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Hope — and controversy — after dialogue with Church

Posted on Tuesday, 06.29.10
POLITICAL PRISONERS

Hope — and controversy — after dialogue with Church

The meetings between Catholic Church officials and Cuban leaders have produced mixed results. BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

Five weeks after Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Catholic church leaders held unprecedented talks on political prisoners, the result has been some modest improvements, much hope and lots of controversy.

Critics say the improvements have been purely cosmetic, that human rights abuses continue and that Castro is talking to the church leaders only because they are too weak to push for significant concessions.

Supporters say they hope for further improvements and argue that Castro has effectively recognized the church, the country’s largest non-government organization, as a legitimate voice in Cuban affairs. A leftist academic in Mexico even warned last week that Castro is playing with fire, ceding power and maneuvering space to a Vatican bent on toppling Havana’s communist system just as it did in Poland.

Castro, who met May 19 with Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Mnsgr. Dionisio García, head of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference and bishop of Santiago, no doubt has made some positive gestures — though none were reported in the state-controlled news media.

Wheelchair-bound political prisoner Ariel Sigler, serving a 25-year sentence, was freed and Darsi Ferrer, a dissident jailed for 11 months, was finally brought to trial and essentially sentenced to time served.

A dozen other jailed dissidents were transferred to prisons closer to home and the Ladies in White have staged their Sunday protest marches in Havana, without harassment from pro-government mobs.

PANEL DISCUSSIONS

What’s more, the church last week held a series of panel discussions that featured calls for economic, social and even political reforms as well as religious freedom — in a country that expelled scores of priests and nuns in the 1960s and was officially atheist until 1991.

The gestures drew a cautious welcome from the Obama administration, and the European Union postponed a vote on lifting its conditions on relations with Cuba, hoping that Castro will make new ones by then.

Church leaders say they do expect more prisoner releases, but describe the dialogue with Castro as a “process” and ask for time.

“In matters as delicate as this, it is good to have patience,” Havana’s Auxiliary Bishop Juan de Dios Hernández told reporters. “The term `process’ implies time.”

Yet even supporters of the dialogue say the Castro gestures have come too slowly.

“I believe there will be more releases, but since everything is in short supply here, it seems they are doling out the releases with an eye-dropper,” said Laura Pollán, spokesperson for the Ladies in White, relatives of 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown.

“But I am also convinced that not all will be freed, because they are being held as trade tokens” for U.S. or European concessions to Castro, Pollán told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana. Cuba holds about 190 political prisoners.

Enrique López Oliva, a Havana academic who specializes in church affairs, agreed. “We are living a moment of hope. There’s hope that these [Castro] gestures will be followed by others . . . yet I would expect they would be very gradual,” he said.

“I am hopeful because it’s the best for Cuba and its people, but I am concerned it may be too slow — if Raúl dies or a hurricane hits . . . and everything stops,” added Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

DISSIDENTS EXCLUDED?

Among the harshest critics of the dialogue, Oswaldo Payá, a Catholic activist and head of the opposition Christian Liberation Movement, has complained that church leaders are excluding dissidents from the talks.

“We believe Cubans should not remain mere spectators in this or any other negotiation,” he said in a statement. “The dissident movement is much more than an issue that government and church representatives can discuss without listening to us.”

Castro is only talking to the church because of the condemnations of Cuba sparked earlier this year by the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata after an 83-day hunger strike and several mob attacks on the Ladies in White, said human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez.

What’s more, church leaders have been too silent during 50 years of totalitarian rule to now play an effective role in the talks with Castro, said Dora Amador, a Cuban Catholic activist in Miami. “The hierarchy, the leadership, has betrayed its duty,” she said.

Recent visits to Cuba by the Vatican’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, were seen as attempts to boost the island church’s standing in the dialogue with Castro.

But Heinz Dieterich, a leftist sociologist based in Mexico, argued that the Cuban church and the Vatican — along with human rights groups, Washington and Europe — are pushing Castro to adopt risky reforms to overcome Cuba’s economic, political and social crises.

If the Cuban government “manages to fill the masses with enthusiasm again with deep, swift and SELF-DETERMINED reforms, it could win. If it loses its time with clowns and (the church), it will wind up like Poland,” he wrote in the leftist Web site Kaosenlared.com.

Others have a much less threatening view of the Cuban church, with López Oliva noting that attendance at masses has been dropping since the spike generated by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998.

http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/06/29/v-fullstory/1705864/hope-and-controversy-after-dialogue.html

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