A day before Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to Cuba on March 26, I was in Arroyo Naranjo, one of Havana’s poorest areas, meeting with Lilvio Fernandez Luis, a Catholic and the leader of JACU, or Joventud Activa Cuba Unida. Lilvio spent the day showing me the life he has worked hard to create—a life built on a strong family and the courage to fight against the repression that the Cuban government has inflicted on its people for more than 53 years.
When I spoke with him, Lilvio wasn’t planning to attend the papal Mass at the Plaza de Revolution in the center of Havana on March 28. “I will attend Mass here at my home parish of St. Barbara just two blocks away,” he explained. “If I try and leave my neighborhood on the day of the Mass, I will most likely be detained by state security.”
Lilvio’s situation was not unique. Although the Church’s goal was to reach out to the Cuban people during Pope Benedict’s visit, many individuals and families found it difficult or impossible to participate in the three days of events organized by the Cuban Catholic Church and Vatican with permission from the island’s Communist government. Despite the government’s limitations, however, Lilvio and almost everyone I talked to during my time in Havana believed the Pope’s trip would be a positive spiritual experience, if not a positive political experience, for the people of Cuba.
Throughout the past five decades, the Communist government of Fidel and Raul Castro has consistently repressed institutions and organizations not under their strict control. Soon after the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro declared Cuba an atheistic state and reduced the Church’s ability to work among the people by deporting hundreds of priests and nuns, seizing all Church properties, and imprisoning and executing countless Catholics and others who expressed faith in God. As the decades passed, Christians continued to face severe discrimination.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the Cuban government felt the need to ease up on its repression against the Church in order to receive economic concessions from Europe—aid it had previously received from the USSR. In 1992, Cuba declared itself a secular state and permitted Catholics and others to join the Communist Party, the country’s only legal political party.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Cuba. It was Cuba’s first papal visit, and the trip ignited hope amongst those who remembered John Paul II’s journeys to his native Poland (then Communist) in 1979. The Pope’s visits helped initiate the Solidarity Movement that ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During his five-day visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II held meetings with Fidel Castro and religious leaders, and celebrated public Masses in several cities. John Paul II spoke often about the nation’s need for individual responsibility, strong families, and a culture of life. With his visit, Pope John Paul II brought spiritual hope not only to Roman Catholics, but also to the many other Christians and non-believers who attended the various public Masses and celebrations.
But certain topics were off limits during the Pope’s visit, including any public discussion of Cuba’s political prisoners. Many human rights advocates both on and off the island were disappointed that the Pope did not speak out in support of the opposition movement that had been working for religious freedom and human rights on the island.
I have traveled to Cuba on a number of occasions over the past few years, and have discussed issues of faith with Cubans from one end of the island to the other. More than in the past, during Pope Benedict’s visit I found Cubans willing to discuss the restrictions placed on the Church by the government.
“The churches are crumbling and we don’t have permission from the government to make renovations,” Raul, a Catholic from Havana who is involved with his local church, complained. “We cannot communicate with the people because newsletters are restricted and the majority of people have been living a life without God for two or three generations. It’s almost as if we are starting from nothing.”
Raul’s wife, Yinet, agreed. “Starting from nothing and without any resources is very difficult,” she told me.
The Communist government has made small moves to allow the Church some independence over the past decade and a half. Politically, however, the government has continued to deny its people any opportunity for democracy or a say in their own future.
A 2003 crackdown on non-violent human rights and democracy advocates included the imprisonment of 75 men and women from across the island. Many of those arrested received sentences of 25 years in prison. In 2010 and 2011, the Cuban Catholic Church, with help from the Vatican and the Spanish government, negotiated the release and forced exile of most of the prisoners imprisoned during the 2003 mass arrest.
Many Cuba-watchers believe the Church’s new role of mediator is a positive sign, understanding the Church to be the only institution able to communicate with the Communist government from inside the island. Others fear that the Church has grown too close to the Communist government. They wish the Church would do more to reach out to the dissident community and to speak up more loudly for the political rights of the Cuban people.
Pope Benedict’s visit started in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island with a greeting by President Raul Castro and a public outdoor Mass celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity. The following morning, Benedict visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, a few miles from Santiago. On his third day in Cuba, Pope Benedict offered a public Mass in Havana’s Revolutionary Square and visited privately with Fidel Castro before returning to Rome.
As Pope John Paul II had done 14 years earlier, Pope Benedict spoke of the need for Cuban society to return to a culture of life. Benedict, whose office cast the trip in the context of a spiritual pilgrimage, at times addressed political issues—often delicately, and on occasion more explicitly. At the start of his visit, aboard the flight from Rome, he denounced Cuba’s Marxist political system, which he said “no longer corresponds to reality.” In Santiago de Cuba, he prayed for “those deprived of freedom.” And he made several references to freedom in his final sermon in Havana, addressing a nation that has suffered under a totalitarian government routinely denounced for its abuses by international human rights groups.
While these statements and the spiritual solidarity the Pope’s visit brought were felt by many, others felt the Pontiff, the most visible Christian leader in the world, could have done more to press the government concerning human rights, as well as religious and individual freedoms. Cuba is still designated “not free” by Freedom House, and is still among its “worst of the worst” countries and one of “the world’s most repressive regimes.”
During the Pope’s visit, more than 300 human rights advocates across Cuba were detained in order to keep them from speaking out publicly against the government while the world’s attention was focused on the island.
In fact, three days before Pope Benedict landed in Santiago, I was scheduled to meet with human rights advocate Sara Marta Fonseca outside a popular hotel in the center of Havana. Sara Marta and her husband never showed up for the meeting, and I was later told she had been detained on her way there. She was kept in jail for more than a week, until long after Pope Benedict had left the island.
Traveling around Havana I got the impression that the government was exploiting Pope Benedict’s visit in order to give the impression to outsiders that the government was tolerant of religious institutions.
The visit was also a boon to Cuba’s dismal economy. It seemed to me that more than half of the individuals I saw at the public Mass in Havana were foreigners. Billboards, posters, and other materials advertising the public events were located mainly in tourist hot spots. In fact, more than one Cuban I talked to who had traveled to Havana from another part of the island told me they were in Havana illegally. “The government is scared to have us here in Havana,” said Guillermo, who lives with his family outside Santa Clara. “It is illegal for Cubans to move about the island without permission. The government wants control and when people move freely, control is lost.”
The sense of paternalism is evident to outsiders at all times in Cuba, but especially during large events when foreign journalists are present and the outside world is watching. “It’s as if your parents are expecting an important guest and are afraid the children will make a scene,” Lilvio explained. “They are nervous about how we will act with outsiders around.” One individual, Andres Carrion Alvarez, undoubtedly expressing the feelings of many, shouted “Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!” near journalists at the Mass at Santiago’s crowded Revolution Plaza. He was beaten and escorted out of the Mass by armed police and hasn’t been seen since.
In the case of Lilvio, the “parents” decided it was better if their guest did not have the chance to meet him and to hear about the abuse he and his brothers and sisters are suffering. Lilvio was detained the day of the Pope’s arrival.
Many people ask me if much has changed in Cuba over my four years of travel there. Not much, I tell them. There have been some cosmetic changes, such as allowing select individuals to set up small bodega-style restaurants in certain areas of the country.
But the regime is still as committed to “la revolution” as it ever was. On the way to the airport I saw a sign that underscored the statement of Marino Murillo, vice president of the island’s council of ministers. Responding to the Pope’s remarks about the failure of Cuba’s Marxist political system, Murillo said, “In Cuba, there will not be political reform.” Similarly, the billboard announced, “Our changes mean only more socialism.”
Despite the contradictory feelings I experienced over the course of my trip, I was left with one lasting sound from my stay in Havana: that of Pope Benedict’s voice speaking about God, faith, and family, blasting from televisions across the city as I walked Havana’s streets. A welcome voice and needed message, especially in Cuba.