Cuban dissenters find a niche in church

April 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Asia, Church, newsletter-asia

Cuba, April 6, 2012: Last year, as Libyan rebels fought Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro took to his state-run newspaper Granma to defend the dictator as a revolutionary hero.

Now, the former Cuban leader faces an unlikely voice of dissent on that Libya stance—from a publication financed by the Catholic Church and published here in his own capital.

Pope Benedict XVI left Cuba last week calling on its government to allow more freedom for the church and for Cuba to change. He also leaves behind a mechanism to help accomplish this: A network of Catholic-sponsored newsletters and magazines, reaching tens of thousands of Cubans, that criticize the government and call for change.

Espacio Laical magazine, or Layman’s Space, in its latest issue called Gadhafi a tyrant and questioned why more Latin American leaders weren’t supporting “democratic Arab revolution.” The editorial was unusual because the state-run media, where most Cubans receive news, largely avoids mentioning foreign insurrections, except to support strongmen.

Throughout Cuba, those who have tried to publish information outside of official government channels have been intimidated or even jailed. A small blogger community operates largely undercover.

But as President Raúl Castro has loosened restrictions on the Catholic Church in recent years, he also has allowed the church to distribute about a dozen publications openly, mainly out of local archdiocese offices.

From a tiny office above a schoolyard in Havana’s Old Town, Roberto Veiga explains Espacio Laical’s mission: Tackling general-interest topics and printing essays and opinions on matters such as changes to the Cuban constitution and complaints about the education system. It also publishes articles by prominent Communists supporting the government.

“We want to create a place where Cubans write from all perspectives, from cultural topics to politics and the economy,” Mr. Veiga says. “The idea is to create bridges, not trenches.”

Cuba experts say that while it is increasingly possible to have critical discussions about the government in a streetside coffee shop, for example, questioning the government in the media hasn’t been possible in the past. “These publications are opening spaces about discussion for Cuban people that didn’t exist before,” explains Uva de Aragón, an expert on the island at Florida International University.

For decades, the Cuban church and state had a tense relationship in a country that was officially atheist under Fidel Castro, until 1992. Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba and recent economic declines have prompted the government to reach out to the Catholic Church for assistance in social programs from child care to soup kitchens, giving the church a larger influence. The church’s publications, some of which had existed for decades but had kept to spiritual issues, began to take greater editorial latitude, and new magazines were founded.

Espacio Laical, founded eight years ago, has a distribution of just 4,500 copies a month. But Mr. Veiga estimates each copy is ready by at least 20 people, and says subscribers include top political and academic decision makers.

Not far from Mr. Veiga’s offices, Orlando Márquez runs Palabra Nueva, the Havana archdiocese newsletter. “We answer everyday questions, we publish on cultural topics, sports, society, history—the kind of things you won’t see in official publications,” he says.

State outlets such as Granma, Juventud Rebelde and Verde Olivo generally portray the U.S. as Cuba’s enemy and discuss such topics as the U.S. economic embargo on the island. In contrast, Palabra Nueva has run articles about Catholic Church programs in the U.S. Despite running many pieces that don’t toe the Communist Party line, Mr. Márquez says he hasn’t received one complaint from officials.

The Cuban government didn’t respond to specific questions about the publications. But a Foreign Ministry statement said Cuba’s churches enjoy broad freedoms, including the freedom of expression.

Not everything has gone smoothly, as church publications experiment in critiques.

In 2007, the editors of magazine Vitral, a church publication in Cuba’s western Pinar del Río province, were dismissed by church officials. U.S. diplomats wrote in a cable published by website WikiLeaks that Vatican officials said Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega was behind the move because the government didn’t like the magazine’s brash tone.

The Havana archdiocese says the cardinal wasn’t involved. The magazine’s former publisher, Dagoberto Valdés, who now runs an online publication, didn’t respond to a request to comment.

Publishing a magazine in Cuba can be difficult for other reasons. Mr. Veiga must print Espacio Laical on a press that dates from before the 1959 revolution, because new ones are in short supply. Its staff are volunteers because the Cuban government requires everyone to work in state-approved jobs—most often for the government itself. And work as an independent journalists isn’t an approved occupation.

“It’s a challenge but we don’t miss an issue,” Mr. Veiga said.

Mr. Veiga’s magazine and many of the others are also published online, where they have gotten a positive nod from many in the Cuban exile community and even a few dissidents.

“The fan is opening up for a civil society in Cuba and the church publications are a part of that,” says José Luis García Paneque, who was jailed for seven years after founding an unauthorized newspaper.

– wall street journal

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