The residents of Havana and the Cuban people who live elsewhere in the prison island are anxiously awaiting the visit next week of Pope Benedict XVI. It is the first papal visit to Cuba in a decade, and those who most look forward to it are Cuba’s beleaguered dissidents, who have bravely sought to peacefully organize against the dictatorship. For their efforts, they have regularly been sent to serve lengthy prison terms in conditions of utter brutality.
It is their hope, above all, as the leading dissident doctor Oscar Biscet wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, that it is “a unique opportunity for the leader of the Catholic Church to leverage his considerable prestige and influence to support the oppressed and help the Cuban people claim our liberty and establish democracy.” Indeed, it is such an opportunity. But the question is simply this: Will the pope avail himself of this opportunity, or will he pass it by, content instead with the decision of Cuba’s rulers to suddenly allow the official Catholic Church to exist and Cuban Catholics to openly proclaim their faith?
Dr. Biscet knows what the stakes are from personal experience. He had been in prison himself since 1999, and was released last March as a result of the intercession on his behalf of the Church leadership in Rome. Cuban prisons, Biscet wrote, include the following practices:
The prison system in Cuba flagrantly violates the minimum requirements for prisoner care established by the United Nations. During my years in prison, I personally witnessed prisoners left for 12-24 hours with their hands and feet handcuffed behind their backs, stripped naked in groups without any regard for human modesty, tortured physically and psychologically with tasers, beaten to death for requesting basic medical attention, and kept for months in cells without ventilation, natural light, drinkable water or restroom facilities.
As a result of writing that article, Havana’s secret police turned up at Biscet’s home, summoning him to report to their headquarters. By the time this is posted, Biscet may well again be back in prison, out of the way in order to prevent the pope from being bombarded by such reports that besmirch the regime. As Biscet noted, personal ruin is most often what “the regime inflicts on anyone who offers an alternative voice.” In still Communist Cuba, freedom of speech is a luxury to be practiced only by the bravest and most outspoken.
When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba quickly made it known that religion and its open practice was to be banned. As in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, churches and synagogues were closed, and the faithful had to practice in secret. Fidel Castro, brought up in Jesuit schools, proclaimed Marxism as the only public faith, as religion was scorned as not scientific and antithetical to Marxism-Leninism. Now, with Communism almost collapsed everywhere, recognizing the Church as a legitimate body allows the regime breathing space in tough times, giving the oppressed populace removal of a grievance. The Castro brothers hope will allow them to stay in power.
Hence, the regime no longer preaches the once popular doctrine of “liberation theology,” meant to offer support to a regime-friendly religious façade that helped the rulers proclaim to the gullible abroad that some religion was allowed to exist.
So now, Fidel and Raul Castro say they are Catholic. Officially, the pope is coming to Cuba to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the patroness saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, a Caridad. The regime has announced that a new seminary is opening, as well as a Catholic cultural center. But all these actions taken by the regime, as Conrad Black wrote, mean that any “celebration of the triumph of any…redemptionist and expiatory impulse would be, to say the least, premature.”