Catholic Church Widens Role In Cuban Politics

Cardinal Jaime Ortega i i

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, shown here at a May 20 news conference in Havana, was among clerics who recently met with Cuban President Raul Castro, who pledged to improve conditions for political prisoners. Javier Galeano/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Javier Galeano/AP
Cardinal Jaime Ortega

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, shown here at a May 20 news conference in Havana, was among clerics who recently met with Cuban President Raul Castro, who pledged to improve conditions for political prisoners.

Javier Galeano/AP

In Cuba, communist authorities have released an ailing political prisoner and moved a dozen others to jails closer to their families. The modest gestures were the result of a new dialogue between the Castro government and the leaders of the island's Roman Catholic Church.

The church is expanding its role in Cuban politics, but it's not clear how much it can ease the government's hard-line stance against dissent.

On a recent day, the mood in Laura Pollan's small home in central Havana was cheerful. It's a rarity, given that Pollan is a leader of the Ladies in White, made up of the wives and relatives of Cuba's political prisoners.

Over the weekend, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega called Pollan with good news: The authorities were transferring her jailed husband, Hector Maceda, closer to home.

Cuban church leaders negotiated with authorities last month to allow the Ladies in White to resume their weekly protest marches, after facing repeated harassment and abuse from government-organized mobs. A few weeks later, President Raul Castro held a rare meeting with Ortega and pledged to improve conditions for political prisoners.

Pollan said she is glad she won't have to travel far to see her husband now. But she said her real goal is to get her husband and others freed.

"These prisoners shouldn't be transferred to different jails, they should be transferred to their homes," she said.

The prisoners are part of a group of 75 government opponents who were swept up in a March 2003 crackdown; 52 are still behind bars. One is the husband of Julia Nunez, who says she'll no longer have to travel 300 miles from Havana to see him.

"I and other Ladies in White haven't lost faith that the prisoners who are in poor health will be released, and that others will follow," Nunez says.

Since the church negotiations began, the government has only freed one activist, Ariel Sigler, whose health had deteriorated so severely in prison that he is now in a wheelchair. He arrived home in a government ambulance Saturday, looking spectral and gaunt.

Laura Pollan (left) and Julia Nunez of the Ladies in White political group i i

Laura Pollan (left) and Julia Nunez celebrate an announcement June 1 that their husbands, political prisoners, will be moved to jails closer to home. The two women are part of Ladies in White, a dissident group of wives and family of political prisoners. The transfer of some of the country's 200 political prisoners to jails closer to home is the first sign the government is making good on a deal with the Roman Catholic Church to improve conditions behind bars. Javier Galeano/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Javier Galeano/AP
Laura Pollan (left) and Julia Nunez of the Ladies in White political group

Laura Pollan (left) and Julia Nunez celebrate an announcement June 1 that their husbands, political prisoners, will be moved to jails closer to home. The two women are part of Ladies in White, a dissident group of wives and family of political prisoners. The transfer of some of the country's 200 political prisoners to jails closer to home is the first sign the government is making good on a deal with the Roman Catholic Church to improve conditions behind bars.

Javier Galeano/AP

The Cuban government hasn't commented on its plans for the prisoners. It considers them traitors and mercenaries of the United States. But negotiating with the church may be a way for Castro to make reforms without appearing to cave to pressure from abroad.

The moves will be closely watched by the Obama administration, which has pegged any changes in U.S. policy to human rights improvements on the island.

Church officials have been eager to avoid appearing as if they're pressuring the government to move faster.

At a Havana press conference last week, church spokesman Orlando Marquez said there was no timetable for the prisoner releases.

"We've always said that this is a process, and it won't necessarily move forward at the same speed. But the process has begun," he said.

The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, is expected to quietly press for the release of more prisoners during his official visit to Cuba this week. The church also has organized a conference bringing together prominent Cuban scholars, including several from U.S. universities, to discuss issues like economic reform and national reconciliation.

The purpose of the conference, Marquez said, would be to help the church develop its "social mission" on the island, not a political one.

For now, the weekly protests by a few dozen Ladies in White and their supporters remain the only public demonstrations tolerated by the Cuban government. The women say the marches will continue until all political prisoners are freed.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.