coffers. The Church’s authority was backed by the might of the state and the force of law, and the profession of other religions in the colonies was illegal. Furthermore, until the 1880s, there was no marriage other than the canonical.
Many Cubans believed the dominant position of the Church in the colonial era to be evidence of the backwardness of the Spanish monarchy. Similarly, others viewed any lingering privileges that might be accorded the Church after independence as a vestige of the injustices of the colonial period. A more immediate reason for anti-clericalism being a component of Cuban nationalism was the fact that the Catholic hierarchy had actively sided with the Spanish monarchy against the Cuban revolutionaries during the armed conflict of 1868-1898.
Another major bone of contention was the fact that the Catholic Church of Cuba had failed to develop and sustain a significant native-born clergy. Many of the lower-ranking priests and all of the Catholic prelates were born in Spain. This led many Cubans to conclude that the primary allegiance of these men was to Spain, even before Rome.
The conflicts between Church and State during the first decades of the republic—e.g. over marriage, divorce, baptism, burial, education and the citizenship of priests—were, in large part, direct attempts by Cuban nationalists to strike a blow against the Church, and to divest it of power and influence that they believed it held illegitimately. The Catholic Church in Cuba was always on the side of oppressors.
This popular hostility to the Church explains why after the 1959 revolution, Cuba officially embraced atheism. Henceforth, the marriage between religion and state was dissolved. State funds were no longer used to finance religious activities. Fidel Castro in the early days of the revolution sent 150 Spanish priests parking. These acts served as a warning to those who had over many centuries benefited from the privileged position of the Church. There was a subsequent flight of 300,000 major beneficiaries of the injustices of the Church from the island. This also helped to diminish the influence of the Church in Cuba.
In 1992, Cuba declared itself a secular state and for the first time permitted Catholics and others to join the Communist Party. However, religious schools, a major source of conflict between the Catholics and the government, have remained closed since the early 1960s.
But over the years, relations between the Catholic Church and Cuba have improved somehow. Pope Benedict XVI’s few days in Cuba were the second papal visit ever to the island; the first, 14 years ago, by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who famously called for “the world to open up to Cuba, and Cuba to open up to the world.”
Back then, it was a meeting of the titans: the famously anti-communist pope who had nudged along the fall of Eastern Europe’s Soviet satellites and Fidel Castro, the longest serving Marxist head of state in the world and alumnus of prestigious Catholic schools. John Paul got various concessions from Castro in exchange for his visit. His faithful were denied membership in the Communist Party before the visit. Party membership was extended to them henceforth. John Paul also got Castro to recognize Christmas as a national holiday. Since that 1998 encounter, the Catholic Church in Cuba has played an important role in conflict resolution. The Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega has, for instance, chosen to play mediator between the Cuban government and the opposition. He has done this successfully on several occasions.
Pope Benedict cannot lay claim to his predecessor’s charisma. Even then he was able to make his impact felt in Cuba. The visitor was welcomed by a friendly crowd and his speeches broadcast on state media. At his behest too, the Cuban government accepted for the first time since 1959 to recognize Good Friday as a national holiday. Most importantly for world peace was the decision by the Pope to criticize, in clear terms, the 50-year embargo mounted against the country by the United States.
Speaking at a departure ceremony, Pope Benedict said Cuba could build “a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled,” but it would be more difficult “when restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people...The present hour urgently demands that in personal, national and international co-existence we reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints.”
I hope President Barack Obama listened to the 84-year old pontiff.

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