For us Christian Cubans, it is significant that President Barack Obama began his trip to Cuba on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, and that he decided to visit the Havana Cathedral, where he will be received by Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino. The story of the archbishop of Havana is important. In the ‘60s, he suffered the ordeal of being interned in a forced labor camp, the infamous “Unidades militares de ayuda a la producción,” along with other priests and young people, both secular and Catholic, labeled as “anti-social.”
The cardinal himself, however, has had a leading role in initiating a dialogue with President Raul Castro, aimed at creating a better climate of relations between the Catholic Church and the government of Cuba, and later supporting the initiative of the Vatican and Pope Francis to put aside 50 years of cold war between Cuba and the United States. That was the beginning of a new era of normalized relations.
Gone are the days when the “militant atheism” of Soviet inspiration was actively promoted. A long time has passed since Fidel Castro’s proclamation of socialism, followed by the attempted CIA-led invasion at the Bay of Pigs and U.S. support for young Cuban Catholics in the anti-communist climate that characterized the Cuban Church before Vatican II.
Today we live in a very different historical moment. Cardinal Ortega has pledged that the Catholic Church will continue the work of mediation and is committed to support the progress of economic and social reforms. Pope Francis, after his historic meeting with the Russian Patriarch Kirill in Havana, said that “if this continues, Cuba will be the capital of unity.” The commitment of the Church in Cuban civil society is becoming more and more evident. So much so that at the University of Havana, where I teach history of religions, some students are asking to write their theses on the change in the relations between the Church and the socialist government in Cuba.
On the other hand, some U.S. scholars have called Obama a “post-modern Christian who answered the call of faith” in an African-American Pentecostal Temple; Obama attended the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the ‘80s and provided legal services to black Americans in need. His visit to Cuba is therefore also being hailed by the Council of Churches of Cuba, a body that brings together the evangelical and Protestant churches of the island, as “a choice for the path of dialogue” that will benefit “not only both our countries, but the entire region and the world.”
In the capital’s churches, we pray that this visit will open a new phase in bilateral relations leading to a full normalization. In a scenario of progressive easing of tensions, the Catholic Church hopes that the government will accept in the near future its demand to have more space in the crucial sectors of mass media and education.
For their part, many Catholics, as a part of the population, are hoping Obama’s visit will contribute to the improvement of their material conditions of life. They reiterate over and over the request that the United States put an end to the embargo because they believe it is the main cause of the economic difficulties affecting the country.
For the same reason, by reversing the terms, another substantial portion of my fellow citizens is skeptical or indifferent about the results of the visit. As one old lady said as she left church Sunday: “Will the visit help to bring down the prices of tomatoes or pork? And to increase wages? I do not think so. Therefore, this will be a show with few consequences for us.”
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