CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The March visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI has helped reawaken people’s interest in the Catholic Church, according to two Cuban bishops visiting the United States.
But it also has stirred criticism of the church’s efforts to work with the government more and may be connected to a fire of suspicious origin that gutted a travel agency that organizes charter flights from Florida to Cuba.
Remarks at an April 24 forum at Harvard University by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino about the church’s role in Cuba riled some of the outspoken critics of the Castro government in both Havana and Florida.
In a speech at the university’s Kennedy School of Government, Cardinal Ortega spoke at length about the “profound reawakening” the church is seeing in Cuba, augmented by the pope’s visit.
“The church is living a spring of faith in Cuba,” Cardinal Ortega said, adding that the pope’s visit left people impressed by his meekness and kindness and that enthusiasm to “delve more deeply” into faith will live on in the hearts of Cubans.
He also spoke about the increased role taken by Caritas, the church’s aid organization, in providing assistance to Cuba’s needy, including the elderly and victims of natural disasters. And he explained his role in meeting with President Raul Castro to work toward ending increased harassment of the Ladies in White, and the release of their relatives from Cuban prisons.
Bishop Arturo Gonzalez of Santa Clara, Cuba, told Catholic News Service during an April 26 visit to Washington that since the pope’s visit, attendance at Mass has increased, as has interest in the church’s programs.
He said it was important for the pope to go to Cuba “to be with his people who are poor and who are suffering.” For the few days he was in Cuba, the small island nation was the center of the news world, Bishop Gonzalez said, and that helped bring the church’s mission and work to the attention of the Cuban people.
In Boston a couple of nights earlier, Cardinal Ortega’s response to some questions from the audience raised hackles among opponents of the Cuban government.
Moderator Jorge Dominguez, vice provost for international affairs at Harvard University, asked Cardinal Ortega to respond to criticisms made by exile groups in Miami who say the cardinal is too close to the Castro regime.
“From the start of the difficult years of persecution in Cuba there have been criticisms of the bishops of Cuba from the left and from the right, and also within the church,” Cardinal Ortega replied.
“If you start thinking of the church as a political organization — many would like us to be the opposition party in Cuba — but we cannot be that,” he said. “It goes against the nature of the church.”
Cardinal Ortega acknowledged “wounds” suffered by the Cuban people, both those living in Cuba and those who have fled the country.
“But these wounds have not been caused by the church,” he said. “The church has suffered these wounds as well.”
The cardinal defended his decision to have 13 protesters removed by police from Havana’s Basilica of Our Lady of Charity a few days before the pope arrived.
Saying the protest was staged “by people in Florida,” the cardinal called the 13 protesters “former delinquents” and stressed that, contrary to some news reports, none of them was harmed in any way.
He also spoke of the need for reconciliation among all Cubans, both inside and outside the country, a topic stressed by the pope while in Cuba.
“If the exile community is going to have a role in the new Cuba, they need to start now … by building bridges,” he said.
Cardinal Ortega’s comments sparked a flurry of criticism from the Cuban exile community in the United States.
Typical of the reaction was an April 29 statement posted on the website of the Asamblea de la Resistencia Cubana (Assembly of the Cuban Resistance).
“Our exile community, contrary to what the cardinal intends to project, is proof of the capacity of reconciliation between Cubans and is an example of true solidarity with those who suffer the lack of fundamental freedoms and rights in the island,” the statement said.
“The fact that Cardinal Ortega utilizes the same detrimental language which the regime of Havana uses, referring to a group of Cubans who entered the sanctuary of God to call attention on the lack of rights in Cuba, reflects that of the oppressors of the Cuban people,” it continued.
Such criticism is to be expected, according to Mario Paredes, board chairman of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders and presidential liaison for the American Bible Society, who helped coordinate Cardinal Ortega’s visit to the United States.
“Now that the church is expanding and gaining footing in Cuba, there is likely going to be added criticisms from those on the outside,” he said in an April 27 telephone interview with The Pilot, newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese.
“The fact that (Cardinal Ortega) doesn’t criticize the regime directly is seen as his collaborating with the regime, which is untrue,” Paredes said.
“The cardinal is doing what he is supposed to do,” he continued, noting that the cardinal’s role is “to bring people to faith, to call on collaboration in rebuilding Cuba, to bring Cubans to reconciliation.”
“It’s very hard for people to understand his role,” he said.
In Florida the same week, city, state and federal investigators said they were looking into the possibility that arson was behind an April 27 fire that gutted the Coral Gables offices of the charter travel agency that organized two planeloads of pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami to Cuba for the papal visit.
Reuters reported that the owner of Airline Brokers, Vivian Mannerud, said she suspected arson “because of the indignation of the pope’s visit.” She said she had not received threats to her business recently, but that the company was targeted in the early 1990s by activists who opposed any effort at easing the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba.
The company’s role in bringing pilgrims to Cuba for the papal visit was well publicized in Miami. It is one of dozens of companies nationwide offering charter flights to Cuba under certain circumstances, following regulations set by the Treasury Department, which enforces the trade embargo.
Contributing to this story was Donis Tracy in Cambridge.