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Havana's critical mass

International | But the pope's visit is just an exception, not a rules change

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

In Havana's streets as well as the Western press there was euphoria to spare over the planned visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba this week. Some predicted more than one million Cubans would come out to see the pontiff. Others predicted parallels to his 1979 visit to Poland, then in the death-throes of decrepit communism, hoping the Catholic leader's presence would breech the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. If signs for change in the Western Hemisphere's last communist hold-out are ripe, however, making them a reality is still only a prospect. The Castro regime made many exceptions in the days preceding the pope's open-air masses in Havana and Santa Clara, but it did not change the rules. Significantly, Mr. Castro declared Christmas a holiday for the first time in nearly 30 years. It was a concession to a request from the pope when they met at the Vatican in November 1996. Mr. Castro, who suspended the holiday in 1969, ostensibly not to lose a day of sugar production, did not say whether future Christmases would make it to the official calendar. "Cubans are to be very grateful for Christmas this year, but can they just delete it from the program in 1998?" wondered Cuban-American Julieta Valls. Mr. Castro granted permission for outdoor Catholic services last year, also a first. But police filmed the mass held in front of Havana Cathedral in June, the first since 1961, so that each participant could be identified and monitored. Communist party members have been allowed to attend mass since 1992, but according to the missionary news agency Fides, many who have participated have been arrested recently, and employees who intend to take part in the papal masses have been threatened with dismissal from their jobs. While "Catholic" is thought to describe nearly half of Cuba's people, the numbers for those actively involved in church life are far lower, according to Jose Somoza, a Catholic priest who is Cuban-American and has traveled regularly to Cuba over the last three decades. For them, the pope's visit is not a much-anticipated pinnacle in church life; it may be an awakening at most. In the 1970s only one out of 1,000 Catholic children was baptized. The church blessed one marriage out of 5,000. Those numbers have increased dramatically, even tripled in some areas, since the late 1980s, Mr. Somoza says, but Cubans are far from a saturation point ecclesiastically. The number of clergymen has declined, from 800 in 1958 to fewer than 200 now. "It is a church of silence," said Mr. Somoza. Santiago Matheu, for 20 years a priest at St. Isidoro Cathedral in Horguin, Cuba, has seen growing interest in spiritual matters and church life over the last 15 years. A Catholic conference held in 1986 was a watershed event for Cuban Catholics, he said. Beginning five years beforehand, clergy and the community of believers gathered in what was called a time of "national reflection." For the first time since the revolution, says Mr. Matheu, "The church and the public started communicating with each other on the necessity to live their faith." Later, he said, "the Castro government felt the pressure from the people" to relax restrictions against believers, beginning in 1992. Communist party members were allowed to attend mass. Distribution of Bibles was allowed-often with restrictions-along with permission to engage in charitable activities, something the Catholic clergy in Cuba had long sought. "A spiritual change began slowly in 1981 and increased after 1986," said Mr. Matheu. "And now with the proximity of the pope's visit, it grows again." Even with the changes, freedom is elusive. Caritas Cuba, the largest Catholic charity, faces delays of donated goods once they arrive at the airport in Havana, and the head of the Caritas warehouse has been imprisoned and questioned for no known reason. "They are made to feel like they are pressing the envelope every time they receive something," according to Nina Shea of Freedom House, who has worked directly with Caritas. Members of Protestant churches, which include many evangelicals, are prohibited from taking on official works of charity. They are denied access to media outlets, and churches are specifically prohibited from owning copying machines or faxes with which they might distribute religious material. For the first time since 1990, Protestant leaders did meet with Mr. Castro Nov. 24, a meeting that lasted seven hours but produced no new freedoms. Protestant churches have been growing steadily, according to Steve Snyder, president of International Christian Concern, who visited Cuba in November. He reports that Pentecostal churches are the largest and fastest-growing denomination, followed by Baptists. The government requires registration of churches, which has led to the proliferation of unregistered house churches. Mr. Snyder found that even recently house church leaders and evangelists have been detained for several days of interrogation. What Mr. Matheu calls "a massive ideological and economic failure" is an opportunity for the church, experts agree. But economic peril in Cuba, according to Cuban-American economist Jorge Sanguinetty, is only beginning to be faced. He estimates that only 50,000 people-rather than one million, as some newspaper accounts have suggested-will make it to the pope's Jan. 22 mass in Havana's Revolution Square. Transportation will be the main reason. A bus system near total collapse has left bicycles and walking the only reliable forms of transportation in the capital. Foreign journalists numbering 4,000 are expected to gobble up what few cars for hire exist. Worse, Mr. Sanguinetty's estimates on crop and cattle production, he says, show Cuba heading toward a famine much like North Korea's. Given that forecast, he told a gathering of journalists at the National Press Club in Washington prior to the pope's Cuba trip, "the church is the safety net for when change comes." Mr. Matheu hopes spiritual renewal can "fill the emptiness of the Cuban people. Ideology has nothing to give them. This is the right moment for the church to give people an alternative." --With reporting by Barbara von der Heydt Elliott.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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