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Cuba25 June 2003

The exception of the church

Enquiry: Christian Lionet

Cuba’s national constitution and press laws give its communist government an absolute monopoly of the written, broadcast and online media. All belong to the state and are run by Communist Party organisations. Journalists working in them have to belong to the Cuban Journalists’ Union (UPEC), a political body under the authority of the party.

A few dozen journalists work outside state and party control however. They distribute their work in the foreign-based media, mostly on Internet websites and Cuban exile radio stations but also on Radio Martí, which is funded by the US government and whose programmes, broadcast from the US, can be heard in Cuba despite the regime’s efforts to jam them.

These independent journalists are working entirely illegally in the eyes of the authorities. At the end of March 2003, 26 of them were arrested, along with about 50 other dissidents, and sentenced to prison terms of up to 27 years.

In practice, no news circulates in Cuba that is not broadcast, published or written by people serving the regime.

The exception of the Church

The government does however allow the Catholic Church to publish about a dozen independent magazines, whose content does not have to be authorised or pre-censored. Their production and distribution, though rudimentary, is also independent of state-owned printers and distribution networks.

The regime’s tolerance of the Church media stops there and the Church’s requests to have its own programmes on government radio and TV stations have always been refused, despite pleas from Pope John-Paul II when he visited Cuba in 1998.

Such tolerance is also no big thing since the total circulation of the Church magazines is less than 50,000 copies. Most appear no more than every two months and are only distributed in parishes to churchgoers.

A diocesan press

Each diocese has its own magazine. The best one, in terms of design, production and experienced editorial team, is Palabra Nueva (New Word), put out by the archdiocese of Havana. It has more resources and staff and is the only one that manages to come out monthly, printed on a flatbed offset press. It printed 10,300 copies of its November 2002 issue.

But the best-known Church magazine is Vitral (The Church Window), put out by the Pinar del Rio diocese (west of Havana). It claims a circulation of 5,000 and is known for its outspokenness, as well as for the unintended publicity the government media gave it in the spring of 2000 by waging a fierce campaign against its editor, Dagoberto Valdés. The Vatican reacted by naming him to its Justice and Peace Commission, making him the first Cuban lay person to become a member of the Vatican Curia. Vitral can also be read on an Internet website,, which gets about 20,000 visitors a month.

In autumn 2002, other diocesan magazines appeared, including Presencia (Presence)(in Matanzas), Amanecer (Dawn)(Santa Clara), Puentes (Bridges)(Sancti Spiritus), Pasos (Steps) and Fides (Faith)(both in Cienfuegos), Enfoque (Focus)(Camagüey), Imago (Image)(Ciego de Avila), Iglesia en marcha (The Church on the Move)(Santiago) and Cocuyo (Firefly)(Holguin). At the same time, Alba (Daybreak), in Guantanamo, said it was temporarily suspending publication.

There are also two occasional magazines put out by groups of lay people independent of the secular Church hierarchy.

-  Espacios (Spaces), run by Joaquin Bello, contains the widest range of social and cultural topics in the Christian press. Bello heads the Promotor Group (for social involvement of lay people) of the Havana archdiocese. He also belongs to the general secretariat of the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

-  Ethos, published in Santa Clara, is a theoretical magazine about bioethics, discussing topics such as artificial insemination, abortion, genetic engineering and cloning.

To complete the picture, there is the oldest (founded in 1962) of the country’s Catholic magazines, Vida Cristiana (Christian Life). A single recto-verso weekly sheet put out by a team of Jesuits led by Fr. Juan de Dios, it usually has an editorial based on a passage from the Bible and one or two articles on themes such as the use of dialogue or the art of growing old. It was the only Catholic publication allowed in Cuba between 1962 and 1985.

Palabra Nueva: "right from a Christian standpoint"

The contents of the diocesan magazines are fairly similar. Apart from news of the diocese itself and pastoral activities, they mostly have articles about events and people in Cuban Church history and moral commentary on major issues of social life. Allusions to the situation in the country or current events are careful and criticism always indirect. A courteous and respectful tone is always used towards the authorities, especially when divergences are being noted between a Christian viewpoint and the ideas or practices of the regime.

Palabra Nueva and especially Vitral are more outspoken. Orlando Marquez, editor of Palabra Nueva, is officially the "coordinator of the Catholic press" in Cuba and a member of the Episcopal Council. "All Catholic publications in Cuba are run by the Church," he says, though he adds that each magazine operates independently of the others.

Marquez, a 40-year-old architect, studied in Mexico in 1990 for a diploma in pastoral communications from CELAM (The Latin American Episcopal Council). When he returned, he founded Palabra Nueva, using great professional care, saying "Christians have a right to a quality magazine." The first issue came out in April 1992 and things were hard at the beginning. "It was the most difficult phase of the Special Economic Period," he said. "We built up a year’s stock of paper before starting so we could be sure of keeping going. We printed 1,000 copies of the first issue. The government didn’t react because they didn’t want to alienate the Church at such a tricky political moment."

Palabra Nueva is run by a five-member editorial board (three lay people, including Marquez, and two priests) and has a dozen staff, including Emilio Barreto, who trained at Havana University school of journalism, which sometimes admits avowed Catholics. Another trained journalist is Mgr Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a theologian close to the Vatican who was the religious affairs editor on one of the country’s last permitted (until 1968) privately-owned dailies, El Mundo (The World).

Technical facilities are basic. "We photocopy the 58 pages one by one, one side then the other, and then collate and staple them by hand," says Marquez. "It’s a huge job and it takes five people two to three weeks." The magazine is sold to parishes for 8 Cuban cents (1 dolar is 20 pesos) and then resold in churches for about a peso each.

About 100 copies are sent to official bodies, including the "Oficina de atencion" at the Communist Party central committee’s religious affairs department and to the National Library (which never acknowledges receipt of it). Palabra Nueva is mostly funded by the German NGO Adveniat and in 1998 was awarded an International Catholic Press Union prize, presented to Marquez in Paris.

Marquez describes his magazine as follows: "We hope readers will find in it a Christian response to their social, cultural, economic, philosophical and religious concerns. We also hope society is made aware of what the Church thinks." He notes its limits however: "Our problem is to see that we’re not confused with the opposition press. We are clearly the Church press and the Church is not allied with the government or with the opposition. But caution doesn’t mean silence or complicity. Our message is for everyone, whatever their political affiliation.

"The authorities don’t interfere. They don’t censor us beforehand and don’t react afterwards. Though sometimes, when we run into regime officials by chance, they’ll say things like: ’You’re exaggerating. The situation isn’t really like you say.’ We always have to navigate between the two reefs of the opposition and complicity with the regime. It’s a permanent tightrope act."

Some priests and worshippers criticise Palabra Nueva for being over-cautious like the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who is more concerned about defending the degree of independence won by the Church after the Pope’s 1998 visit than risking it by defending Christian principles in a controversial manner.

It thus took several months for Marquez to mention in Palabra Nueva the Varela Project petition launched by Oswaldo Paya Sardiñas, head of the Christian Liberation Movement, an (illegal) opposition group. The petition, citing a clause in the national constitution allowing such a initiative, has gathered more than 20,000 signatures and calls on the National Assembly to organise a referendum about amnestying political prisoners and allowing a pluralist society.

Paya received the US Democratic Party’s 2002 Harriman Democracy Award and then on 17 December 2002 the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize. Palabra Nueva eventually mentioned the Varela Project but only in a reply to a reader’s letter expressing surprise at the magazine’s silence. "We defend the right of citizens to exercise their rights, even independently of the government," Marquez wrote, "but it is not our business to push a political programme or project." However, he also said that "the political and social compromise of the Varela Project is right from a Christian standpoint."

Vitral: "the outer limit of what is acceptable"

Vitral is bold in another way, like the group of lay people who run it, and has openly declared support for the Varela Project and called on Christians to sign the petition. The appeal, which has been backed by the bishop of Pinar del Rio, was read in all churches in the diocese at Sunday Mass.

In June 2002, when President Fidel Castro reacted to the Project by having a referendum endorse a constitutional amendment declaring the country’s socialist system "irrevocable," Vitral editor Valdés wrote a long editorial headed "Everything passes." He listed all the things that had changed in Cuba over the past decade which were once assumed to be "irrevocable" - such as Soviet friendship and the ban on the US dollar and prostitution - and concluded that nothing was "irrevocable."

Vitral presents itself as a social and cultural magazine. It began in 1993, soon after Palabra Nueva was launched, when Valdés, then head of the technical committee of Pinar del Rio’s renowned tobacco plantations and a Catholic activist, founded the Civic and Religious Training Centre (CFCR), which since then has each week gathered a score of people to discuss a social, sociological or civic theme.

"It’s a small area between the utopia we dream of and the reality that crushes us,"he says."We discuss things like the separation of powers, pluralism, representative democracy, research and grassroots education. The participants come from all walks of life and sometimes we even have communist sympathisers."

Vitral aims to reflect these discussions. "The Church is an umbrella," says Valdés, who is firmly backed by the Pinar del Rio provincial bishop, Mgr Siro González. "We didn’t ask permission because we would never’ve got it. (...) It would be a terrible mistake for the government to attack the Church head-on (though I don’t rule it out) because the Church has the credibility, the prestige and the moral authority of having survived for 43 years in a country where only 1% go to church but where 72% are baptised or call themselves Catholics."

Relations with the authorities are tense. The organisers and regular participants at the CFCR are often harassed. Valdés, who headed a team of about 100 agronomists, was demoted to the rank of "yagüero," or field-hand who gathers the "yagua", the fibrous palm-tree bark used to wrap tobacco leaves during the first stage of drying.

"The regime gave me a golden opportunity to look at social realities because all day I was meeting people as I drove round on my tractor," he says. "Since then, everything I’ve written in Vitral has been based on what I see and hear in the course of my work. My identity as a Cuban and a Christian has been strengthened. Censorship has turned into a training course. When totalitarianism crushes all freedom, it leaves just one: the freedom to experience such absence of freedom with dignity and ingenuity. This is what freedom-loving people are doing in this 110,000 concentration camp."

In May 2000, two editorials in the official daily Granma attacked Valdés and the bishop of Pinar del Rio and denounced their activities as "counter-revolutionary." The articles were broadcast on the radio and a TV "debate" called Valdés 87 different insulting names in the space of an hour. His three children were summoned before all the pupils at their school for a "revolutionary meeting" to hear a speech criticising their father. But this only produced 100 new subscriptions to Vitral and the Pope’s naming of Valdés to the Vatican’s Justice and Peace Commission.

"I’m the first farm labourer to join this body," he says. "As I wrote to Jean-Paul II, I’m the Pope’s yagüero, with one foot in the Vatican and the other in the mud. But I’ve never been allowed an exit visa to go and take part in the Commission’s activities."

The bishop acts as a lightning conductor, politely receiving calls by Communist Party officials telling him that neither the magazine or its staff are true Catholics. The editorial about the "irrevocable" being fact "revocable" was described as "the outer limit of what is acceptable" by the Party central committee’s local chief.

Other criticism, from inside the Church itself, says Vitral has gone too far and is endangering the fragile gains made by the Church over the past decade. "We haven’t taken the bait," retorts Valdés, who refuses to join the street processions that have been allowed in Havana since the Pope’s visit. "I’m not going on them as long as ordinary people can’t come out on the streets to express their suffering, their pain and what’s in their hearts. We also have to beware of our Catholic friends. Some of them aren’t dreaming so much about democracy as about a Catholic press monopoly and compulsory religious education."

Vitral is distributed by subscription every two months through the parish network - the only alternative to the postal service - and subscribers come to pick up their copies. The 80 or so pages are put together on computers, printed and photocopied. The actual printing, collating and stapling of the 5,000 copies takes six people a month to do, working six hours a day in a small room at the diocese offices. The Internet website pages are also assembled there but put online in Europe. Of the website’s 20,000 visitors a month, 45.8 % are from the United States, 27.5 % from Latin America and 18.2 % from Europe. Cubans themselves only have limited access to the Internet.

Conclusion: A tiny exception

The Catholic press is the only known permitted exception to the state monopoly of information in Cuba. But it has its own limits. Few copies of the magazines are printed and technical resources are meagre. Except for Vitral, none of the publications criticise the regime openly for fear of being shut down or jeopardising the difficult relations between Church and state. So the Catholic press has neither the physical capacity nor the freedom to compete with the official media.

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