Click here to advertise on

Catholic World News News Feature

Another Wave of Repression August 01, 2003

In February of this year Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana released a long-awaited pastoral letter, asserting the inalienable rights of the Cuban people. Little did he know, at the time that he was writing, that his pastoral letter would be made public on the eve of one of the most aggressive crackdowns on dissent in the 40-year history of the western hemisphere's sole Communist regime. In March, Cuban state agents began arresting dozens of political dissidents, charging them with sedition—a crime that is defined under current Cuban law as any action taken "against the independence and territorial integrity of the state."

Fidel Castro's new crop of political prisoners, made up primarily of independent journalists, librarians, and human-rights activists, were handed stiff sentences after summary trials. The dissidents were accused of conspiring with US diplomats and collaborating with the "enemy press." In actuality they were guilty of three offenses: promoting uncensored libraries, practicing independent journalism, and advocating political reform.

According to the state-run newspaper Granma, the long prison terms, ranging from 6 to 28 years, were meted out "in order to rein in political dissidents." Most of the dissidents were charged under Cuba's Law 88, which promises tough sentences for Cubans who conspire with a foreign power against their country's government. Under the Soviet-style Cuban constitution of 1976, even the few legally recognized civil liberties can be denied to those who allegedly oppose the "decision of the Cuban people to build socialism." As was the case with the recent roundup of political dissidents, due process is routinely denied to Cuban citizens.

Although Castro timed his crackdown on internal dissent to coincide with the US invasion of Iraq, when the world's attention would be focused elsewhere, the roundup did not pass unnoticed. On the contrary, it received unprecedented worldwide condemnation. The United States, the Vatican, and even the European Union were swift to condemn the Castro regime's actions, which also included the execution by firing squad of three men accused of "terrorism" for having hijacked a commercial ferry in an unsuccessful bid to reach freedom in Florida.

Jaime Suchliki, director of the Institute of Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, sees the year 2003 as a historic one for Cuba. "The renewed repression in Cuba," he told Catholic World Report, "is an indication that Castro wants his regime to continue after he's gone. He wants to ensure that the revolution will remain Communist and anti-American. In order to consolidate power he has to eliminate the opposition." Most Cuban experts agree that Fidel Castro, now 77, will eventually be succeeded by his younger brother and ideological twin Raúl.

Although Castro has periodically jailed opposition leaders throughout his four decades in power, what is most remarkable about this year's wave of repression is the aggressiveness with which the crackdown was carried out and the severity of the penalties imposed. More significantly, perhaps, the actions of the Castro regime shifted international public opinion about Cuba, bringing the European Union and the United States closer to accord in their positions vis-à-vis Castro.


Less than a month before the island-wide sweep, Havana's Cardinal Ortega had released his pastoral letter, which emphasized the importance of giving individuals the opportunity to exercise their freedom. The cardinal's letter was published on February 25, the 150th anniversary of the death of Father Felix Varela, a human-rights crusader who fought vigorously for Cuban independence from Spain in the 19th century before he was exiled to the US. (A cause for Father Varela's canonization is currently open in Rome; if it is successful, he would become the first Cuban saint.)

Echoing Father Varela's words, Cardinal Ortega wrote that "the capacity to exercise free will is what makes us truly human. If that freedom of choice cannot be expressed, human growth is stunted." He pointed out that Cuba is "one of the Latin American countries that has suffered the most devastation through the destruction of institutions and the sweeping away of traditions."

The cardinal particularly lamented the absence of Catholic schools in Cuba. In 1962 the fledgling Castro government seized more than 400 Catholic schools, closing them permanently. Castro charged that the schools spread beliefs that were dangerous to the people.

To this day, the Catholic Church in Cuba remains hamstrung by government restrictions: The Castro regime prohibits the Church from operating a press or any other form of news media, and from establishing any institutions such as schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. Nor is the Church in Cuba allowed to train an adequate number of native priests to serve the faithful.

During the 1960s hundreds of Catholic priests were exiled, including Miami's Auxiliary Bishop Augustín Román, an outspoken critic of the Castro regime and de facto spiritual leader for Miami's Cuban exiles. Many of the priests who remained in Cuba, including Cardinal Ortega, were put through state-run "re-education camps." At present there only some 250 priests serving a population of 11 million on the island.


Cardinal Ortega's invocation of Father Varela carried far more significance this year than it normally might have. At the time his letter was released, Cuba's most renowned opposition activist—Oswaldo Payá, head of Cuba's independent Christian Liberation Movement—was traveling throughout Europe and the United States in order to garner international support for his "Varela Project," also named after the 19th-century priest. Payá's unprecedented initiative was a petition drive demanding a nationwide referendum on basic human rights, amnesty for political prisoners, provisions for free enterprise, and electoral reform. The initiative deliberately avoided direct confrontation with the regime, using a form of redress (the petition drive and referendum) that is explicitly recognized under Cuba's constitution, and working within the island's existing Communist framework.

Last year Payá presented petitions bearing more than 11,000 signatures to Cuba's National Assembly, asking for a public referendum on the Varela Project's principal goals. Under the terms of the Cuban constitution the National Assembly should have responded by scheduling the referendum promptly. But in fact the government failed to respond. Moreover, Castro indirectly repudiated Payá's efforts by organizing his own national referendum campaign, promptly approved last June, in which 8 million Cubans allegedly gave their backing to a bid to make Cuba's Communist constitution "irrevocable."

In the face of the Cuban government's reaction to his petition drive, Payá was able to gain support from some European nations and to take his project on the road. During his European tour earlier this year he met with prominent international leaders including Pope John Paul II, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel—who has nominated Payá for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Payá, whose efforts at the very least have won worldwide recognition of the need for change in Cuba, has already been awarded the European Union's prestigious Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

The Payá project is not only named for Father Varela but inspired by the priest-reformer—who, rather than advocating armed revolution, insisted that freedom begins in the soul and that the best weapons of reform are spiritual ones. Payá explained to a Miami audience that "change can only be brought about by a civic movement of Cubans, acting peacefully. We don't want coups or armed confrontations or interventions."

Damian Fernandez, Professor of International Relations at Miami's Florida International University, believes that Payá's Varela Project is a "watershed" for Cuba. "It has captured the imaginations of tens of thousands of people, both in Cuba and around the world," he said. "It has presented a major dilemma for the Communist party." Just as importantly, he stressed, the petition drive has been a watershed for Cuban-American politics, which have tended toward volatile polemics. "The Varela Project represents a sea change of public opinion within the Cuban-American community," he told CWR. Fernandez, author of Cuba and the Politics of Passion, now sees a greater tone of civility in public discussion of Cuban issues. In other words, Payá's initiative has had a conciliatory effect in Miami, best illustrated by the greater appreciation of what has been accomplished by human-rights workers inside Cuba. "The center of gravity for the reform movement has shifted from Miami to Cuba," he added.


Although Oswaldo Payá and his Varela Project were received with overwhelming enthusiasm and support in Miami earlier, there were some notably outspoken critics, mostly within the city's Cuban exile community. Their objections are well reasoned, and Payá himself was forced to admit to them that his project was far from perfect.

Opponents of the project criticize Payá primarily for wanting to work through the unjust structures of the Communist regime rather than confronting it. The Varela Project invokes the authority of the current Cuban constitution. Human-rights activist Laida Carro explained to CWR that "an instrument of repression," such as that Communist constitution, "cannot be used to transform Cuban society towards a democracy."

Carro heads the Coalition of Cuban-American Women, a Florida-based humanitarian group comprised of exiled Cuban women who have devoted themselves to the difficult task of collaborating with civil-rights activists inside Cuba to document the regime's many human-rights violations, while working for democratic change. The Coalition, she explained, "does not support any plan that considers reforms within the present Cuban one-party system and its constitution." She added: "We do respect those citizens who signed [the petition], but feel they were not provided in-depth information on the consequences of the project."

The Varela Project, for example, would allow elections to be supervised by the Castro regime. That, Carro believes, is problematic; she insists: "Elections must be supervised by internationally recognized entities and organizations." She also objected to the project's stipulation that Cuban exiles would have to live on the island for a year before qualifying to become voting citizens.

Carro, who attended a private conference with Payá when he visited Miami earlier this year, said she saw "a very cautious individual with very carefully practiced answers. In my view, he never directly answered the questions posed, but went around them with constant jargon."

Critics such as Carro believe the Varela Project is not only doomed to failure, but leaves room for the Communist government and Castro to remain in power—in effect legitimizing the regime. In a joint statement issued by ten Miami-based exile groups, Payá's efforts were dismissed as not viable. Even Jaime Suchlicki, who considers himself a Payá supporter, agreed with many of the critics. "For the next few years," he said, "the Varela Project is going to be dead in the water."

Still, while the Varela Project seems to have accomplished little in the way of reform, the effects of the initiative have been felt keenly throughout the world in a different way. It is difficult to dismiss the fact that Payá's project has spawned a renewed sense of awareness about Cuba's dismal situation: its human rights abuses and its economic collapse. Not only has this new public scrutiny rattled Castro—as evidenced by the recent crackdown—but it has also inspired most of the world to reconsider its disposition toward the world's longest ruling dictator.


Despite the international support for his unprecedented initiative, Payá, a devout practicing Catholic, complained publicly in March that he expected to receive far more support for his initiative from the Church in Cuba than he has to date. While there is no doubt that Cardinal Ortega is a critic of the Castro government, the island's ranking prelate has made his modus operandi clear: in order to avoid political entanglements, the Church in Cuba will not publicly support any opposition movement, including the Varela Project.

"The Church's mission is not to be the opposition party that unfortunately does not exist in Cuba," the Havana cardinal said during a recent talk. "The Church keeps alive," he added, hinting that his passive strategy is a survival technique as much as anything else.

"This is vintage Ortega," said Damian Fernandez. "He is simply acting like the consummate politician he is." Historically, he continued, Cardinal Ortega has maintained a detached neutrality toward the Castro regime, a neutrality that has earned him not a few critics, both in Cuba and in the US.

Although Fernandez fully recognizes the constraints the Church is working under in today's Cuba, he faults the hierarchy for being timid and quiescent. "I think the Church's timid position does not fare well in the context of present-day Cuba," he concludes. "There is a context of crisis, but the Church continues to act as if there is no crisis." For that reason, added Fernandez, the Church stands to be judged negatively when a democratic transition eventually takes place. "There is going to be a turning away from the Church in Cuba," he predicted, "if it does not take a bold stand now."

Jaime Suchlicki defended Cardinal Ortega's policy. "The Catholic Church takes the long view," he said. "The long view is that it has lost a significant base of support in Cuba. It is a small Church and [the hierarchy] does not want the Church to disappear from the island. They want to be there beyond Castro." Suchlicki believes that if Cardinal Ortega were to support the opposition movement now, Castro would crush the Church.

Fernandez disagrees. He believes the Church is more likely to outlast Castro and the Communist party if the hierarchy takes a strong moral position against the Castro regime right now. Cardinal Ortega's pastoral letter is "too little, too late," he said. From all available indications, he reasons, the cardinal's neutrality has not paid off institutionally for the Church nor has it helped out the human-rights lobby in Cuba. "His detached neutrality, and consequently the detached neutrality of the Cuban Church, has already proved to be a failure. If the Church is not proactive, it is going to suffer even after change comes about in Cuba," Fernandez predicts.

Bishop Vaclav Maly, an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Prague who lived under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia most of his life, would seem to agree with Fernandez's point of view. Earlier this year he publicly criticized Cardinal Ortega for failing to support the opposition movement in Cuba.

Judging from the content of the exhortations he delivered during his 1998 visit to Cuba, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that John Paul II takes the same view as Archbishop Maly and Damian Fernandez. In the presence of Fidel Castro, the Pope stated clearly that it was the Church's duty publicly to denounce the "corruption of political power," and that Catholics have the duty and the right to participate in public debate on the basis of equality and in an attitude of dialogue and reconciliation.

The Pope's historic trip to Cuba serves a case in point, illustrating something more than incremental change in the country's regime. At the time of the papal visit, Catholic leaders expressed the hope that the occasion would herald a new era for the Church and the island nation. Now, with the initial excitement having subsided, Cardinal Ortega has been forced to admit that the Church's situation has not improved in the five years since the Pope's visit. Speaking to reporters at the opening of an art exhibit in Havana a month before the release of his pastoral letter, he said: "Relations with the Cuban government remain essentially the same…. The social-political space is always very limited and it appears the Church is often ignored."

The Church in Cuba was hoping the papal visit would pave the way for changes in government policies, allowing a return of religious education, giving Church leaders some access to the media, or at the very least easing the process of obtaining official permission to hold public religious gatherings such as devotional processions. Castro, however, has granted none of this. The only result of the Pope's visit was that Christmas was reinstated as a national holiday.

"Castro continued with the status quo," Fernandez observed. "There's a major flaw in the cardinal's argument," he said of Ortega's refusal to operate from an emboldened stance. The Cuban hierarchy, he said, "needs to assert moral authority."


Shortly after Payá's return to Cuba after his European tour, Castro lashed out against opposition leaders, including several leading members of Payá's own group. After the mass arrests, the Varela Project leader accused Castro of undertaking a new campaign of repression in order to thwart efforts for peaceful political change. "The arrests are aimed at destroying the Varela Project," he charged. He observed that half of those arrested were coordinators of the project in the various Cuban provinces. In an interview with the New York Times, Payá vowed that his Varela Project would not be crushed: "There had been a flowering in Cuba of a peaceful movement for rights and reconciliation, to defeat this culture of fear. Cuba's spring is the Varela Project."

Many of those arrested in March worked as independent journalists, who operate outside of the state-run media outlets in order to provide news of political prisoners and dissidents, while also reporting on the hardships and frustrations of daily life in Communist Cuba. Such independent journalism is outlawed by article 53 of the Cuban constitution. The arrested journalists principally publish their articles on Miami-based news web sites such as Cubanet and Nueva Prensa Cubana. Since most have no direct access to the Internet, they typically file their stories by fax or phone dictation. Some, such as Raúl Rivero Castañeda, the most renowned independent journalist to be imprisoned, have had their articles published in venues such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, Cuba is the only country in the Western hemisphere where journalists are currently imprisoned for offenses relating to their reporting. The committee also lists Cuba as one of the world's ten worst countries in terms of journalistic freedom.

Also among the recently condemned dissidents, ten are members of Cuba's independent library movement, which is dedicated to circulating materials that are forbidden by the Castro regime. In the course of the crackdown 22 independent libraries were raided and their collections seized, along with the circulation records containing the names of those who borrowed books from the outlawed libraries. The ten librarians were also convicted of conspiring with US diplomats to undermine the Cuban government, and sentenced to a total of 196 years in prison.


The months of tension on the island have resulted in a disaster for Cuban foreign policy, not least in terms of relations with the United States. "With its recent crackdown against human-rights activists and the country's nascent civil society," said James Cason, the chief American diplomatic officer in Havana, "the Castro regime has shown that it is willing to risk even the ire of the international community to maintain its central role."

In an address to the Cuban Transition Project in Miami just weeks after the crackdown, Cason clarified the services that US diplomats provide for independent journalists in Cuba: material support in the form of radios and books that are unavailable in Cuba, Internet access, and a news clipping service. "The government of Cuba," he said, "refers to all of these activities as 'subversion of the established order,' and expects the international community to believe that."

Washington, which has taken a hard-line against Cuba since the early days of the Castro government, has been considering new ways to tighten the longstanding economic embargo against the totalitarian regime. One proposal was to end US family remittances to Cuba. Remittances from Cuban Americans play a large role in the Cuban economy, accounting for between $800 million and $1 billion per year in an $18.6 billion economy. The remittances come from families in the United States, who are permitted by US law to send up to $1,200 each year.

To date the threat to cut those payments has remained just that: a threat. "Sensible opinions from inside Cuba and Cuban-Americans have been heard and remittances have not been cut so far," said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor of economics and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh. "Such an action would play in favor of Castro, harm the Cuban people, and reverse the good will that the US has created inside of Cuba through the remittances and [family] visitations."


Payá's travels, coupled with Castro's renewed wave of repression, have also re-ignited the debate about current US sanctions against the Communist nation. Some observers believe that Payá was allowed unprecedented freedom of travel precisely because he is an outspoken critic of the economic and travel embargo against Cuba. "Cuba lets people like Payá travel," commented Jaime Suchlicki, "in order to show that there is some liberalism is Cuba. It is supposed to show that the Castro regime is not totalitarian. But in fact, only those criticizing the United States are allowed such freedom to travel."

Payá has been unequivocal in his opposition to the US economic embargo against Cuba, saying that it is not an "instrument of change." But neither does he believe, as others argue, that foreign investment and American tourism will bring a democratic transition to the island. He believes that change can only come from within, from a homegrown movement.

Suchlicki supports the embargo, and agrees with Washington that the sanctions should remain in place as a tool to negotiate with the future government. Some critics of the American embargo blame the US government for Cuba's economic woes, arguing that the average Cuban suffers while Castro remains unmoved. Suchlicki disagrees. "What affects the average Cuban," he said, "is the Communist system, not the embargo. Cuba buys whatever it wants." He explained that the Castro government even buys American products, everything from Coca-Cola to computers. It does so through "straw" trading companies set up in accommodating neutral sites like Switzerland and Panama.

The more destructive embargo, Suchlicki continues, is the policy of the Cuban government, which refuses to open up markets to allow the Cuban people to use their own initiative. "The Cubans are ingenious; they are entrepreneurial," he believes; a dose of free enterprise would quickly solve their economic maladies. Statistics lend weight to Suchlicki's assertion. During the 1950s, before the Communist revolution, Cuba ranked third in per capita income in all of Latin America. Today, after receiving more than 85 billion dollars in economic and military aid from China and the former Soviet Union, Cuba's per capita income is among the lowest in the Western hemisphere. At the same time, the Cuban exile community in Florida boasts a substantially higher per capita income.

"Once penniless," points out Laida Carro, herself a Cuban refugee, "exiles have turned into successful productive individuals such as US congressmen, presidents of prominent corporations and educational institutions, movies stars, singers, and musicians." Two well-known examples of such are singer Gloria Estefan and actor Andy Garcia. This year, in fact, Cuban exile Nilo Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize as a playwright.

Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago opposes the US embargo against Cuba for very different reasons. Since 1968 he has criticized the sanctions because they have been used by Castro to justify his disastrous economic policies. An end to the embargo would deprive Castro of that convenient explanation for his policy failures. Echoing Suchlicki's position, he said, "the main problem of the economy is not the embargo but [Cuba's] incapacity to generate sufficient and diversified exports to buy the needed imports." Cuba can trade with the rest of the world, including Canada, the European Union, and Japan, he pointed out, but does not have the goods to sell to those countries. "The lifting of the embargo won't solve [Cuba's economic] problems but [will] remove the excuse that the Cuban government has used all these years."

Laida Carro's Coalition of Cuban-American Women supports the US sanctions as "one of the many ways necessary to apply pressure to a ruthless regime, preventing it from obtaining access to bank credits and cash that would be used to continue in power and further repress its people." Fidel Castro has been trading with the rest of the world for years, Carro added, and that has resulted in neither an improvement in the economic plight of the nation nor a lessening of "the brutal repressive nature" of the Castro regime.

It is instructive to note that some prominent political prisoners in Cuba have been outspoken in favor of the US sanctions. Juan Carlos González Leiva is a blind lawyer and human-rights activist who has been imprisoned without trial since March 4, 2002 for his pro-democracy activism. Last year, from prison, he sent a public message pleading that "the embargo not be lifted, as it would mean oxygen for a criminal tyranny and the continuation of the misery of the people."

Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, a prominent activist and political prisoner who was arrested again in Castro's recent crackdown, took a similar stance during a press conference conducted by telephone from Cuba on November 4, 2002 after he had finished serving a previous 3-year sentence. He said:

I believe if the entire world were to carry out sanctions as was done with South Africa, Cuba would have been free a long time ago. To give money to Castro is to subsidize his agents, Cuban State Security and the political police, enabling them to beat us up and mistreat us. I will not modify these ideas, which I have always believed and supported.

Matching Campaign
Subscribe for free
Click here to advertise on
Shop Amazon

Recent Catholic Commentary

Urgent! We need extra financial support between now and May 24th. May 22
What's wrong with these pictures? May 22
What can we learn from the dignity of military services? May 22
Was Lewis “basically Catholic”? May 21
Reading The Diary of a Country Priest: Scandal May 20

Top Catholic News

Most Important Stories of the Last 30 Days