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Christian Frevel {*}

No Change of Course in Cuba

Tentative Reforms after Fidel Castro's Retreat


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2008, P. 260-264
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone typically was the first official foreign guest of Cuba after Fidel Castro had resigned for health reasons in February 2008. As new president of the state his brother Raúl has in the first months of his tenure introduced a whole series of smaller reforms. There are signs of a new openness also towards the church.


The Cuban Bishops' Conference as well as the Cuban government had issued the invitation. Ten years ago John Paul II had visited the island - now the government as well as the church wanted to remind of that anniversary. Benedict XVI sent the "second man" in the Vatican, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone to the Caribbean island. The memorial service on occasion of the visit of the late pope was televised live by the Cuban television and via satellite all over the world. It was the first time since the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998 that the Cuban television again televised a Catholic mass. Two Cuban broadcasters, the "Canal Educación" and the program "Cubavisión Internacional", which is internationally broadcasting from Cuba, spread the Eucharist celebrated by Cardinal Bertone in the Cuban capital Havana.

The Vatican's Secretary of State was on the Caribbean island received as a head of state. And he was the first official foreign guest after Fidel Castro had resigned for health reasons on 19 February 2008. Bertone came to the island only two days after the takeover of the office by the new president of the state Raúl Castro. A happy coincidence, or perhaps part of a planned staging?

So "Granma", the central organ of the Communist Party of Cuba and the most important newspaper of the island, wrote in a long article on the state visit from the Vatican that it took place at a "special moment of the blockade policy and hostility on the part of the United States". After all already John Paul II had demanded the end the U.S. blockade policy against Cuba; "Granma" reminded of the late Pope's condemnation of the blockade as "unjust and ethically unacceptable". Cardinal Bertone underlined that position right on the first day of his stay. But he did not refrain from quoting the demands of the deceased pope in their two dimensions, "May Cuba with all its great possibilities open to the world, and may the world open to Cuba."

Back in Rome Cardinal Bertone emphasized in an interview with Vatican Radio that his judgement on the U.S. embargo also "applied to the "many restrictions" still practised by the European Union: "It seems to me that these positions naturally try to ensure that the government of the island develops to more freedom and a greater respect for human rights, but I think that those so tough measures that were taken unilaterally do not support the development", the Cardinal said.



"They at most bring suffering on the people, for it is the people, families, children, adolescents who are punished by those actions. And they do not recognize the dignity of the nation and its values, its independence, its tradition. That is why they are not acceptable."

These statements of the Curia Cardinal were grist to the Cuban government's mills. In the Cuban government's welcoming address to the Vatican Secretary of State it became clear that it expects further and greater support by the Vatican regarding the Bush administration in the U.S.

The measures introduced by Raúl Castro in the first weeks of his office as head of state primarily aim at improving the economic situation of the Cuban population. After a period of temporary easing the U.S. government had again tightened the blockade measures against Cuba in the years 2003 and 2004. Since then the agricultural exports from the United States and the transfer of goods, in particular of technical products to the Caribbean island had again been stopped, and the travel of U.S. tourists to Cuba had been made more difficult: direct charter flights were cancelled, who wanted to go from Miami to Cuba, situated about 100 kilometres southwards, had to take the expensive and time consuming detour via Mexico City. The U.S. has been pursuing the blockade policy against Cuba since 1962. The then President John F. Kennedy had imposed the embargo due to the stationing of Russian missiles on the island - and with a few exceptions it lasts until today.

Raúl Castro needs a repeal or at least an easing of the embargo in order to master the difficult economic situation in the country. The brother of Fidel, since August 2006 his deputy as president, had right at the beginning of his new job in an interview with the "Granma" declared himself in favour of an open dialogue with the U.S., though under recognition of the realities. One was ready to solve the differences at the negotiating table, but the basis for it was the recognition of Cuba's sovereignty.

Already in 2002 after the establishment of the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba Raúl Castro had avoided a confrontation course against the United States. On the contrary, he acknowledged - then still in office as commander-in-chief of the armed forces - that the United States had informed the Cuban government about the plans before building the camp.

The Bush administration in Washington, however, continues to bank on economic pressure. A few weeks before Castro's retreat from active politics in August 2006, the U.S. government approved of further 80 million U.S. dollars to support the Cuban (exile) opposition and to enforce the embargo. U.S. President Bush said, "We are actively working on a change in Cuba and do not simply wait." In December 2006 Raúl Castro had offered negotiations also to the European Union in order to improve the relations.

Economically speaking, the relationship between Germany and Cuba reached a new low: The value of exports from Germany to the Caribbean island rose from 2003 to 2006 from 101 to 412 million euros. Last year the value of exports went down to 215 million euros - a consequence of the concentration of Cuban trade on Venezuela.


Foreign-policy Isolation broken by Venezuela

The plan of the U.S. government further to isolate Cuba as regards foreign policy has particularly been undermined by the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Chavez, who had in Venezuela proclaimed the "Bolivarian revolution" and had ended his oath of office after the elections almost two years ago with the Cuban formula "Socialismo o Muerte" (socialism or death), had in the past few years become the main ally of Cuba and the personal friend of Fidel Castro.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc Cuba had pursued a policy of internationalism. A significant part of this policy is the dispatch of Cuban doctors, teachers and technicians into friendly countries. In recent years in all 15000 Cuban doctors were sent as humanitarian helpers to different countries around the world, in the more recent past especially to Venezuela and Bolivia. Cuban doctors and nurses provide in the Venezuelan poor districts a basic medical care; in return Venezuela supplies Cuba with oil far below the world market price.

In December 2007 Cuba and Venezuela signed a series of treaties which not only settled the exchange of doctors against oil but also provide for the supply of food and the help with urgently needed repairs of the fragile power supply system. The treaties settle transactions amounting to 1.9 billion U.S. dollars.

Hugo Chávez, who after a lost referendum comes more and more under domestic pressure, negotiated for his followers cheap holidays in Cuban hotels in the "off-season". Thus the Venezuelan head of state can send 100.000 of his followers to the Caribbean island, and Cuba can utilize to the full the hotel capacities. For the tourist numbers in the last year for the first time stagnated at two million foreign guests. In the past 15 years Cuba had increased the number of tourists more than tenfold. In exchange for the hotel offers Cuban specialists are to help Venezuela in building a steelworks.

The plan of the United States economically and politically to isolate Cuba seems to have failed. For it was Hugo Chávez who in Latin America time and again pointed out the sick Fidel Castro and Cuba as a model - and repeatedly denounced the U.S. as the "Place of Evil".



On 1 August 2006, because of a serious illness of his stomach and intestinal tract, Fidel Castro had provisionally handed over his functions as Secretary General of the Communist Party, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and president of the Cuban State Council and the Government to his brother Raúl. The evening before a message of Castro had been read out on television, "working day and night without enough sleep resulted in extreme stress and subsequently in intestinal bleeding. Because of that I had to undergo a complicated surgery".

What followed was a period of political standstill in Havana. Only a few pictures of the illness of Cuba's head of state leaked out. They showed him clearly emaciated in a track suit reading the current edition of the "Granma". In the months since the emergency operation (which was probably followed by further operations) the central organ published once in a while editorials and essays of Fidel Castro in which he gave his view on global issues such as energy crisis, biofuels and climate change. But you looked in vain for notes or directives regarding the situation in Cuba.

It was Hugo Chávez who as the first official guest was admitted to Fidel Castro and afterwards exuberantly chatted about the good recovery process. The visits were repeated, and the Venezuelans became accustomed to the pictures of the Venezuelan head of government in the red shirt next to the Cuban party chairman in the track suit.

On 17 December 2007, about one month before the forthcoming parliamentary elections, Fidel Castro intimated in a letter that he wanted to resign from his offices. In the election itself, however, he stood as a candidate. Only on 19 February 2008 Castro announced in the "Granma" his resignation - 49 years after the victory of the revolution in Cuba. On 24 February the Parliament elected his brother as successor in the office of President.

Up to now Castro did not belong to those people who in Cuba were present in the public. Unlike his brother Fidel he has written no book.



His trips abroad often led him to China. He belongs to the "founding fathers" of the Cuban revolution, to those fighters who in December 1956 landed with the legendary motor-yacht "Granma" in Cuba in order to bring the revolution.

Born in 1931 Raúl Castro had like his brother gone to a Jesuit College (Colegio de Dolores in Santiago Cuba). Unlike his brother, who in numerous interviews has also talked about his relationship to religion, nothing is known about the religious attitude of the new Cuban President of the State. He studied social sciences at the University of Havana but never gained a degree. For the failed assault on the Moncada barracks in July 1953, in which also Raúl Castro took place (and which today in Cuban history is regarded as the beginning of the revolution), brought him into jail and in 1955 into exile in Mexico. During the guerrilla fights against Batista's soldiers in Cuba Raul was regarded as unconditional fighter, hard against himself and others. After the invasion of Havana in January 1959 and the takeover of the government the then 33-year-old Fidel appointed his five years younger brother commander of the revolutionary armies.

After the end of fighting Raúl Castro married the guerrilla fighter Vilma Espín, with whom he was married until her death in June 2007 and had four children. His wife was for a long time president of the Federation of Cuban Women and a member of the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party.

During the almost fifty years of his reign Fidel Castro could always count on the loyalty of his brother. Raúl is considered to be a disciplined "hardliner", but he thinks economically. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces he had ensured that they run tourism enterprises and estates or industrial enterprises and thus obtain the important foreign exchange, without which even the armed forces cannot manage. More than 30 percent of all Cuban companies are in the hands of the military.

"Our first duty is to give people to eat," is an often quoted word of Raúl Castro. After a trip abroad to China and Vietnam in 2005 he had praised the economic awakening of China in the "Granma" and called it a "possible alternative". He refrained from further advances when his brother Fidel shortly afterwards publicly opposed a "social democratization" of Cuba.

With allusion to the grey hair of the Cuban musicians in the film by Wim Wenders, "die tageszeitung" joked about the new political leadership as "Buena Vista Social Club". For two of the six vice-presidents were older than 75 years. There are "reliable" forces also in the new government, but they come from different camps. But with Carlos Lage (56) Raúl Castro handed over the important office of the coordination of economic projects to one of the "makers" of economic reforms from the nineties. Felipe Pérez Roque (43), who was previously Fidel Castro's office manager, is regarded as Lage's counter-weight in the new government and as custodian of the old course. He was appointed as the new Foreign Minister of Cuba.


A too obliging visit of the Vatican?

It was also Pérez Roque who welcomed Cardinal Bertone after landing at the airport, and it was Perez Roque who as the government's highest member took part in the celebration of the Eucharist in Havana. Raúl Castro met the Cardinal only one day later. "I have seen a man who is very realistic, open to discuss everything, and above all the maintenance of the values and ideals", Bertone judged after his return to Rome, and stressed that the issue of human rights had not been excluded. But he had also mentioned to the president the problem of prisoners, not only of the political ones, and the pastoral care for those prisoners.

But the leader of the Christian-moulded Cuban Liberation Movement, the "Proyecto Varela, and winner of the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament in 2002, Oswaldo Paya Sardiņas was disappointed by the results of the visit. The Vatican's representative had proved to be too "obliging" towards the regime, he said in an interview with a Spanish news agency. Although he had requested a meeting with Bertone, it had not taken place, Payá regretted.

According to the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) also under the new Cuban president arrests for political reasons had repeatedly occurred. For the mere reason of Cardinal Bertone's visit dozens of Christian human rights activists had temporarily been arrested. They had wanted to take part in services in Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, the ISHR informed.

In the first months of his period of office Raúl Castro introduced a whole series of smaller reforms, which are to make everyday life of Cubans easier. So Cubans can now buy also mobile phones and buying computers is to become easier. Precondition however is payment in "pesos convertibles", the official second currency, which can be exchanged for foreign currencies from abroad. The same applies to the new offer that in the interim season Cubans can now (as the Venezuelans) live as guests in the Cuban hotels and hire cars.

But the land reform is more important. To promote food production the government plans to pay better prices to producers of agricultural products, and has begun to let uncultivated agricultural land be used by small producers. According to official figures about half of the agricultural land in Cuba lies waste or is insufficiently used.



In his talks with Cuban politicians Cardinal Bertone time and again spoke about a major problem in the relationship between church and state in Cuba: the lack of permits for building new churches. "There are parishes developing in the middle of the village, especially in small towns, but without the opportunity to meet in a church; they can do this only in the families", the cardinal said after his return to Rome.

As the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega had during his last visit to Germany in November 2007 said, since the Pope's visit in 1998 the dealings with the Cuban government had become "simpler and more pragmatic, more consistent". The church could now again celebrate the religious festivals and also hold processions. But the church is still not allowed to establish religious radio stations, and often enough there is pressure on the church newspapers.

The Cubans, who have learned to read between the lines, in order to recognize for example slight changes in the political fabric in the reports of the "Granma", had their own thoughts when - in the run-up to Bertone's visit in a message to the Cuban bishops which could be read in the church newspapers - Benedict XVI emphasized in connection with the difficulties of the church's life on the island, "A small light can illuminate an entire house." For one of the most read church newspapers in Cuba is "Cocuyo", "Firefly". A few years ago it had got a prize of the International Catholic Union of the Press (UCIP) for its commitment to human rights.

In February 2006 the church in Cuba passed a new pastoral plan which runs until 2010 and has the motto "We together build the future". Cardinal Bertone was in Cuba pleased about the first fruits of that plan, which puts - quite in the spirit of the Fifth General Assembly of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean - evangelization into the centre. The church in Cuba was a church of living parishes, "i.e. of small parishes, even if they have no priests, because there are only few priests," Bertone said. "But the number of Cuban friars and nuns increases. It is the enthusiasm, the freshness of the Christian life - especially among the youth."

There it is another sign of openness towards the church, when the new government allows the Mission Benedictines to found still this year a new monastery in Cuba. Archabbott Jeremias Schröder of St. Ottilien stressed that the Cuban government had supported the founding of the monastery and cleared bureaucratic obstacles out the way.


    {*} Christian Frevel (born in 1960) is director of public relations and education in the Episcopal Action Adveniat. Previously he was editor and public speaker with various newspapers, magazines and institutions, from 1999 to 2002 deputy editor in chief of the mission magazine "continents" in Cologne.


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