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The Church in Cuba

I've been traveling for the past two weeks, which explains my lack of posts.  A couple of weekends ago I was in Cuba to meet with Oswaldo Paya, a pro-democracy activist and the man behind the Varela Project, an ingenious petition drive that sought to take advantage of a provision of the 1976 socialist constitution to push for peaceful political reform in Cuba. 

During my visit, we spoke at some length about the role of the Church in Cuba, a topic on which I have posted in the past.  Although Paya is a committed Catholic, his opinion of the approach the hierarchy (both at the Vatican and in Cuba) has taken towards the Castro government and, by extension, towards dissidents in Cuba, was not a favorable one.  The Church has been so eager to avoid persecution in Cuba that it has bent over backwards in recent years to avoid confrontation with the Castro government and has distanced itself from dissident groups on the island.

This is in some ways similar to the approach the hierarchy has often taken towards repressive right-wing governments in Latin America.  And it is scandalous in both instances.  Critics of the Church's political role in Latin America have sometimes attributed its comfort with reactionary regimes to its opposition to communism.  But Cuba stands as a counter-point.  Here we have a fairly doctrinaire communist regime -- a regime whose policies clearly contradict the Church's teachings on the inhumanity of communism -- and the Church's stance is one of accommodation.  What seems to unite the Church's position, both in Cuba and elsewhere, is a desire for stability and a fear of disrupting the status quo.

I am not suggesting that the Church should involve itself directly in a movement for political change in Cuba.  There are, however, many steps the Church could take short of direct political engagement.  The Church might, for example, provide dissidents with access to means of communication, both within Cuba and between Cuba and the outside world.  I do not want to try to speak for him, but Paya seemed clearly frustrated that one of the few private spaces in Cuba, one of the few remaining independent institutions in an eviscerated Cuban civil society, has essentially shut its doors to groups calling for political reform on the island.

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



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I remembered reading an article about Oswaldo Paya and the Catholic Church in Cuba, and a little while ago it hit me that the article was in "America" a couple of years ago. The article seems to be available to non-subscribers through this link: the Church's non-confrontational posture in Cuba is right or wrong, I don't know, but according to the article there seems to be a belief among the religious hierarchy there that "Cuba is not Poland," in reference to the absence in Cuba of a Church that is an integral part of both the religious and social foundation of the country. I can see how the bishops would be hesitant to make waves until they have their house in order, but I can also see how an activist like Paya would hope that the Church--ready or not organizationally and politically--to take a stand on the issues he cares so deeply about.

On a related note, you may also be interested in an article by Adam Minter in the current Atlantic Monthly, about the Church in China, "Keeping Faith."

Eduardo, it's my (possibly incorrect) understanding that there is a tacit agreement between the Castro regime and the Church to stay out of each other's business.It may make the official Church in Cuba look "accommodating," but how might Cuba be different/worse if there were no Church whatever? Also, I understand (perhaps again incorrectly) that the sex trade business is booming. Has the Church shown any signs of alleviating that problem? Seems to me that that's one place where Castro (or whomever's standing in for him these days) and the Church might have some common ground.Or is that just hopelessly naive and simplistic?

My uncle is one of Oswaldo Paya's colleagues and is currently serving a 20-year prison term in Cuba. It was, to a great extent, his faith that prompted to pursue a democratic alternative to the current regime. I concur with Oswaldo's feelings and consider it a shame, and a betrayal of my uncle's sacrifice, that the Church has distanced itself from political movements that draw their inspiration from their Christian conviction. I hope and pray that the Vatican and the Cuban Church can gather the courage to stand up for its flock.By the way, my uncle is not doing too well in prison. To find out more about his flight, go to

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