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from issue no. 03 - 2003

Five years after the historic visit of John Paul II

The Isla is not made for isolation

In 1998 the Pope asked the Churches of the world to open up to Cuba and Cuba to open itself up to the world. What has changed since then? In this interview Isidro Gómez Santos, Cuban Ambassador to the Holy See, replies and also speaks of the state of relations between the Catholic Church and the government in Havana

by Gianni Cardinale

Jhon Paul II with Fidel Castro

Jhon Paul II with Fidel Castro

In January 1998 John Paul II became the first pope to pay a visit to Cuba. Five years after the historic visit to the Pearl of the Caribbean, 30Days asked some questions of Ambassador Isidro Gómez Santos, representative of Havana to the Holy See since December 1999. Before taking his present post, the sixty-five year old Cuban diplomat was First Secretary of the Embassy to the Holy See (1972-74) and Embassy Counselor to the Quirinal (1987-90). From 1975 to 1987 and from 1991 to 1999 he worked as functionary of the Office for religious affairs of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
Five years have passed since the Pope’s visit. On that occasion the Pontiff hoped that Cuba would open to the world more and that the world would open more to Cuba. Has that hope been fulfilled?
ISIDRO GÓMEZ SANTOS: Cuba has continued to open itself to the world, as it has always done. Our country has never had a vocation for isolation. It’s others who have done everything to cut us off from the rest of the world, without, however, managing. When the Pope expressed his wish, for example, we had diplomatic relations with 163 countries, now we have them with more than 170. Foreign investment has continued to grow, stimulated by Cuba with legislation that for some time has been encouraging them in sectors that interest us and are in accord with our socialist options, thus safeguarding public interest. With great effort our country has made large investments in the tourism sector and last year around a million eight hundred thousand tourists went to Cuba, many Italians among them. We are getting ready to accept many more, including Americans, when their government decides to allow it.
Another element, I believe, very important in this universal Cuban vocation is the permanent exercise of solidarity, which for that matter fits in with the Pope’s call to make it global, as President Fidel Castro mentioned when receiving the Pope at Havana’s José Marti airport on 21 January 1998. Currently there are more than three thousand voluntary health workers from our country, most of them doctors, at work in 18 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Furthermore our government provides study grants in Cuba for more than six thousand students coming from 24 countries, from poor families, including 35 young people from the United States. Obviously without this possibility offered by Cuba it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for all these youngsters, to study for example medicine, a faculty elsewhere very expensive and which in Cuba, as with all education at all levels, is free.
What measures were taken by the government on religious questions after the visit of the Pope?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: In Cuba there is, before and after the Pope’s visit, absolute religious freedom. In our country, apart from the Catholic Church, there are another 52 Christian denominations, plus the Cuban religions of African origin, the most widespread along with the spiritualists; these latter are both mixed with the Catholic faith in a complex religious syncretism. There are also Jewish communities. All these institutions engage in their activities in total independence of the state, which is secular, that is in the training of their personnel, the appointment of leaders, the internal and external mobility, social activities. They organize the participation of their own consecrated personnel in representative public bodies, even at the highest level, as with our one-chamber Parliament, where, for example three Protestant pastors are deputies (the Catholic Church, as we all know, doesn’t allow its own consecrated personnel to take on public appointments, with a few exceptions).
The Church, for that matter, to mention only two examples, now enjoys a larger presence in the public sphere, with more numerous and frequent religious processions and celebrations outside the churches, and continues to expand its assistance institutions, which are backed by the state.
The Cuban Church has several times complained of not having sufficient access to the means of communication. Do you think that things might change on that point?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: In our country, according to the Constitution approved in 1976 with around 99% of all voters, the means of communication are public. In a secular state like ours all the religious institutions and the religious communities, and you’ve seen how many they are, have the same rights and are treated with equal consideration. On diverse occasions, their spokesmen, and those of the Catholic Church, have given radio broadcasts, and continue to do so.
The Cuban Church has “dug its heel in” about not registering its publications in the fear of having to submit to censorship. Are the fears justified?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: At the moment more than 50 Catholic publications of different types are circulating freely in the country, despite the fact that the Church has still not seen fit to inscribe them in the relevant register. It’s a normal administrative requirement, on-going in all countries. Registering was done time ago for all the other publications in the country, even for those belonging to other religious institutions, that are numerous. None of these publications was, of course, subjected to any kind of censorship. The same will happen, obviously, in the case of the Catholic Church’s publications.
The dissident Catholic Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, founder of the Movimiento cristiano Liberación last 17 December received the Sacharov prize from the European Parliament and then was able to greet the Pope at the end of the general audience on Tuesday 8 January. Payá is the co-ordinator of the so-called Proyecto Varela and as such has collected signatures to introduce an institutional referendum in the country. What do you think of Payá’s activities? Are you afraid that the Church is organizing a political opposition?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: In a recent interview Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana and President of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, reaffirmed that the Cuban Church has nothing to do with the political activities of Payá or anybody else, Catholic or not. It would seem that those words express the Church’s position on politics.
In March the Brigidine nuns arrive in Havana. And yet one sometimes hears it said that Cuba concedes too few visas to religious personnel who would like to perform their mission in Cuba. Or that there are no objective criteria for obtaining a visa and that they are granted in arbitrary fashion. Is the criticism justified?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: Let the facts speak for themselves. There are now in our country 55 female religious congregations and 22 male, more than there were at the start of the revolution. Nine of these have come in since 2000. The San Salvatore congregation of Saint Bridget will be the fifty-sixth, and will be lodged in a building that the government has freely put at their disposition – just as it did with the land for the new inter-diocesan seminary in Havana – and in which it collaborated in the rebuilding.
The number of priests, male and female religious in Cuba coming from abroad continues to grow. Now this foreign consecrated personnel comes from 39 countries. In recent years more than a score of Cuban priests, or male and female religious have been ordained or respectively taken perpetual vows. Furthermore there are about eighty seminarians in the two seminaries that have always existed in Cuba and as many other students are going on with their training in the houses of religious Orders. Around a hundred seminarians and aspirant male and female religious continue their studies abroad.
It seems that our country attracts the attention of many people in the Church. This desire to come and work in Cuba is flattering. There are many requests, therefore, from Cuban dioceses, but also from religious Orders, already present on the island or not yet. But perhaps they’re not well co-ordinated. So far it looks as though the Church has had difficulty in deciding an order of priority, though it was requested.
In Cuba relations with the Catholic Church and the other religious communities are handled by an office of the Cuban Communist Party, the Oficina para asuntos religiosos, which is an organ of the party and not of the government. Isn’t that anomalous?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: Every country and every institution, like the Catholic Church itself, adopts the structures that seem most convenient to it, according to its own history and in line with the requirements necessary for performing its task adequately and legally, decisions that the Cuban state respects towards all.
And for that matter, the Oficina is a small structure, truly very small, that facilitates the relations of Cuban religious institutions and communities with the secular state within the freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.
In January the elections were held and there was a large turn-out. Do you think that in future Cuba also may adopt the multi-party system?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: Obviously, the large turn-out, that amounted to more than 97% of the population over sixteen, which is the minimum age for voting (and that itself is not obligatory), is the demonstration of the extent to which the vast majority of the Cuban people, beginning with young people, shares in and backs the democratic and socialist system that our country has adopted by sovereign decision.
In Cuba members of the people’s organs of representation at all levels, beginning with the national assembly of the people’s power, which is our Parliament, are not proposed or elected by the Communist Party. Candidates are proposed by the citizens themselves and by their social organizations on the basis of personal merit. Election is direct and secret, nor is there any need to belong to the Party to be proposed and elected.
You must remember that in Cuba we were well acquainted with the so-call multi-party system, a system under which we suffered hunger, poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, swindling, corruption, lack of true and proper democracy, of freedom and sovereignty, with American governments and capital masters of a country condemned by those interests to have a structural, underdeveloped deformation of its economy.
Havana cathedral

Havana cathedral

Our democracy is perfectible, as all may well be for that matter, however we believe that ours is on the right road, given our history and situation, taking into account the educational and cultural level achieved. The Cuban people at the moment have reached, at least, the ninth grade of general education – equivalent to the eight grade in Italy – and has more than eight hundred thousand graduates and intellectuals (of which doctors make up more than seventy-six thousand) out of a population of eleven million inhabitants. Whereas at the start of the revolution illiterates made up 50% of the population, and 90% hadn’t reached sixth grade – fifth elementary –, and university graduates were only about thirty thousand out of a population nearer then to seven million.
For decades Cuba has been embargoed by the US. Have there been changes or are any foreseen?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: I think the question requires more than a brief answer, if we want to grasp the scale and substance of this genocidal behavior – it’s nothing less – against our country.
First, I believe it’s right to say that it’s more, much more than an embargo. It’s a matter of a true and proper economic blockade, the longest in mankind’s history. With consequences that go well beyond our bilateral relations with the United States, as perfectly well known to the international community which every year, by a vast majority, votes at the United Nations against this unjust and inhuman aggression suffered by our country for more than forty years. Only two nations vote in favor of the continuation of this cruel practice: The US and its unconditional ally, the state of Israel.
For example, Cuba has no, and I stress no, chance of obtaining loans from international financial organizations, all controlled by the US government. Our country can’t even use the dollar in its international transactions, because it runs the risk of being robbed by the banks of the state that print this currency. Not to speak of the persecution of those who want to invest or engage in any other kind of trade with Cuba, as various Spanish or Canadian firms can testify, to mention only two countries.
There is no country in the world that has had to undergo such a situation for such a length of time.
Unfortunately the Pope’s repeated condemnation of the situation has gone unheard by the United States – who don’t listen to His Holiness’ words of peace either – even if within American society there are ever more people opposed to these restrictive measures, measures contrary to the principles enshrined in the American Constitution, such as freedom of travel, “democratically” forbidden to American citizens who want to visit Cuba.
It looks as if this growing stance against the embargo within the United States, also by important figures in culture, in politics and the economy, may contribute in substantial fashion to reducing, and in the end eliminating, this situation. Even if it remains difficult to foresee the timing of this possible evolution.
The war clouds gathering over Iraq get ever darker. What is Cuba’s attitude to the situation?
GÓMEZ SANTOS: I’ll repeat here what I said on 17 February last in my opening speech at the exhibition of Cuban painting organized by our Embassy with the collaboration of the Papal Council for culture and the Circolo San Pietro, in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Pope’s visit to Cuba. Cuba is against the war, which in this case has the obvious aim, on the part of the American superpower, of reshaping the region according to its political and economic interests, starting from the appropriation of energy resources. Cuba is also against terrorism, which our country has had to endure all these years, coming precisely from United States territory, where these terrorists continue to find backing, protection and impunity, even from sections of that country’s authorities, however paradoxical that might seem to those who don’t know the historical truth. I’d like to remind you that this terrorism has caused the death in Cuba of 3,478 and made invalids of 2,099 citizens.

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