/IPS BULLETIN OF RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS/ CUBA: Castro Ends Cold War with Catholic Church

IPS Correspondents

HAVANA/ROME, Nov 24 1996 (IPS) - The rapprochement between Cuban government and the Catholic Church symbolised by President Fidel Castro’s audience with Pope John Paul II Tuesday was widely seen as another strategy to help overcome the economic crisis here.

The Cuban leader met the Pope in the Vatican where he discussed his government’s desire to dialogue with the Catholic Church after more than 30 years of silence. Following the 35 minute interview, a Vatican spokesman said John Paul II had accepted Castro’s invitation to visit Cuba next year.

Contrary to popular opinion back home, Castro, speaking to reporters in Rome, said the papal visit was not subject to conditions of any kind. “I have not stressed any conditions, and nor has the Pope,” he said.

“The Pope is free and we will treat him with respect during his visit, we are closer now, relations are good and I hope they will improve,” he added.

Many analysts in Cuba said this visit was purely another step in the quest for condemnation of the US blockade on Cuba which was announced by vicepresident Carlos Lage’s declarations on the island’s attitude towards the Vatican made before the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 12

“They are all signs of liberalisation on different fronts,” a member of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists told IPS, adding that “the Castro government is emitting signals of its will to communicate to the world.”

“We are not against change, but against the blockade,” Lage told the UN, after giving a speech described as a “master stroke” and interpreted as a proposal for liberalisation in Cuba’s intellectual circles.

The proposed Papal visit to Cuba in 1997 will provide a focus for the conservative, pro-Vatican bishops who have a history of conflict with the State, Betto, author of “Fidel and Religion,” said in an interview with IPS in Rio de Janiero.

Betto, a Dominican monk linked to the progressive movement within the Catholic Church, based his book on 23 hours of conversation with Castro in the mid-1980’s when the leader discussed various religious issues, the role of the church in Cuba and Latin America, Liberation Theology and his religious education as a child.

The Brazilian churchman said the Cuban government would try to avoid the “catastrophe” of the Papal visit to Nicaragua in 1983, where John Paul II produced a sharp criticism of the Sandinista government, refused to see war victims and was consequently abused by an angry mob calling for “revolution.”

The Pope certainly will not praise the Cuban regime, but it was not clear to what extent any “criticism” would be during his visit, Betto said.

Now dialogue has been reopened, Cuba has gained Vatican support in its fight against the U.S. blockade which could create a diplomatic headache for the United States, said the author.

The Cuban government is now ready to provide openings for the Catholic Church – a notion which would have been rejected out of hand only a few years back – in return for greater Vatican support against Washington’s 34-year blockade.

In fact, the Vatican ended its traditional neutrality on the issue last week when the Pope explicitly condemned the embargo policy at the inauguration of the World Food Summit in Rome last week, protesting against the adverse effects for the populations of embargoed nations.

Meanwhile, Catholic sources in Havana said that despite his initial acceptance of the invitation, the Pope will only come if Cuba makes sufficient advances in its bilateral relations in the next few months to the satisfy the local Church.

The Vatican asked the Cuban authorities to allow foreign priests on to the island, as there are presently only 200 odd churchmen to deal with a largely Catholic population of 11 million people.

The Church is also hoping for greater support for its humanitarian and welfare work, authorisation for the building of new churches and access to education centres and the mass media which are both monopolised by the State.

But, while the authorities appear ready to accept some of the demands, Church access to education and the press is still unlikely.

The lack of communication between the Church and the Cuban State dates from the early sixties, when the Catholic hierarchy took a stand against measures declared by the revolutionary government.

And although the government declared religious freedom earlier this decade, relations between Cuba’s Council of Bishops and the authorities are largely dominated by the long-standing situation, and consist mainly of declarations made by the two sides.

On the one hand, the government wants the Church to be totally apolitical and limit itself to purely religious functions, while on the other, the Cuban clergy feel themselves obliged to comment publically on the social situation in the country.

Reestablishment of dialogue coincided with the publication of Bettos book in 1985. The book sold two million copies in 32 countries, with Cuban sales accounting for more than one half of the total. Relations cooled again in 1989, when criticism voiced by local bishops and a visiting cardinal dashed plans for any immediate papal visit.

The collapse of the socialist block and the fall of the Berlin Wall then fed the belief that the regime in Cuba would soon come to an end, but Castro remains very much in power and his private audience with the Pope was enough to a promise of a visit.

Havana has officially been inviting the Pope to visit since 1989, and the request was repeated to Jean Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister, by his Cuban counterpart Roberto Robaina on his visit to the nation in October.

“If there are better relations with the Vatican it is because there are better relations between the State and the Church in Cuba and viceversa,” said Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega.

According to him, the Papal visit would mean Cuba “would no longer be an exception” and would corroborate the existence of “a will to liberalise” in the Fidel Castro government.

In Rome, Castro said; “There have never been traumas with the Church, only disagreements,” adding that anyone in Cuba is free to worship as they choose and that all religions are respected.

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, curate of the archbishopric of Havana, said John Paul II’s visit to Cuba – the only Latin American nation he has so far never visited – would be “a great political step forward.”

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro said the two had dealt with some aspects of national reconciliation. Pressed for further details surrounding the exchange between the Pope and Castro on the US embargo, Navarro insisted that he could only talk of the main thrust of the conversation and could give no details.

Navarro said there were 220 priests in Cuba, for a population of 11 million people, 97 percent of whom were nominally Catholic while the remaining three percent were Protestant.

Mariano Diaz, a 59 year-old practising Catholic in Havana said the meeting between the Pope and Castro had provided him with “great hope,” and the vast majority of passers by questioned in Havana agreed the meeting was something “incredible.”

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