Lessons from Poland for Cuba’s Catholic Church

People in Poland have begun to fear the priests, and this is not a good sign.

— Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet awarded Nobel Prize in literature.

Throughout the Communist era, the Catholic Church in Poland was a bastion of freedom and a source of protection from and opposition to the communist authorities. Activists received protection from the Catholic Church and refuge in churches across the nation. Throughout those years the Catholic Church grew in strength and influence. It emerged from the communist era not only as the highest moral authority but also as the most powerful institution in the country.

Cuba is no Poland. The Catholic Church is weak. It competes with other religions on the island. It does not have the popular support that the church had in Poland. Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega is no Cardinal Wyszynski.

Recently, the Cuban Church has tried to mediate with the government on human rights issues — the release of political prisoners — and to obtain more space for church affairs.

This policy of collaboration, after 50 years of Communist rule, has limitations. First, it is too timid for most Cubans who want to end the Castro era. Second, it lacks a clear and forceful rejection of communism and its teachings. Third, it encourages the perception that the church is more interested in its own survival than in the welfare of Cubans. Fourth, it offends the memory of the many Catholics that died in the firing squads of the Castro regime proclaiming “long live Christ.”

Finally, it antagonizes a large majority of Cuban Catholics, those living in exile in the United States.

The Catholic Church faces a moral as well as a practical dilemma. To continue on the present course, it risks alienating the Catholics in Cuba and in the United States. It will not increase its appeal to Afro-Cubans, those suffering most and who represent the largest ethnic majority on the island. The church may be swept away, or become irrelevant, in the inevitable struggle that approaches between government and the opposition.

To defy the system also carries risks for the Catholic Church: losing its limited privileges; inviting the wrath of Cuba’s efficient security apparatus; returning to the dark early days of the revolution when there were few priests and little influence.

The lesson of Poland, however, is clear.

A church that fought on the side of the people emerged as a strong and respected institution. The price for the Cuban Church may be too high. Yet, the abandoned Cubans, repressed by the Communist dictatorship for over a half a century, will welcome the church’s help. The time is now to be on the right side of history.

By Jaime Suchlicki, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro.

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