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CUBA: Ecumenical Christians Working for Dialogue

Dalia Acosta

CÁRDENAS, Cuba, Apr 12 2006 (IPS) - It is difficult to find someone who is unfamiliar with it. Located on what was once called Real Street in the western Cuban city of Cárdenas, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue provides assistance to vulnerable people and advocates new urban waste treatment plans, the use of biogas, and reforestation.

But that is only the best-known face of an institution that is working to carve out a larger space for reflection in Cuban society, with participation by different civil society actors in a constructive dialogue on the current problems and the future of this socialist island nation.

“If we are not part of the solution, then we are part of the problem” is one of the slogans of the centre, which organises workshops and retreats on issues like reconciliation, peace, conflict resolution, inter-religious dialogue, gender violence and sexuality.

“The future is not about closing our minds, but about opening them, without losing the basic essence of our project,” Pastor Raimundo García, executive director of the religious institution founded in the early 1990s in Cárdenas, which is located 150 km from Havana, told IPS.

García, who is opposed to the political changes for Cuba proposed by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, is convinced that “the construction of a participatory model of socialism is both desirable and possible.”

He also said the country is still experiencing “a lack of dialogue and participation” that makes it difficult to improve the political system.

“More than ecumenical, this is an all-inclusive institution,” said García. “Our assembly and board of directors include Christians from different denominations, as well as people from other religions, non-believers and members of the Communist Party. We have achieved mutual respect for each other, and we have been able to reach a consensus.”

On its website, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue describes itself as “a fraternal, religious institution with profound social objectivesàan inclusive, non-profit organisation” whose mission is “to foster culture, humanism and the very best of Christian virtues through processes of analysis, participation, advocacy and solidarity”.

“I always thought that there was a need in Cuba for centres that could contribute to dialogue, that would not be either of the State or the Church, but somewhere in between, where everyone could meet,” said García, one of the religious leaders who, after the 1959 triumph of the Cuban revolution, chose to stay in the country.

A graduate of the Baptist theological seminary of eastern Cuba, García has been a pastor for 42 years, and vividly recalls the period between the early 1960s and late 1980s when times were difficult for religious institutions in Cuba.

After decades in which religion was often seen as a counterrevolutionary throwback to the past, changes in the government’s official policy towards religion began to emerge in the wake of an Apr. 2, 1990 meeting between President Fidel Castro and 70 leaders of protestant churches and ecumenical groups.

More than 10 years after its founding, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue attends to roughly 140 people living in vulnerable conditions, providing them with food, laundry services, bathing facilities when needed, and spiritual or religious support for those who are believers.

The centre’s large inner courtyard is quite frequently used by people with HIV/AIDS and their families, for whom it serves as an ideal space for gathering, sharing their problems and undertaking self-help efforts.

The centre is also involved in environmental protection initiatives, and also contributes to the search for solutions to community emergencies, such as seeking funds to help improve the conditions in state-run social service facilities.

The centre has also worked for the normalisation of relations between Cuba and the United States and Europe, and promotes “constructive dialogue” with emigré communities and education on human rights, an issue that is practically taboo in Cuba as it is generally identified with dissident groups.

Like many other people in Cuba, García has at times felt the sensation that the country could return to the “rough times” when initiatives like those undertaken by the centre would have been impossible to carry out. Nevertheless, he is convinced that “history cannot move backwards,” and that those days will remain in the past.

In his view, Cuba should not cut off any lines of dialogue. On the contrary, “they need to be deepened, to see what people think in different sectors, how we can work together on a shared project for the future. It is possible that some officials could start to think about the total centralisation of the state once again, but it has already been proven that this doesn’t work,” he commented.

“We can’t go back to what we were in the past. If we close our eyes and bury our heads in the sand like ostriches, then we will definitely destroy what we have,” he stressed.

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