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 CNS Story:

CUBA-TRANSITION Jul-30-2013 (880 words) With photo. xxxn

Panelists discuss church's contribution to improvements in Cuba

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Through a series of efforts -- including the publication of two magazines, the creation of education and social service programs, and negotiations to release some prisoners -- the Catholic Church in Cuba has been instrumental in moving the country in new directions, said a panel of speakers July 29.

In a forum hosted by the Brookings Institution, Orlando Marquez Hidalgo explained that the magazine, Palabra Nueva, of which he is editor and director, and its sister publication, the online magazine Espacio Laical, are the only forms of news media regularly available to their publisher, the Archdiocese of Havana.

As such, they regularly write about a wide spectrum of topics, from religion to the economy, sports, everyday life and politics, he said.

Another panelist observed that one of the most important accomplishments of the Cuban bishops has been to promote and validate Father Felix Varela, a candidate for sainthood, as an "eternal symbol of the nation."

While such publications as Marquez's might seem unremarkable in the United States, a third panelist observed, they serve a valuable purpose in Cuba, where their existence is among "the clearest signs of renewal" in the communist country.

Marquez also commented favorably on recent reforms by the Cuban government, such as those allowing private businesses, and permitting people to buy and sell their homes and cars and to own cell phones. And the climate in which the church has begun teaching people how to manage private enterprises, as well as offer instruction in religion, is beginning to have a positive effect on Cubans' views of their country, he said.

"I hear young people say they are now considering staying in their country," he said. "They think they have new opportunities to create something."

Tom Quigley, former foreign policy adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained that soon after Fidel Castro's revolutionaries took power in 1959, religious schools were closed and church property was taken over by the state. Many priests and nuns were expelled and many others left on their own, he said, while those involved in the church -- any church -- were subjected to discrimination at best and sometimes harassment and detention.

For decades, the church and the regimes of former President Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, the current president, had no official contacts, except through the religious affairs bureau, the government agency which must approve even mundane acts such as a church's purchase of a photocopier.

But beginning with Blessed Pope John Paul II's visit to the nation in 1998, inroads were created for loosening some restrictions on how the church functions. For example, John Paul laid the cornerstone for the first new construction for the church in nearly 40 years: a new San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary, which opened in 2010.

Quigley said the transition from Fidel Castro's rule to his brother's was one factor in more dramatic changes for the church. "It has been Raul who has helped to bring the Catholic Church at least partway in from the cold," he said.

The church negotiated the release of more than 50 political prisoners two years ago, has opened a new cultural center in Old Havana that includes the country's first school for obtaining a master's in business administration and has begun offering social services to meet the needs of the country's poor, elderly and disabled people.

Quigley observed that criticism of Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago de Cuba, president of the Cuban bishops' conference, for having any kind of relationship with the Castro government is unwarranted and unfair.

For example, he said, U.S. news media including The Washington Post and Radio Marti, which is a Cuban government agency, have attacked Cardinal Ortega for pursuing a relationship with the Castro government.

Quigley said U.S.-based activists who oppose the Castro regime have drummed up critiques of the cardinal for such things as the fact that Pope Benedict XVI did not meet with the activists known as the Damas en Blanca, or Ladies in White, when he visited Cuba in the spring of 2012, crying "crocodile tears for the Damas."

The women "had no more right or reason to demand a meeting" than did any other activists with whom the pope also did not meet, Quigley said. Besides, "they could have told him nothing that he was not already aware of."

A third panelist, Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a professor of government and director of the Cuba XXI Project at Georgetown University, said allegiance to the Castros, particularly Fidel, became a sort of national religion in Cuba, with nationalism replacing other things to which people were devoted, including religion.

Mujal-Leon said Raul Castro understood he could not govern the country in the same way his brother had. And Cardinal Ortega "had the sense to see there were greater negotiating opportunities under Raul," because the president actually needs the church in this time of transition. Castro said in February that he would step down in 2018.

Mujal-Leon said the promotion of the sainthood cause of Father Varela, who was named as venerable in 2012, in some ways puts the 19th century promoter of Cuban independence on an equal footing in the hearts of Cubans.


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