Connect to share and comment

Catholic Church plays politics in Cuba

The church's role has changed abruptly. Will it help facilitate the release of political prisoners?

Catholic Church, religion Cuba
Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone heads a Mass celebrated outside Havana's cathedral, Feb. 21, 2008. (Claudia Daut/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — For years, the Catholic Church has been a quiet presence in Cuban affairs, working carefully to regain a place in a communist-run system that formerly persecuted religious believers. Church leaders have succeeded largely by attending to Cubans’ spiritual needs, not their earthly politics.

But that role has changed abruptly in recent weeks. A new dialogue has opened up between Catholic officials and the Castro government, elevating the church’s role in Cuban society and raising expectations that it might secure the release of many jailed government opponents.

The conversations mark the first time communist authorities have engaged in talks about the island’s problems with another Cuban institution, opening a path to a so-called “Cuban solution” that might ease the government’s hard-line stance against dissent. The dialogue could also be a critical first step toward better relations with the Obama administration, which has conditioned changes in U.S. policy to reforms on the island.

Cuban authorities have long bristled at criticism and pressure from international human rights groups and foreign governments, especially the United States, but the island’s Catholic leadership is homegrown. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, was once sent to a communist re-education camp in the late 1960s.

So far talks with the church have only produced modest gestures from the Cuban government. It has transferred a dozen inmates to jails closer to their families, and paroled one wheelchair-bound prisoner, Ariel Sigler Amaya. But church officials characterize the dialogue with the government as part of a “process” that has no timetable but whose goals include an improvement in conditions for Cuba’s political prisoners, if not their release.

Read an opinion about the Catholic Church's Pope Benedict XVI.

“We’ve always said that this is process, and like any process, it won’t necessarily move forward at the same speed and along a straight line,” said church spokesman Orlando Marquez at a recent Havana press conference. “The process has begun, and we hope it will continue,” he said.

The Castro government hasn’t commented on its plans, but it has long maintained that it holds no political prisoners. Many of the jailed dissidents given lengthy prison sentences were convicted of treason for engaging in political activities supported by U.S. officials and Miami exile groups that aim to topple the government. Amnesty International recognizes more than 50 “prisoners of conscience” on the island, while local activists put the number of Cuban political prisoners at about 190.

The new engagement with the church has already paid dividends for the Cuban government abroad. At a European Union meeting in Brussels Monday, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos reportedly told members that the Castro government would free more prisoners “in a week,” as he successfully urged the postponement of a key vote on a Spain-led push to ease EU policy toward the island. The vote will now be delayed until September, in order to allow the church more time to continue its dialogue with Cuban leaders.

Moratinos’ prediction of imminent prisoner releases may also be linked to an official visit this week to Cuba by the Vatican’s top diplomat, Dominique Mamberti. His trip coincides with the “Catholic Social Week,” and a church-organized conference in Havana that will bring together Cuban prelates and top Cuban scholars, including several from U.S. universities. Discussion topics include economic reform and national reconciliation.