``We've been put on a ration card,'' complained one Roman Catholic bishop, adding that the new regulations might force churches to shutter the soup kitchens they have been discreetly running for Cuba's elderly.
``This might limit the humanitarian aid the church provides. It's not clear yet what the full impact will be, but it could be a problem for all the churches,'' added a spokesman for the Havana archdiocese.
The restrictions technically apply only to the churches' purchase of goods from state firms -- often the only legal source of goods in Cuba -- but effectively cast clouds over virtually all church purchases.
Church officials said the tighter restrictions were especially worrisome because they come at a time when Pope John Paul II is preparing to make his first visit to Cuba, next January.
``They show the problems that endure even though both government and church are trying to put the best face possible on their relations,'' said a lay Protestant activist.
The regulations were issued by the Domestic Commerce Ministry as Resolution 144-97 on Aug. 4, but were passed to church officials only two weeks ago by Caridad Diego, head of the Communist Party's office on religious issues.
Diego had told church officials in May that the ministry was working on a new set of regulations because too many churches were abusing their right to buy in state shops, and were buying forbidden items and dealing in the black market.
But few expected regulations as threatening as those in the four pages of Resolution 144-97.
The regulations ban churches from buying ``electrical goods,'' cooking utensils, dishes, alcoholic drinks and candy from state shops. Church officials say electrical goods cover everything from computers to faxes and photocopiers.
Also banned were purchases of baby items like diapers and cribs, and items that can be bought at hardware stores. Several churches run programs to help new mothers and families trying to rebuild their tattered houses.
In fact, churches had mainly bypassed the state shops, obtaining most goods like fax machines as illegal gifts from foreign diplomats and buying supplies like fax paper on the black market, church administrators say.
The state shops sell items such as computers and photocopiers at highly inflated prices; importing them legally from abroad means paying exorbitant customs duties.
The new regulations also say that only officially recognized church entities will be allowed to buy from state shops, apparently leaving out several tolerated but never recognized groups like the Catholic Church's Peace and Justice Commission, which promotes human rights.
Any church entity that receives permits to buy products will not be able to pass on either the permits or the goods to other church entities, the regulations made clear.
Until now, the churches never had to explain why they were making purchases from state stores, and no advance permits were required.
Catholic Church officials said their principal worry is that the regulations could wreck the social service programs that many parishes have organized for the elderly -- illegally but with official toleration.
Requiring permits, they said, may mean that priests will have to obtain Health Ministry certificates for parish kitchens that serve breakfast or lunch to thousands of elderly every day, and Labor Ministry permits for physicians they have hired to visit the sick.
Hygiene items limited
Hygiene items limited
Four bars of soap per month per patient or client; 6.6 pounds of detergent; one container of shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste; four razor blades; and four rolls of toilet paper. The state stores have low, subsidized prices for these items but seldom have them in stock.
One lay church activist who has read Resolution 144-97 said it is ``a typically government move'' that restricts an activity less by directly regulating it than by threatening to regulate it.
``When they are worried that X is going on, they don't say that X is illegal and banned,'' the activist said. ``They say that you now need a permit to do X -- and people stop doing X.''
Government officials, for example, can force the closure of scores of family-owned restaurants, once seen as prime examples of Cuba's economic reforms, simply by sending health inspectors and tax collectors after them.
``The message of these new church regulations is that the churches, all churches, were doing too much, growing too active,'' said the lay activist. ``The message is that things are closing.''
Copyright © 1997 The
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald