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God and profits: how the Catholic Church is making a comeback in Cuba

 

Tim Padgett, Time

 

It's been a year of resurrection for Cuba's Roman Catholic Church. Last November, it opened a new seminary — the first since Fidel Castro's communist revolution all but shut down the church 50 years ago. In May, Cuba's bishops finished brokering the release of 115 political prisoners. Though education is strictly the role of the regime, Catholic dioceses have been able to expand their training of teachers, civic leaders and entrepreneurs — they even offer that iconic capitalist degree, the M.B.A. A statue of Cuba's Catholic patroness, La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity), is being hailed by large, devoted crowds as it tours the island before her 400th anniversary next year. "It demonstrates a spiritual desire in Cubans," Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba's top prelate, told me. It is, he adds, "a return to God."

 

But any sense of exultation by church leaders is tempered by a familiar feeling of persecution. Its role in the prisoner releases has been questioned by critics who accuse the church of accepting the regime's onerous condition that the freed dissidents go into exile. (Most did leave for Spain, but Ortega insists it was by choice and not part of any deal.) Conservative Cuban Americans like U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have branded Ortega a government "collaborator" because they feel he's too quiet about human rights. Meanwhile, progovernment militants are harassing dissident groups like the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), prisoners' wives and other relatives outside Catholic churches in the capital, Havana, and cities like Santiago.

 

The church is discovering that being the first — and only — alternative institution to the Cuban revolution is both a blessing and a curse. As President Raúl Castro, who took over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2008, tries to engineer politically perilous economic reforms in his severely cash-strapped nation, he seems to have decided the church is the only noncommunist entity he can trust to aid those transitions without seriously challenging his rule. Speaking to the National Assembly in August, Raúl even offered a mea culpa for decades of blacklisting "Cubans with religious beliefs." Says Ortega: "We're breathing an atmosphere of change, feeling a moment when there are no more confrontations" between church and state.

 

But confrontation is exactly what many Castro critics crave. What good is the church's return to the Cuban center stage, they ask, if it doesn't spark democratic change, as the Polish church did a generation ago in Eastern Europe? The clergymen plead for patience. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who has aided the Cuban church's revival, says his counterparts there are "opening new space for individual initiative and independent thought," which they believe could help hasten communism's demise when Fidel, 85, and Raúl, 80, die. But Ortega warns against the church "overreaching," and Wenski says that it also wants to promote "a sense of reconciliation" among Cubans. (See visions of Cuba through an artist's drawings.)

 

Those sentiments are at odds with the inevitable expectation among the regime's opponents — and a fear among Castro loyalists — that the church will lead a Caribbean Spring. "For many," says Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, "the [church] is simply moving too slowly."

 

That may be a harsh judgment, given how far the church has come in a relatively short time. The Jesuit-educated Fidel declared Cuba an atheist state in the 1960s: he banned Catholic media, expropriated church schools and exiled or hounded out 3,500 priests and nuns. Only 200 clerics remained to minister to millions of Cuban Catholics. The openly faithful, including priests like Ortega, were often sent to labor camps for "re-education."

 

The church began to regain its footing in the 1980s, but its fortunes rose with the economy's collapse in the 1990s, after the fall of Cuba's benefactor, the Soviet Union. Sensing the usefulness of Catholic aid organizations like Caritas, whose Cuba chapter Ortega founded in 1991, Fidel proclaimed the island merely a "secular" state. Then, in 1998, he welcomed a historic visit by Pope John Paul II. The planning of that event, says Wenski, was a watershed: "It gave Catholics there a new confidence and planted the seeds of civil society." That was evidenced by new Catholic publications like Vitral magazine, one of the island's first independent media.

 

But it wasn't until the more pragmatic Raúl succeeded Fidel that the church stepped up as a political as well as spiritual player. Some clergy, like Havana Vicar General Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, forged diplomatic ties with the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party; others began testing the limits of social dialogue from the pulpit, like the outspoken Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez of eastern Santiago province, who sent Raúl a letter in 2009 complaining of "constant and unjustifiable human-rights violations" in Cuba. Though closely watched by the state, Rodríguez has not been jailed.

 

In early 2010, Cuba's bishops started the unprecedented mediation, along with Spain, between Raúl and dissident groups, leading to the prisoner release. The church had a special stake in the matter, since most of the prisoners belonged to the Christian Liberation Movement started by the prominent dissident Oswaldo Payá; they'd been arrested in 2003 as part of one of Fidel's most severe crackdowns. Nonetheless, says the University of Miami's Gomez, "the church saw an opportunity to get these people out of their miserable condition — and by doing so, it feels it succeeded in gaining new prestige that can help it influence democratic and market reform in Cuba that much more." Still, Gomez and others worry that the departure of so many of those prisoners from Cuba — by choice or under pressure — leaves the impression that the church, far from leveraging its clout with Raúl, has instead been co-opted by him.

 

But hopes that the church can do to the Castros what it did to East European communist regimes are vastly overblown. In Poland the clergy could galvanize democracy groups like Solidarity because the church enjoyed popular support. Even before the Castros' 1959 revolution (which was backed by many priests who opposed the abuses of the Batista dictatorship), the Cuban church couldn't count on that kind of mass devotion. The island's Spanish colonial era bred a skeptical, anticlerical current, and the church competes with other spiritual outlets, including Protestant Evangelicals and the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion Santería — not to mention the cult of Fidel, revered by many Cubans as a secular savior.

 

That reality, along with the tight grip Raúl's military and state security still have on the country, has forced the church to maneuver more carefully. When the bullying of dissidents like the Damas de Blanco became too frequent to ignore in recent months, Ortega, 74, had his office issue a statement insisting that "violence of any kind against defenseless people has no justification." But it took pains to note that the government "has communicated to the church that no national decision center has given the order to attack these people."

 

As repressed as Cubans may feel politically, their bigger concerns are economic — most earn a meager $20 per month — and that's where the Cuban church may be making its most dramatic mark on reform. Among its most popular diocesan programs are clases de liderazgo, or leadership classes, which often teach Cubans the kind of free-enterprise skills, from bookkeeping to marketing, they'll need under Raúl's economic reforms. (He's planning soon to cut a million state workers loose.) Ortega's Havana archdiocese, apparently with Raúl's blessing, has partnered with a Spanish university to offer an M.B.A. program.

 

Caritas hopes to launch a micro-loan project to help Cubans grow beyond timbiriches — tiny informal businesses, like vendors of homemade sweets, that the Castros have allowed since the 1990s — to enterprises that can absorb the almost 20% of the state workforce facing layoffs. If Havana and Washington permit it, nonprofit groups in the U.S. and Europe tell TIME they're set to channel tens of millions of dollars to Caritas for a micro-loan fund. "My last hope is the church," says Roque, a thin, middle-aged former Cuban soldier who was among the throng welcoming Our Lady of Charity to Havana in September. "They help with extra food and are sending me to computer lessons."

 

Many of the thousands of Cubans who've attended the church workshops say they also learn how to do business legitimately after decades of often illicit hustling in a desperate black-market milieu. "The economic reforms need an ethical posture as well," says Ortega. One participant from eastern Cuba, who asked not to be identified, agrees: "I'm not really religious, but the church, as you'd expect, brings a moral framework that is sometimes missing as we struggle to get by."

 

The church, though still not allowed to run schools, at least has a backdoor entry to education, and Raúl gets Cubans the kind of entrepreneur training that state-run schools and universities often aren't equipped to offer. It may smell like collaboration to Castro foes, but Ortega argues that this arrangement allows the church to preach a social, economic and even political pluralism that could do more for democracy than the U.S.'s 49-year-long trade embargo ever did. Accomplishing more at this point may require the intervention of Our Lady of Charity.