As the world vigilantly watches, the Catholic Church has unexpectedly become a noticeable political voice in Cuba. 

That voice appears to be gaining strength. In mid-May, Church officials met with Cuban President Raul Castro to negotiate the sensitive issue of imprisoned political dissidents. Last month, government officials publicly welcomed Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign secretary, who visited the island to commemorate 75 years of continued diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Holy See. Immediately following, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, announced he’d “return the visit” of Archbishop Dionisio Garcia of Santiago de Cuba, president of the Cuban bishops’ conference. 

After decades of being persecuted and ignored, the Catholic Church has, for now, recovered some of its social influence in Cuba, and Castro’s government seems clothed in a newfound willingness to heed the Church’s voice. 

Since the meeting between Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino and Castro, 12 political prisoners have been relocated to prisons closer to home, making family visits possible. On June 11, an ailing Ariel Sigler Amaya of Matanzas was released from his 25-year sentence for “treason.” 

Sigler is one of the renowned group of 75 political prisoners who were swept up in a March 2003 government crackdown, 52 of whom are still behind bars. Rights activists put the total number of political prisoners in Cuba near 200. 

Cuba came under international criticism in February when 42-year-old political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in Havana after an 86-day hunger strike. Cuba’s political prisoners have historically resorted to this extreme method to bring attention to the beatings, denial of medical care, and abhorrent prison conditions. 

“In this totalitarian society adverse to religion, the Church has been trying for decades to have an impact on the issue of political prisoners and their families, asking for their release and insertion in society,” said Miami’s Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estévez. 

To those who fear that the Church is being manipulated by the Cuban government, Bishop Estévez said, “the Church has great knowledge of the government and how it works. It has lived under it for 52 years! The Catholic Church does not pretend to be the solution to all the problems in Cuba. It wants to be a moral voice, a public and faithful advocate for the human rights of prisoners and their families.” 

Cardinal Ortega also secured permission for “las Damas de Blanco” — Ladies in White — to resume weekly peaceful protest marches on behalf of their imprisoned husbands and sons — without the harassment and abuse they’ve suffered in the past from government-organized mobs. This makes them the only public political demonstrations tolerated by the Cuban government. 

Public relation’s initiative 

In reality, negotiating with the Catholic Church offers a way for the Cuban government to allow reforms without appearing to cave to pressure from outside sources, especially U.S. interests. 

“The Church has been an active promoter of greater citizen participation, a more open society, and reconciliation with the U.S. and with the Cuban diaspora [those in exile]. The Cuban Church is seen as an agent of change,” said Bishop Estévez. The Cuban government has been under heavy international pressure regarding political prisoners. This recent dialogue “makes the Cuban government look more open to change. This is a good public relation’s initiative.” 

The visit by Archbishop Mamberti is the first to Cuba by a top Vatican official since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited in February 2008. In addition to honoring the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Cuba, his visit coincided with the Church’s 10th Catholic Social Week, a five-day conference examining the Church’s social mission in Cuban society, under the theme: “Witnesses of Hope and Promoters of Peace.” 

“The dialogue that is happening now makes us happy, and I hope that it will be strengthened through my visit,” Archbishop Mamberti said at a joint news conference with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez. “I think it is important ... to see the fruits” of such talks. 

Before leaving the island on June 20, Mamberti met with President Raul Castro and described the meeting as “very positive,” adding to the hope of more prisoner transfers or releases. 

Cuba never broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican, even when the island was declared officially atheist after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. For decades, even entering a church was considered a counterrevolutionary act, and public displays of faith such as baptisms were considered subversive. Christmas celebrations were forbidden, forcing the Church and the priests who had not been expelled by the government to work undercover. In 1991, the Fourth Communist Party Congress removed references to atheism from the constitution. 

But it was Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba in 1998 that re-established some of the Church’s social role with his prophetic challenge, “Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba.” 

2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the image of Cuba’s patron saint, la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre — Our Lady of Charity — and the Cuban Church hopes the pope himself will come celebrate. 

María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda writes from Oklahoma.

Catholic hero (sidebar)

Almost halfway through a 25-year sentence, 48-year-old Dr. Oscar Biscet has been locked in a Cuban prison cell as a prisoner of conscience, for his “dangerous” public stand against abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia. 

While working as an internal medicine specialist at the government-run Hospital Hijas de Galicia in Havana, Biscet conducted a clandestine study that revealed newborn babies being killed right after birth, a common practice throughout Cuba, which has the most abortions in the hemisphere. He confronted the government with the results, along with a letter addressed to Fidel Castro accusing the Cuban National Health System of genocide. 

Biscet founded the Lawton Foundation (lawtonfoundation.com) in 1997 as a platform in defense of all human rights through nonviolent civil disobedience. The Cuban government considers the foundation illegal. 

“Any news that gets out to the international public regarding the prisoners of conscience in Cuba is good news because most people don’t realize that these individuals even exist,” said Jordan Allott, producer of “Oscar’s Cuba,” a documentary released this summer on Biscet (www.oscarscuba.com/). 

“The Church can also let the world know about opposition heroes,” he said. 

“We ultimately desire a nation where all of us belong, where all of us are respected and treated with human dignity,” said Biscet’s wife, Elsa Morejón Hernández. “In order for that to exist, the first thing that must happen is the release of all prisoners of conscience. What is happening in Cuba is a horrendous crime.”