Cuba's Backslide on Religious Freedom

Havana Archbishop Comments on the Island’s State of the Faith

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 4, 2003 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- Five years after John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, the restrictions on religious freedom are returning, says the archbishop of Havana.

“A process has begun of return to the ideology” of repression, says Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino in this interview.

Q: Five years after the Pope’s visit, has something changed in Cuba?

Cardinal Ortega: Our Church has come out of silence: the presence of John Paul II made the Church known not only to the world, but also to the Cuban people. Many people discovered or rediscovered the faith as a living reality and all saw those days as the opportunity to manifest their most profound feelings with great joy and freedom. All this has left its mark.

If, on the contrary, we analyze the relations between the state and the Church, nothing has changed. Still over us is the Office for Religious Affairs, which depends on the Central Committee of the Communist Party and exercises its activity of control both at the national as well as the local level.

It is a fact: In Cuba the Church is very limited and often ignored by the authorities.

Q: But there are no longer certain limitations, beginning with Christmas, which has been recognized as a holiday.

Cardinal Ortega: Yes, thanks be to God this has been maintained. But then, as if in reaction to the new wind brought by the Holy Father, a process of return to the ideology was initiated, which little by little has become ever more insistent, with a propaganda as in former times that seemed to be surmounted.

Q: Does it mean that an anti-religious campaign has been unleashed?

Cardinal Ortega: No, the Church is not attacked, not directly. But there is a return to the idea of revolution for which one must give one’s soul and sacrifice everything.

It is evident that the Christian finds himself in conflict with this all-encompassing concept. It is followed by a silent struggle against the Church, regarded as a private entity, a marginal event, which can rob the revolution of strength and energy. In this connection, it is always regarded with a kind of indifference.

Q: “May the world open itself to Cuba and Cuba open itself to the world,” was the Pope’s famous invocation. Has something like this happened?

Cardinal Ortega: Immediately after the Pope’s visit, many heads of state came to Havana and some countries renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba. It was logical to hope that Cuba would also open up to the world.

The commercial horizon has been somewhat enlarged, but I don’t think the Pope was referring to this. He was pointing out, rather, Cuba’s need to open up to the Western world, to the Christian civilization to which we belong. Above all, Cuba should open to its interior, to a dialogue with society, as the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba openly requested.

Q: But, however …

Cardinal Ortega: However, there has been a withdrawal, steps have been taken backward, also in the area of the economy. The small business and individual and family activities that were permitted in preceding years are burdened with a heavier tax and are driven to illegality. And the flight from the country continues with all possible means.

Q: Have you been able to talk about this with Fidel Castro?

Cardinal Ortega: After the Pope’s visit, I met only once with the president, in 2001. I asked him very concrete questions, such as support for our charitable works and the entry of foreign religious personnel for pastoral activities.

There was a notable increase after the Holy Father’s visit, but in the last three or four years their number has continued to be practically the same.

Q: You have often mentioned the Church’s right/duty to educate. What is the situation?

Cardinal Ortega: The Church has no access to education, considered the exclusive task of the state. The authorities do not want to talk about the subject. The same happens with the media: We have no access, with the exception of very few occasions of a celebratory character, for example, on the occasion of the feast of Christmas.

There is no information on the activity of the Church, with the exception of some brief news on the Pope. It is as if the Church did not exist in Cuba.

Q: So, the hopes of five years ago have been disappointed?

Cardinal Ortega: I don’t have this feeling. The Pope’s visit touched the heart of Cubans and tore that veil of darkness that had enveloped the Church for many years. Perhaps those who expected great changes at the sociopolitical level are disappointed. Personally, I did not have this type of expectations.

Q: But something is changing at this level. At the initiative of some Catholics, the Varela Plan has come into being, which calls for a popular referendum to begin a democratic transition. What do you think?

Cardinal Ortega: Its leader [Oswaldo Paya] is a Catholic of conviction, who lives his membership in the Church with fidelity. I congratulated him in December, when the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize, as he has always exercised freedom of conscience despite the many difficulties. He does not propose violent methods, nor does he preach hatred.

However, this does not mean that the Church supports his movement over another. Today there are several opposition groups in Cuba, and it is not the Church’s task to give political indications.

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