Castro relaxes grip on Cuba's churches Move seen as bid to bolster support

January 04, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

HAVANA -- More and more Cubans in recent years have been making the annual mid-December pilgrimage to the Church of San Lazaro here in search of miracles.

For decades they have laid their infirmities at the feet of God and his saint and prayed for cures. But when they came a few weeks ago, the most impassioned plea was for improvement of the condition of the nation and implicitly some deliverance from its mortal guardian, the aging revolutionary, Fidel Castro.

The priest started it. In the catalog of intentions he asked God to protect the thousands of political prisoners in Cuban jails, arousing a startling clamor from the 500-or-so worshipers.

"Libertad! Libertad!" they chanted, intoning the Spanish word for liberty.

It was a small moment, but it reflected a growing boldness after 34 years during which Cubans have been expected to shun religion as an insult to the Socialist revolution.

But as one priest -- who wishes to be unidentified -- explained it, "The problems are so terrible, the people have nowhere else to turn but to God."

The miracle may have been that no one was arrested.

Wisely, perhaps, the Castro regime has become more permissive about the church, which is predominantly Roman Catholic.

Nominally, churches are the only institutions not controlled directly by the government. And while Mr. Castro may not have relinquished the old suspicion that religious officials want to to undermine his power, government officials have begun to display increasing tolerance.

The day after the demonstration at the Church of San Lazaro, one priest there explained the potential danger of a clandestine church: "They know that their own revolution was planned in churches. And they want to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Others speculate that the Communist Party has begun to recognize the internal and international benefits of a more congenial relationship with religious groups. Foreign diplomats say that since Cuba was plunged into devastating economic hardship by the collapse of the Soviet Union -- the island's chief partner in trade and ideology -- Mr. Castro has been casting about desperately for new alliances.

Demonstrating a respectful relationship with religious groups would be very important for most countries -- particularly the overwhelmingly Catholic countries of Latin America.

And by allowing the church greater freedom, Mr. Castro also stands a better chance of holding onto support among his own people, says Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana.

Late last year, Mr. Castro has also seen that the church can be a source of important economic and moral support.

Embargo defied

In defiance of the United States' 30-year-old embargo against Cuba, a group of U.S. ministers escorted several tons of educational and medical supplies to Havana last November. On the receiving end of the shipment was the Rev. Raul Suarez, who runs the Martin Luther King Center on the east side of Havana.

Generally, the government does not allow aid into Cuba unless it is distributed through government channels.

Equally unusual, in February Mr. Suarez is expected to win a seat in Cuba's National Assembly, which would make him the first religious official permitted to hold national office since Mr. Castro seized control of the country in 1959.

While almost 90 percent of the National Assembly officials are members of the Communist Party, only 9 percent of the total population of Cuba are party members.

"The government recognizes the power of the church in helping to broaden its social base and maintain its popularity," Mr. Lopez says. "For the first time, there will be representation in the National Assembly speaking for people who have never been heard."

Mr. Lopez also sees a possible -- if somewhat Quixotic -- route of appeal to the United States with the ascension of Mr. Suarez.

"He is Baptist, and Bill Clinton is Baptist," the professor notes. "And most blacks in the United States are Baptist. So, for the first time, someone in the Cuban government will have a direct, amicable relationship with sectors in the United States."

Mr. Suarez, a short, unassuming man, says he hopes to serve as the "moral conscience" of the government and says he #i repeatedly pleads with Mr. Castro to be just to the people of Cuba.

Dissidents remain cynical

"I will be on the side of the revolution when it promotes justice and when it promotes human dignity," he says, sitting beneath a portrait of Dr. King. "The spirit of [Mr. Castro's] revolution has meant many good things for our country, and in this sense I want to participate in the efforts of social justice and the protection of our sovereignty.

"But, there are some things about the revolution that I don't understand and don't agree with," he adds quickly. "And with my office, I will try to discuss these things with other leaders."

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