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Between the Gun and the Cassock / Miriam Celaya

Between the Gun and the Cassock / Miriam Celaya
Miriam Celaya, Translator: Norma Whiting

A debate encounter sponsored by the Catholic digital publication Espacio
Laical took place on Saturday, October 29th, 2011. The agency EFE, the
leading Spanish news agency, reported the event in a very laudable
manner, as published on October 30th on the digital site Cubaencuentro.
The report states that "The new role that the Catholic Church in Cuba
has undertaken has provided forums for dialogue where even a
or a controversial academician are able to exchange their views in
public with a leading intellectual public official." Additionally, it
exposes details of the intervention of the founder of the Institute of
Art and the Cinematographic Industry (ICAIC) and the director of the
Latin American New Film Festival, Alfredo Guevara, who "gave a lecture
on Cuba's current challenges" by addressing issues of economic
adjustments, the problem of bureaucracy and the need to understand
diversity and tolerance in today's Cuba.

Present at the event were Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the official academic
Esteban Morales, the economist and former of the
Black Spring group, , and a group of students,
intellectuals, economists, foreign diplomats and "local and foreign
journalists." The press release does not specify who these local
journalists were, but they are presumed to be representatives of the
official press, since there has not been any editorial opinion about
said encounter from independent journalists and bloggers.

Nor did the official media give coverage to such a significant event,
though one of the topics discussed was precisely in relation to the
limitations of the press in Cuba and "the concealment of information to
citizens," as discussed by dissident economist Espinosa Chepe, who was
very positive about debates that are "civilized, not offensive, without
exclusions or absurd prejudices, because ideological diversity does
exist in Cuba", and he indicated that it was enough just to walk outside
to listen to people's criticism. As part of his response, Guevara
considered that secrecy had to end "radically".

Another of the aspects that EFE's report emphasizes is the opinion of
many of the meeting's attendees about "the new role being played by the
Catholic Church, providing spaces for dialogue on issues of all kinds
and incorporating diverse opinions" and it added that "Cardinal Ortega
himself stated last Friday that the Church is experiencing a new
relationship with the State and the people of Cuba, and he confirmed
that the dialogue initiated last year with Raúl Castro and his
government continues, and it affects all areas of national life,
including the adjustment process to 'update' the socialist model."

In reality, we must recognize that any debate space that opens up for
dialogue in a nation so tense and fragmented as ours, will, indeed, be
positive. However, it would be desirable that the intentions professed
should correspond more consistently with the facts. Let's say that no
debate about the actual Cuban reality should be considered inclusive
when among the participants there is barely one representative of the
broad array of non-official opinion – call them dissidents — of all of
society, when not one member is invited from independent journalism or
from alternative civil society that has emerged ever so strongly in the
past few years, and other numerous and young voices that have much to
say and to which so many venues have been denied.

One of the notable absentees at this event is the Catholic layman
Dagoberto Valdés editor of the magazine Vitral, for many years and
current host of the group's wonderful magazine Convivencia. There have
been many cultural, literary and civic activities developed by this
group of people from Pinar del Rio, led by Dagoberto, in defense of
diversity, , and Cubanism; however, they don't seem to qualify to
take part in the debate of Espacio Laical.

There were also no representatives from the Cuban Law Association to
offer an alternative view on the new legislation that is being
announced, and the decrees that have been introduced in the very highly
publicized process of government reforms.

Neither the Catholic Church nor Espacio Laical can be considered "new
spaces" as they offer just the stage where discussions are confined to
the thematic framework of the same old speeches disguised as reform,
dictated by the same old speakers that have thrived for more than half
century in the high politics of the country, apparently without
perceiving any errors in the system. If those are the guiding voices, we
are not before what is new or innovative, but rather in the presence of
an opportunistic mutation of the same and already long-lived deadly disease.

Cardinal Ortega's approach also seems, at the very least, ambiguous,
since the idea that the Church is experiencing a new relationship with
the Cuban people and their "dialogue" covers all areas of national life,
including so-called process of updating the socialist model. At least
regular Cubans do not seem to feel the presence of the Church in their
lives, full of all kinds of shortages and lack of places to express
themselves. Monsignor Ortega is far from being considered a
representative of the feelings of the Cuban people, and, so far, he
doesn't seem to have as close a relationship with them as he does with
the General. Nor can I understand the relationship between the purple
and the olive green dialogue or their intention to renew socialism. It
would seem that the Cardinal might soon receive his Cuban Communist
Party membership card.

In fact, this Espacio Laical event has been full of the same secrecy
that was so criticized in the encounter: there were no calls to attend,
no invitation to all active opinion sectors, or media coverage of the
conference and debates, or transparency. It was as if it were a
conspiracy to care for a sacred venue, safe from the sacrilegious
agitators who make embarrassing pronouncements, who plant themselves,
who demand rights, who express themselves respectfully but without
hiding their opinions. Apparently, new parameters have been established
that maintains tight departments or niches, neither more nor less than
the feedback of a new sectarianism, now scented with wax and incense.

Espacio Laical has often published brave and honest editorials, and has,
in more than one occasion, expressed opinions and put forth questions
that reflect the concerns of thousands of Cubans, but, in this case, it
must be recognized that in practice it's losing the opportunity to
demonstrate true commitment for dialogue, because one cannot ignore
players who have been marking the beat on the transformation of Cuban
public opinion long before the government is forced to occasionally
temper its discourse or to implement –much to their dismay- the limited
economic and social changes that seem to dazzle the press today.

The Cardinal, meanwhile, played a positive role as a mediator for the
release of prisoners of conscience, but their freeing could not have
been possible without the courage and perseverance of the Ladies in
White, without the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas and without the
ongoing activities of journalists and independent bloggers. None of them
were invited to the event last Saturday, perhaps because the Catholic
Church delicately does not allow itself the risk of offending the
speeches of the holy hierarchy with the more legitimate civil claims, or
because perhaps it considers the people of this country so inept that
they can only be represented either by guns or cassocks.

Thus, I would argue that the real opportunities for dialogue have been
taking place spontaneously outside of institutions. The Estado de SATS
(where Art and thought converge) the groups OMNI ZONAFRANCA, the
Academy, Voces digital magazine, the group Convivencia, some of these
spaces are inclusive, where all opinions are welcome, where debates
don't have stiff moderators surfeited with authority, or require the
previous dictate of some anointed official. Good for Espacio Laical if
it decides to promote and maintain a new debate forum, albeit
half-hearted, but – let's be fair — the event this past October 29th was
neither so unprecedented nor a dialogue.

Translator: Norma Whiting

November 11 2011

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