Sunday, August 22, 2010

In defense of the Church and the Democratic Opposition in Cuba

Sanctions, Catholic Social Doctrine, and Cuba’s Democratic Opposition

“The violent and tragic events that led to the sinking of a ship where many of our brothers lost their lives are, according to survivor accounts, of a rawness that can hardly be imagined. The sinking of the boat, which was also carrying women and children, and the difficulties of the rescue of the survivors do not seem in any way to be by chance, and this adds to the pain a sense of stupor and a demand of transparency and those responsible identified." […] That the facts are clarified, to establish the truth with justice, but that hate result the loser ... Love and justice are not opposed, but hatred and injustice can go hand in hand."

- Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, in July 1994 speaks on "13 de Marzo" tugboat massacre

Ladies in White going to attend mass

Fifty years of totalitarianism preceded by seven years of an authoritarian left-wing dictatorship have left profound scars on Cuba’s political culture. The monopolization of politics over culture under the Castro regime means that damage has been done over the entire culture including profound harm to the basic social unit of society in Cuba: the family. The regime also marginalized the greatest defender of the family which historically has been the Catholic Church, but the Cuban Church did not go down without a struggle.

The Catholic Church in Cuba was attacked; many of its clergy and religious figures exiled or sent to work camps such as Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino. Being a practicing Catholic would mean being blacklisted from certain professions such as teaching. Christmas was ended as a national holiday in 1970 and replaced with holidays celebrating the 1959 communist revolution. This means that the ability to separate the political from the personal and the religious has been undermined and atrophied under the dictatorship of the Castro brothers. Therefore the charge made in a recent letter that the Cuban Church over a half century has collaborated with the totalitarian dictatorship, that until 1992 was officially atheist, is not true.

One can disagree with specific actions of the Catholic Church in Cuba in its dealings with the dictatorship trying to create a space for Cuban Catholics and at the same time maintain its humanitarian tradition with the Cuban people. The Church in Cuba has suffered greatly over 50 years of communism and at key moments has spoken out for the victims of the regime. That cannot and should not be ignored. Cuba is at a crossroads either Cuba’s democratic opposition begins the long road of healing these scars; restoring the natural relationship between politics, culture, and religion or one can expect another half century of more of the same. Recognizing that in a healthy society politics does not monopolize culture or matters of the faith is an important first step on the path, and the ability not to demonize those who you have disagreements with but share the same end goal is another important step towards a free society.

The Cuban Catholic Church is not perfect, no institution composed of human beings can be, but over the past fifty years it has stood up time and time again for the dignity of the Cuban people and paid for it with prison, exile, and repression. The Church is not a political organization nor should it be held to political standards. Its purpose is to spread the message of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life for those who follow his path, and to alleviate human suffering.

That said the Church does have a profound impact on political life, despite its apolitical nature, and it has steadfastly opposed worldwide all economic sanctions that impact entire populations. This is a different position than that taken by the dictatorship in Havana that just recently with its allies in Caracas attempted to strangle the people of Honduras with sanctions in an effort to coerce the Honduran government. The Catholic Church was against that embargo as it was against the embargo on South Africa during Apartheid, and against sanctions on the people of Iraq during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. It is a position that is part of the compendium of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and should be respected although not accepted as dogma. It states:

Sanctions, in the forms prescribed by the contemporary international order, seek to correct the behavior of the government of a country that violates the rules of peaceful and ordered international coexistence or that practices serious forms of oppression with regard to its population. The purpose of these sanctions must be clearly defined and the measures adopted must from time to time be objectively evaluated by the competent bodies of the international community as to their effectiveness and their real impact on the civilian population. The true objective of such measures is open to the way to negotiation and dialogue. Sanctions must never be used as a means for the direct punishment of an entire population: it is not licit that entire populations, and above all their most vulnerable members, be made to suffer because of such sanctions. Economic sanctions in particular are an instrument to be used with great discernment and must be subjected to strict legal and ethical criteria.[1066] An economic embargo must be of limited duration and cannot be justified when the resulting effects are indiscriminate.[1]

The Holy See is opposed to unilateral sanctions in principle and argues against international sanctions that target entire populations. Its opposition to US sanctions on the Cuban dictatorship is not a special case, but one of many. Nevertheless, there is a reasonable case to be made on behalf of economic sanctions on the Cuban regime.

First, the Castro regime since 1959 has violated the rules of peaceful and ordered co-existence with its attempts to subvert other governments sponsoring and training guerrillas and terrorists around the world. The Tricontinental meetings in Havana, Cuba plunged a whole continent into generations of political violence and terrorism. Producing and translating urban guerrilla manuals with a chapter on terrorism with the aim of overthrowing governments around the world and taking part in genocide. The United States considers the Cuban regime to be a state sponsor of terrorism in 2010. Secondly, Fidel Castro ended private enterprise in Cuba and placed the economy and civil society under control of the dictatorship. At the same time international human rights standards have been systematically violated both in practice and after 1976 in the Cuban Constitution. Freedom of religion, speech and association were banned whenever it came in conflict with the aims of building a communist state. Dissent was and remains outlawed.

On the other hand the economic sanctions placed on Cuba beginning with the Eisenhower Administration in 1959 have not been static and have been subject to both evaluation and debate within the United States Congress and at times such as these in national debates. The dictatorship speaks of a “blockade” but that term can only apply to a brief period of time during the Kennedy Administration when a naval blockade was placed on Cuba during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Since 2000 the United States government changed its sanctions policy and the U.S. became the top seller of food and agricultural products to the Cuban dictatorship. Pharmaceutical goods are also available for sale. Cuban exiles, since the Cuban dictatorship allowed it, have sent annually hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances to their families on the island making it one of the main sources of income.

The greatest argument against economic sanctions on Cuba is that they have been maintained over half a century without achieving the end of the dictatorship, but that is not why they were imposed in the first place. The aim was containment limiting the spread of communism via armed guerrilla movements in the hemisphere, and with the exception of Nicaragua and the Sandinistas this was a success. The path to power for “socialists of the 21st century” has been through the ballot box although Cuban officials have never, despite these successes, discarded armed struggle.

Finally, the greatest argument in favor of maintaining economic sanctions on the Cuban dictatorship is what has happened in China. Unlike other regimes, communist dictatorships that maintain monopoly control over the economy and civil society has led to democracies that trade with them collaborating with them as part of the price of doing business. Economic engagement with communist regimes has meant in practice assisting in the repression of entire populations. Principled and targeted sanctions offer greater hopes of opening up these regimes to negotiation and dialogue despite the dictatorship’s howls to the contrary.

The issue of economic sanctions is part of an overall debate and dialogue on how best to achieve a non-violent democratic transition in Cuba. The democratic opposition has an overall consensus on non-violent means seeking a democratic end in which human rights and freedoms are restored in Cuba. Although it maybe counter-intuitive it is important to reflect on Mohandas Gandhi’s principle that the “means are the ends,” because democracy is a process not a fixed endpoint. The manner in which the opposition is able to reconcile different tactics and ideas or agree to disagree but still work together in service of a common objective without demonizing the other will greatly determine when democracy will finally return to Cuba.

The Catholic Church, although not a political entity, has offered its services as a mediator and has a positive track record around the world and has now facilitated the transfer of 26 prisoner of conscience rotting in Cuban prisons for over seven years into exile. Is this a victory of the opposition? Yes, it is. Did the dictatorship prefer dealing with the Church than recognize the opposition? Yes. Without the Church’s participation there were only two options open: keep the prisoners locked up and continue beating up the Ladies in White or engage the opposition. The record over the past 50 years is that the regime would let the prisoners rot and would continue to terrorize the women in Havana as they were still doing to Reina Luisa Tamayo in Banes, but the Church offers a face saving alternative.

The Church intervened on Reina's behalf and today after many months she was a able to march without a mob of government agents blocking her path to attend mass and visit her son's grave. Reina Luisa Tamayo gave thanks today to the Catholic Church's intervention on her behalf.

When the opposition makes the case for these prisoners of conscience to be freed in their homeland and not exiled they are engaged in a sacred duty of the opposition, but that does not necessitate attacking or defaming the Cuban Catholic Church. You can disagree with specific actions without demonizing the institution, and engage it in dialogue to try to persuade it.

[1] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Catholic Church. Pontificium Consilium de Iustitia et Pace Compendium of the social doctrine of the church Chapter 11 The Promotion of Peace. 507d. Measures against those who threaten peace.

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