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A death mourned in Cuba celebrated in Miami

HONG KONG (SE): “It is true that the rock of St. Peter, on which the Catholic Church was built, is solid and lasting. Throughout history, that institution has demonstrated its experience, its wisdom and its capacity to adapt to reality,” Brazilian Dominican, Father Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, quotes Fidel Castro, the late president of Cuba who took power in a violent revolution in 1959, as saying in his book, Fidel and Religion.

The revolutionary leader whose death on November 25 is being mourned in Cuba, but celebrated in Miami where most of the country’s exiles have found sanctuary, has been an enigma, willing to fraternise with priests and bow before Pope John Paul II, but ordering executions at whim, closing Church schools and parishes, and deporting other priests and religious.

He held a lifetime respect for the Jesuits who gave him his education, applauding the way they value character, rectitude, honesty, courage and ability to make sacrifices.

“They contributed to my development and influenced my sense of justice,” Castro told Father Libânio, who wrote under the name of Frei Betto.

However, he did not hold such respect for the hundreds of priests he chased out of the country, whom he accused of being allied with the elite classes that benefited from the savage rule of Fulgencio Batista and holding a monopoly on the Church.

Nevertheless, with one hand he set about redistributing the wealth of his island nation and with the other ruthlessly liquidating those who expressed dissent or reservation at his methods.

Father Javier Arzuaga, a parish priest in Havana who supported Castro’s revolution between 1953 and 1959 against the oppressive rule of Batista, was allowed to host a death row on his parish compound, so he could care for the condemned. He personally accompanied 55 of them to the death squads.

“None of them had to be tied to the post,” Father Arzuaga later recalled. “None of them had to be blindfolded. They all died looking out, straight ahead.” But the constant experience left the Spanish priest traumatised and he eventually moved to Puerto Rico.

These were the extremes of Castro’s Cuba, but his real clamp on the Church came after the Bay of Pigs standoff with the United States of America (US), which he always believed was orchestrated by Cuban exiles with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency.

He also believed, and not without reason, that four priests had taken part in orchestrating the US move and responded by closing Church schools and deporting 130 priests to Spain within two months.

During the ensuing years over 3,500 sisters, priests and brothers got their marching orders. Thugs roamed the country attacking and destroying Church institutions, disrupting activities and imprisoning priests and sisters.

John Kirk wrote in Between God and the Party, “The Church was devastated: Its principal source of income, its schools, were cut off, the number of priests had declined from 800 to 200 in just three years, most of the faithful had left, and relations between Church and government leaders bordered on hostility.”

But the limping Church of the 1960s and 1970s had to survive and the Vatican was at the head of the process. It never broke off diplomatic relations with Havana and its nuncio, Archbishop Cesare Zacchi, courted Castro, dining with him and scuba diving, which put the exiled community in Miami on edge and left the nation’s bishops jittery.

But Archbishop Zacchi was solid in resisting criticism. “The people have obtained a radical change in their material well-being,” the Vatican diplomat said. “There has been a redistribution of wealth... social justice—something which was not prevalent before.”

Father Robert Pelton, from Notre Dame University, described Archbishop Zacchi as being on the money and way ahead of his time. “The Catholic Church has to exist with systems that don’t agree with it,” Father Pelton wrote.

But as the Latin American Church began to push the option for the poor in the late 1970s and 1980s, Castro acknowledged its work in literacy and education among the poor, the integration of black people into the workforce and society, and the opportunities it was beginning to open up.

At the same time, the National Cuban Church Meeting began promoting a strategy to put the Church back in the public square, without challenging the legitimacy of Castro’s movement.

Historian, Javier Figueroa, noted that up until that time, “The Church was weak, confined to saying Mass; it could not go out and evangelise. If you went to Church, your kids might not get into the college they wanted and might not get a certain job.”

However, the National Cuban Church Meeting encouraged people to engage the culture and be active in society. Gaining space became a term for stealing a bit of freedom, as in guarded language, the Church began pushing for greater justice and a bolder coexistence with the revolution.

But the big breakthrough for the Church came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, robbing Cuba of 80 per cent of its income and leaving it isolated. In addition, a US embargo saw it critically short of food and basic necessities.

Castro began to see the Church as part of his salvation and in 1992 rewrote Cuba’s constitutional identity. He ceased describing it as an atheist nation, redefining it as a secular state.

Immediate relief came from Catholic Relief Services in the US and Caritas, which between them poured US$10 million ($77.5 million) into parish distribution centres in three years, providing medical supplies, hygiene kits and, most importantly, food.

The Church in Cuba was eventually overseeing 20 childcare centres, 21 retirement homes and five hospitals. Father Thomas Wenski (later a bishop in Miami) wrote at the time, “This was the beginning of civil society.”

By the time Castro welcomed Pope John Paul to Havana in 1998, he had a constructive engagement with the Church that was providing the aid money, which to an extent supported the ambition of his revolution.

For his part, Pope John Paul called the US embargo “oppressive… unjust and ethically unacceptable.” But he also had harsh words for Castro for his suppression of free speech adding, “A modern state cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances.”

Before he began his persecution against the Church, the brutality and greed of Batista had fuelled support for a revolution among many Catholics and Castro, who always remained comfortable with Catholic idiom, said in 1960, “Those who crucified Christ were the scribes, the rich, the demagogues, the exploiters... because he spoke the truth.”

Castro lived a contradiction, achieving great advances in social justice and radically improving the lot of the average Cuban, but often through brutal repression of any form of dissent or opposition.

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