Cuba and Catholicism

Church’s role expands as Castros’ decline

While Cubans wait for Fidel and Raul Castro to make their exit to allow for the beginning of a new Cuba, there have been small cracks in the brothers’ socialistic control.

Raul Castro in recent years has permitted somewhat more capitalism, offering enterprising Cubans the opportunity to supplement their meager state salaries. Visitors to downtown Havana have reported that block after block of the sidewalk level of commercial buildings, which for decades since the revolution had been used for living quarters rather than retail space, in some instances are returning to their original purpose. Where once key making, film developing, appliance and motor repair services seemed to be the only gainful employment, needed tasks more typical of a small city now are being allowed.

As significant, and perhaps more surprising, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that the Catholic Church in Cuba is being allowed to publish several publications that include content that challenges government-mandated thinking about social and cultural issues, and sometimes international events. The church newsletters and magazines are about a dozen in number, have small press runs of about a few thousand, and issues are passed from hand to hand. They generally come from the local archdioceses in Cuba.

Examples of content, according to The Wall Street Journal, are opinion pieces about shortcomings in education and possible changes to the country’s constitution. Sports and history also are topics, and subscribers are known to be government administrators and leaders in academia. The church publications have not positioned themselves in opposition to the country’s leadership, it is clear, but rather to provide a place for an exchange of ideas about issues of the day. Communist points of view may be included, as well.

One recently published story directly opposed Fidel Castro’s statements of support a year ago for Moammar Gadhafi. Castro had praised Gadhafi as a revolutionary hero, while the church publication said he had been a tyrant and that the Arab Spring deserved more support.

The Journal story suggests that the Catholic Church may be being allowed to publish commentary not found in official government publications, some of it controversial, because church resources have become important to the Cuban government. Originally officially atheist, the country, under fiscal pressure in recent years, has needed church services, according to the Journal. The church has provided social services such as soup kitchens and child day care centers that the government has not had the resources to do.

It also is possible that the Castro brothers, or perhaps at least Raul more than his older brother Fidel, believe the Catholic publications offer a safe outlet for social commentary and the expression of mild opposition to the country’s direction that lie just under the surface of Cuban society.

It would be easy to imagine too much in considering the degree of freedom that the Catholic publications seem to have. But it is possible that the country’s top leadership recognizes that in the very near future, Cubans will have the opportunity to shape a more progressive society and economy, and that will have a more successful start if there has been some practice at discussing and shaping ideas. Such statements of critical opinion have been absent from Cuba for 50 years.

It is not often that the Catholic Church plays a role in liberalizing society, but to a small degree, that may be what is happening right now in Cuba.