The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Havana. (Kimli / flickr)
When Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba next month, he will once again reinforce a strategy that the Vatican has allowed the local Catholic Church there to pursue for more than three decades: diligently avoid any political confrontation with the Castro regime, collaborate with Havana to combat the U.S.-led embargo, and support the Cuban government's incremental economic reforms. In exchange, the Church has been able to maintain a certain amount of autonomy on the island, allowing it to rebuild its presence and position for the possible post-Castro economic boom times to come.
It is a controversial balance. Cubans in the exile community vigorously criticize the Church because they think Church leadership on the island should challenge the dictatorship. But the Vatican takes the long view. Rather than overtly push for change, the Church has come to pursue a strategy of "reconciliation." It has inserted itself as mediator between the regime and its most daring opponents, both those imprisoned and those out in the streets. The Church is present and persistent, but it is nonpartisan. The attitude harkens back to the ostpolitik it practiced during the Cold War -- in most communist countries, especially in those where Catholics were a minority, clergy hunkered down, ministered to the faithful, and survived. Today, in countries ranging from Albania and Montenegro to Romania and Ukraine, Catholic communities are thriving.
The Church has a storied past on the island. Think back to Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998. The occasion marked a milestone -- it was the first time a pope ever set foot on the island -- but the underlying history was tragic: After taking power, Fidel Castro jailed, killed, or exiled 3,500 Catholic priests and nuns. His regime confiscated seminaries and nationalized all Catholic properties. The first Cuban cardinal, Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, took refuge in the Argentinian embassy. From 1959 to 1992, Cuba was officially an atheist state.
Then, with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, Castro lost his massive subsidies from Moscow. Facing near starvation and isolation, he decided to pursue John Paul II, visiting him at the Vatican in 1996 and inviting him to Cuba. By opening to the Church, Castro hoped to gain recognition and trade. The pope won approval to build a new seminary, and, in addition to offering mass in four cities, he declared, "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
In the years since, the Catholic Church in Cuba has been resurrected. It has nearly doubled the number of priests and nuns in the country, most of them moving in from abroad. Today, Havana regularly grants the Church permits and allows purchase of rationed construction materials to renovate churches. The Church provides everyday services such as daycare centers and care for the elderly. It teaches religion and computer skills, and screens foreign films for teenage groups. As long as the Church restricts its activities to its property, it gets relatively free reign. The Church even opened a new seminary a few miles south of Havana in November 2010, the first church constructed since the revolution. And alongside a large American Catholic delegation, President Raúl Castro attended the dedication.
Next month, Pope Benedict XVI will make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island, to visit the shrine of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patron saint. Benedict aims to highlight the long history linking the Church with Cuba, as well as its current rapprochement: Raúl Castro will greet the pontiff in Santiago, then meet with him later in Havana. The pope will offer two outdoor masses, in Santiago and Havana, both in "Revolution Squares." Hundreds of thousands of worshippers are expected.
In many ways, this pilgrimage is a continuation of John Paul II's visit: a reaffirmation of the Church's love for Cuba and a gesture designed to bless its future. That might seem pointless to secular analysts, but it is the essence of a "pastoral" visit: The leader comes to encourage a weary population. For Fidel and Raúl Castro, aged 85 and 81, respectively, it is the end of a biological era, and the Jesuit-educated brothers seem to be embracing their natal identity despite branding it imperialist during the revolution. Washington, and the Cuban exile community, are watching to see if the pope will meet with opposition figures, although local Church leaders have been famously cold to them.
Orchestrating the visit is Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, the 75-year-old archbishop of Havana. Named bishop by John Paul II in 1978, archbishop in 1981, then Cuba's second cardinal in 1994, Ortega's life reflects the trials of the Church: He studied for the priesthood in Cuba and Quebec, then was forced to work in an island labor camp between 1966 and 1967. Ortega has pioneered the Church's reconciliation strategy on the island, and accordingly, his tenure has proved a sort of political tightrope walk.
Ortega's most intense struggle of late came in 2010, after the death of Orlando Zapada Tamayo, a political prisoner who had been on a hunger strike for 85 days. Zapata's death galvanized the opposition in Havana, including the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of female relatives of many political prisoners. (After Sunday mass every week, dressed in white, they march to a park, where they silently protest. Their walks are one of the capital's most visible symbols of peaceful resistance.) After Zapata's death, the Damas enlarged the protest to downtown streets, where thuggish mobs (suspected of being government connected) assaulted, shoved, and spat on the women. When the Damas returned to their silent protests, the mob followed and blocked them from walking. What had started out as a small, daring public testimonial to private suffering had morphed into a gender-based riot. Then more prisoners joined the hunger strike. Projected around the world, the images suggested a Cuba on the verge of violent change.
Ortega stepped in. By his telling, he wrote a letter to Raúl Castro in May asking that the Damas de Blanco be allowed to march peacefully. Just three days later, government officials called him to arrange a meeting with the women, and the Damas had a chance to request their sick relatives either be released or moved closer to home. Ortega continued to negotiate with the government until July, when he announced he had struck a deal with Castro to release prisoners.
But in the end, Ortega diluted the opposition's victory with some tough rhetoric. Not long after the prisoner release announcement, he visited Washington to receive a $100,000 prize from the Knights of Columbus. In his acceptance speech, he astounded Cuba watchers by referring to the jailed democracy activists as "convicts," who were -- in words that were clearly soothing to ears in the Castro regime -- "considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International."
Then he did the rounds in Washington. He briefed U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela. The prelate even spent more than an hour in a secret meeting with Newt Gingrich, presumably to press for support and discuss the former speaker of the House's upcoming bid for the White House. Ortega argued that prisoner release should pave the way for closer U.S.-Cuban relations, including lifting the trade embargo. Within six months after his visit, the White House had lifted restrictions on travel for academic, religious, and cultural groups. Through the end of the year, Havana set free more than 100 political prisoners -- provided they accept exile.
Playing the role of holy reconciler has afforded the Vatican three advantages. The Church has gained physical and operational space to expand its presence on the island. Second, Ortega has brokered conflict, which fulfills the Church's mission ("Blessed be the peacemakers," the Bible reads) and gives it a recognized role, both in the country and outside. And lastly, and perhaps most important, in taking the long view, the Vatican is laying the groundwork so that it helps facilitate a nonviolent post-Castro transition.
According to Vatican sources engaged with Cuba, the Church remembers its experience helping to steer a peaceful transition from communism to democracy in Poland. That process was a negotiation between the regime, the Church, and its allies in a daring lay Catholic movement, the Solidarity movement, which was the trade union at the vanguard of political change. But the analogy is weak because the Cuban Church has failed to foster an authentic grass-roots democracy movement. Since the late 1990s, a devout Catholic, Oswaldo Paya, has led a democracy movement inspired by the Polish example called the Varela Project. Some even call Paya "the Walesa of Cuba," alluding to the Polish visionary Lech Walesa. Paya has been received by John Paul II and awarded the Sakharov Prize for human rights by the European Union. Yet despite his growing reputation, the Cuban Church has done nothing to support or encourage him or his movement.
The Church is also trying to inch the Castros along the path to liberalizing the lifeless Cuban economy. It offers classes in accounting and small business skills. It is co-sponsoring an M.B.A. program in Havana with a Spanish university. The elite below Castro have their own game plan, though, betting on a bigger bang. Anticipating a future transfer of wealth much like the Russian post-communist experience when the apparatchiks became oligarchs, Castro relatives and army brass run tourism, energy, foreign trade, and real estate sectors.