The Catholic Church gains a foothold in Communist Cuba

Placetas (Cuba) (AFP)

In Cuba, where communism and religion coexist uneasily, there is a city where it is no longer strange to see a priest walking in the street in a white cassock followed by enthusiastic greetings of “Hello, Father!”

A small order of Catholic clergy has become a beloved and indispensable part of the community of Placetas, providing essential elements of survival for its economically devastated population of around 40,000 souls.

Priests have become, in part, a substitute for government, which in Cuba has political control over just about every aspect of life – although in practice it cannot always intervene where it is most needed.

From Placetas, four French priests have set up three day care centers, five soup kitchens, an after-school center, a boarding school and a retirement home serving around 70,000 people in the island nation’s largest central district.

“In Cuba, the Church puts one foot in the door to keep it open,” smiles Jean Pichon, 38, one of the four clerics who moved to Placetas 15 years ago.

But he insisted that “the idea is not to convert people or to seek a bigger role, but to really help.”

– ‘No more drugs’ –

The beige-walled church in one of the town’s squares has become a popular gathering place for members of the community.

On Thursday, priests meet young people from Placetas on a field near the church to play football.

On the same block, a soup kitchen feeds the hungry twice a week, a library is open to everyone and, especially for many, a makeshift pharmacy distributes free medicines that priests get from Europe.

These are all services that fall under the one-party state of Cuba.

But the Havana government recently decided to reduce Cubans’ dependence on free essential services – announcing that it will cut subsidies for food and other basic items in a bid to attract people. in the workplace and revitalize the economy.

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The country is grappling with its worst economic crisis in 30 years, fueled by six decades of US sanctions and the collapse of its critical tourism sector due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I am 53 years old and this is the worst (moment) I have ever experienced,” said Tania Perez, who, in the absence of a pandemic, rents a room to tourists in Placetas and relies heavily on the drugs provided. by priests.

“My mother has only 20 days of pills left and her medicine cannot be found. Without it, she cannot walk. I have lupus and I have no medicine left,” Perez said.

– Provide support –

Every Wednesday a van comes with fresh supplies for the Placetas Pharmacy. The day before, some people sleep outside to make sure they can get what they need.

In neighboring small towns, people say they had to wait four days in a queue for drugs.

In these difficult times, the Church “could not and did not want to sit on the sidelines,” said Arturo Gonzalez Amador, bishop of Santa Clara – the capital of the province of Villa Clara, where Placetas is located.

He, too, was quick to point out that the Church “was not creating a parallel structure” to the State, declaring: “We are providing support.”

From Placetas, where Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel was born, priests roam the countryside all week by bicycle, motorbike or horse-drawn carriage, bringing spiritual and material comfort to a community dispersed in some forty villages made up mostly of simple huts.

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In the small village of Baez, about twenty kilometers from Placetas, around three dozen people come every week to the soup kitchen in a wooden house which also serves as a daycare.

“I have a waiting list of eight people in need,” said Maricel Garcia, 64, who runs the facility, one of the many beneficiaries of the Placetas-based Caritas charity.

In recent months, volunteers have seen “growing fatigue and anxiety among residents in the face of so many uncertainties related to the ongoing pandemic and the worsening crisis,” said Maritza Sanchez, director of Caritas Cuba.

In 2020, the foundation helped some 40,000 people, about 7,000 more than in 2014.

– Mistrust, fear –

“At first there was a lot of mistrust” on the part of the authorities, “maybe even a little fear,” Pichon said of the growing presence of the Church.

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After the revolution, the new communist state seized in 1961 the property of the Catholic Church, including schools and clinics.

More than 130 priests have been expelled.

The country was an atheist until 1992, when it changed its laws to officially become secular. However, a government office of religious affairs still regulates everything related to worship.

Today, the country of 11.2 million inhabitants has only 300 Catholic priests, half of whom are foreigners.

According to Church estimates, 60% of Cubans are baptized, but only 2% attend mass.

Practicing Catholics are still prohibited from working for certain ministries in a country where the state is the main employer.

– Cuba “needs change” –

Relations between the Catholic Church and Havana softened somewhat after a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

The Church played a decisive role as a mediator in the release of dissidents in Havana in 2010, and then in the secret talks that led to Barack Obama’s historic rapprochement with the United States in 2014.

Pope Francis visited in 2015 and then leader Raul Castro described a “constructive climate”.

In another sign of change, state television broadcast Mass on several Sundays in a row last year for the first time.

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And the Vatican has used this new tolerance to its advantage.

In 2018, when the first draft of a new Cuban constitution sought to pave the way for same-sex marriage, it attacked a symptom of “ideological colonialism.” The proposal has been deleted.

Church leaders have also become increasingly daring to speak out against the living conditions of the Cuban people, in a country where criticism can easily prove difficult.

“This country needs a change,” priest Alberto Reyes of Camaguey recently wrote on Facebook.

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