Hunger strikers call for change
Fasting Cubans give voice to
The fast began in an apartment, with nine people praying in a circle beneath portraits of Pope John Paul II and the Virgin Mary. Arrested, imprisoned, then finally hospitalized, the now-skeletal dissidents are defying government orders to end the protest before the pope visits Santa Clara today for the first of four historic Masses to be held in Cuba this week.
``We are doing this to show that, yes, there is opposition in Cuba,'' said Ivan Lemas, a 35-year-old practicing Catholic who has lost 47 pounds on a diet of broth and water.
The hunger strikers here, two hours east of Havana, are not alone in combining their religion with political opposition. As churches across Cuba have gained more freedom after decades of government repression, they also have become repositories for a wide range of dissent that is simmering just beneath the surface of the pope's first-ever trip to the island.
If Castro's 39-year-old government has anything to fear from the pope, it is the jolt of legitimacy he is likely to give to an institution that is already testing its newfound freedom. The anti-communist pope's primary goal will be to promote a Catholic Church that has become a forum for ideas the government has long sought to quash as threats to the national security.
One church official in Rome, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: ``There are those in the Vatican who consider this pilgrimage the most important one since the pope went to Poland 19 years ago. The Vatican and the pope are well aware of the enormous expectations and potential implications surrounding this trip.''
``I am totally convinced that the church is going to bring about a transformation in Cuba,'' said Luis Davila, who abandoned his job as a teacher of Marxist-Leninist philosophy and joined the Catholic Church six years ago. ``And this transformation, which is already occurring, is going to change everything. It is going to change the culture. It's going to change the politics.''
The Santa Clara hunger strikers -- mostly Catholics who have combined their religion with brazen opposition -- are at the extreme end of a spectrum of activism occurring beneath the church banner. In Pinar del Rio, two hours west of Havana, Dagoberto Valdes has founded the Center for Civic and Religious Formation -- a church-funded organization that conducts seminars on such taboo subjects as ``democracy and participation'' and ``labor unions.''
Valdes, a lay Catholic, also publishes the sometimes-critical magazine Vitral. He has written scathingly about the ``mutilation that freedom suffers when there are no spaces for human development.''
Meanwhile, some priests have posted the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of
Human Rights on parish bulletin boards and read controversial letters from
the Conference of Cuban Bishops in their homilies. The church has given
rise to a spate of newsletters that publish some of the most aggressive
journalism on the island.
This controversial activity is gently encouraged by the subtle language of change employed by the church hierarchy, especially Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of Cuban Catholics. Ortega, who was once sent to Castro's ``re-education camps'' for priests, petty thieves, prostitutes and other outcasts of communist society, was given 28 minutes on state-run television last week to talk about the pope's visit.
At times, he seemed to be speaking in a code that only Cubans, in their
peculiar isolation, could understand. ``You can't have some rights and
others,'' he said at one point.
``This is something new; it is like a uniform that people put on'' to criticize the government, said Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba's most prominent dissident. ``But the uniform is tight, and the church is seeking to expand it. In other words, the church is trying to find an exit to this grave crisis that the Cuban people have suffered for so long. But to do that, it has to create space for itself within Cuban society. That is exactly what it is achieving now.''
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald