Tuesday, June 22, 2010

CBS Summary of Church Conference

Catholic Church Sponsors Policy Debate in Cuba

Posted by Portia Siegelbaum June 18, 2010 8:48 PM

The need for economic reforms and for more cohesive changes so that desired reforms don't fall flat emerged in this week's Catholic Church sponsored debate on the current situation in Cuba.

"This is one of the most critical moments we have had," said Omar Everleny, researcher at the University of Havana's Center for Study of the Cuban Economy in a press briefing. However, the crisis, he said, has prompted the most theoretical discussion ever about what is going to happen in Cuba.

Everleny, along with other Cuban intellectuals, religious and non-religious, including three Cuban Americans, is participating in panels on everything from the economy to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the Diaspora during a four-day conference that winds up Saturday organized by the Cuban Catholic Church.

"Not even in '95 and '96 [when the collapse of the socialist camp plunged Cuba into an economic freefall] was there such a blunt analysis as there is now about an excess of a million workers and of where they are to go if no investments are made," he told reporters Friday morning.

Workers at the security company SEPSA tell CBS they are being merged with Transval and two other firms offering compatible services cutting employees from 30,000 to 12,000. Cuts such as these are taking place at government ministries and companies in all sectors, as the government tries to trim, what President Raul Castro told parliament were a million unnecessary workers from its payroll.

Everleny further revealed that representatives of the Spanish corporation Mondragon are in Cuba this week holding meetings with City of Havana officials as Cuba studies the possibility of cooperative ownership, part of its reexamination of property rights.

The Mondragon Corporation is a federation of worker cooperatives and is the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of turnover and leading business group in the Basque Country, employing 92,773 in 256 companies by the end of 2008.

The Government is already dabbling with cooperatives in small scale services. Beauty parlors and barber shops have been turned over to their workers in the last year. Typical is a small shop on 44th Street in the Playa neighborhood of Havana. The locale and all the modest equipment are now the property of the two hairdressers and one manicurist working there. As customers show up for their haircut, Yamila explains that she is now working for herself and has raised the cost of a cut from 3 pesos to 20. So far all her customers are willing to pay the new rate and, she says, wish her well.

"It was a shock when she first told me," says one customer who dropped in on her way home from work. "But, I like the way she cuts hair and I have to get it done so I'll pay."

Out of her earnings Yamila must pay the State 1,458.00 pesos a month in rent and taxes and buy the shampoo and other products she uses. But, she says, she is happier than before. Probably less happy is the administrator who formerly handled supplies and who has been laid off.

Until now the state has been the owner of all means of production and retail businesses, but in recent months the Friday edition of the Communist Party daily Granma has run letters from readers who have suggested that bringing in cooperative ownership would not be re-introducing capitalism--letters understood to be trial balloons to test the public reaction.

The current Church conference comes at a moment when relations between the Cuban Catholic Church and the Government are at a high point. The reason for this, one participant suggests, might well be President Raul Castro's desire to focus on problems--such as the economy with its declining growth rate--that are central to his office and remove others that distract from this.

"Raul Castro is a very practical man, he is a problem solver," says Jorge Dominguez, a Latin American studies expert and long time Cuba scholar at Harvard University.

The international outcry over Cuba's treatment of prisoners and the Ladies in White in the first half of this year, opines Dominguez, most likely forced Castro to consider "how do I solve problems that are getting in the way of other things that I would rather achieve...and the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church turned out to have possible means to address them."

Last month, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega had a more than four-hour face-to-face meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro in which Ortega expressed concern over the treatment of political prisoners and dissidents on the island. That meeting got unusual coverage from the official media with a photo of two men smiling on the front page of Granma.

Since then twelve political prisoners have been moved to jails closer to their homes--a long-time demand of their families--and one ailing prisoner Ariel Sigler has been released. And prior to this, Ortega had negotiated a halt in the government harassment of the Ladies in White, relatives of political prisoners, who had faced a heavy-handed attempt to stop their weekly protest march.

Not all dissidents are pleased with the situation. Several like Sigler and Oswaldo Paya have issued statements saying the government has not done enough and all political prisoners should be released. Paya, in a press release, expressed anger that visiting Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti is not meeting with opposition forces during his visit here.

Not everyone is satisfied with the pace of change in the economy either. Everleny says things are being done "very gradually, and I'm not very much in agreement" with this. He admits however that the issues are very complex and things must be done "step by step."

Dominguez says that Cubans and anyone studying Cuba have "discovered is that it is difficult for the Cuban Government to actually implement measures of change, not because there is insubordination, not necessarily because there is active resistance but because it is a government not well accustomed to implementing some of the significant changes" that have been authorized. "This doesn't mean that the intention at the top from Raul Castro is any less genuine. It is that he too is discovering that it is difficult to govern Cuba as he would want," concludes Dominguez.

Dominguez and another participant, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Latin American scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, single out the government decision to turn over land from state farms to individuals to cultivate as a good decision that falls short.

Dominguez points out that "unless those farmers can purchase seeds, unless those farmers can purchase tools, unless those farmers can purchase tractors, unless they can get credit so that they get all of these things, unless they can sell them at prices that actually cover their costs, giving them the right to use land is not enough."

According to Dominguez, "measures that are isolated in that way, that are not accompanied by other complimentary measures will not work, not because they are bad decisions but because they are insufficient decisions." Castro, he says, has to "think strategically and not in terms of isolated decisions but as packages of decisions that necessarily build on each other" and only then will he be able to implement the policies that he has announced.

Mesa-Lago told reporters that the way the land is being given to individuals creates "uncertainty and a lack of initiative." People will be reluctant to invest in their land because the law is not clear on what happens to their investment once their ten-year lease runs out, he said. Cooperatives and State farms have contracts that last 20 years but, he suggested, it would be better if farmers were given open ended leases as has been done in China and Vietnam and allowed to decide what to plant, to whom to sell and to fix their own prices--all areas still decided by the Cuban State.

Cubans in general have been expressing disagreement with the lack of information coming from the Government on economic reforms. The debate going on in the Church conference is not being reported by the state-controlled media. Many young people say the uncertain economic future awaiting them when they finish their studies is the main reason they emigrate or dream of emigrating. Even parents of undisputed revolutionary pedigrees, who we spoke to, do not necessarily discourage their children from leaving. The consensus is that things are not working well.

Positive Vibes from Vatican Foreign Minister's Cuba Visit

Vatican envoy ends Cuba visit with meeting with Raul Castro

Monday, June 21, 2010

By Catholic News Service

HAVANA (CNS) -- Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's foreign minister, concluded an official and pastoral visit to Cuba June 20 saying relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government are on a healthy course.

Just hours before his departure, the archbishop met with President Raul Castro, saying afterward that bilateral relations are "cordial, continuing and on the rise."

An official release to various Cuban state-run news media reported on the meeting and said the president and the Vatican diplomat also discussed subjects of common interest on the international agenda.

"The visit of (Archbishop) Mamberti also showed the favorable development of relations between the state and the Catholic Church in Cuba," the government's note said.

The Vatican diplomat spent several days on the island, marking 75 years of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Cuba and participating in a national conference on the church's social teachings.

Archbishop Mamberti is considered an expert on Latin America, the United Nations, Africa, the Middle East and Islam. His visit took place at a time of church-state dialogue, focused primarily on the status of political prisoners, although other subjects have also been on the table.

As a result of these conversations, begun in May, the government recently released one jailed political opponent, Ariel Sigler, who had become ill, and moved another 12 prisoners to jails closer to their homes.

During his stay on the island, Archbishop Mamberti participated in several official programs, including a tribute to 19th-century Cuban hero Jose Marti and a meeting with the foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez.

At a joint press conference following their meeting, Archbishop Mamberti welcomed the results of the conversations between the church and the government and said he hoped his visit would contribute to strengthening such talks.

Archbishop Mamberti said one of the Vatican's diplomatic objectives was "to support the dialogue between local churches and the authorities of various countries."

Rodriguez emphasized the church's social programs and called its communications with the government "profound and constructive."
He said the conditions were right to continue such "fruitful exchanges."

The archbishop's official visit included stops at various schools, a concert and a tour of Havana's historic district.

His pastoral visit opened with a session on the state and laity during a church social teaching forum that analyzed subjects like dialogue and reconciliation among Cubans, the economic situation of the island and the public role of the institutional church.

Archbishop Mamberti is the highest-ranking Vatican representative to visit the island since February 2008, when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, represented Pope Benedict XVI for celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's historic visit.

Cardinal Bertone was the first international dignitary received by Castro after he officially assumed the presidency, a few days after the announcement that Fidel Castro was turning over the role to his younger brother.

Copyright © 2010 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Monday, June 21, 2010

Role of Catholic Church Expands

Catholic Church plays politics in Cuba

By Nick Miroff http://www.globalpost.com/print/5560662
Created June 17, 2010 06:41

The church's role has changed abruptly. Will it help facilitate the release of political prisoners?

HAVANA, Cuba — For years, the Catholic Church has been a quiet presence in Cuban affairs, working carefully to regain a place in a communist-run system that formerly persecuted religious believers. Church leaders have succeeded largely by attending to Cubans’ spiritual needs, not their earthly politics.

But that role has changed abruptly in recent weeks. A new dialogue has opened up between Catholic officials and the Castro government, elevating the church’s role in Cuban society and raising expectations that it might secure the release of many jailed government opponents.

The conversations mark the first time communist authorities have engaged in talks about the island’s problems with another Cuban institution, opening a path to a so-called “Cuban solution” that might ease the government’s hard-line stance against dissent. The dialogue could also be a critical first step toward better relations with the Obama administration, which has conditioned changes in U.S. policy to reforms on the island.

Cuban authorities have long bristled at criticism and pressure from international human rights groups and foreign governments, especially the United States, but the island’s Catholic leadership is homegrown. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, was once sent to a communist re-education camp in the late 1960s.

So far talks with the church have only produced modest gestures from the Cuban government. It has transferred a dozen inmates to jails closer to their families, and paroled one wheelchair-bound prisoner, Ariel Sigler Amaya. But church officials characterize the dialogue with the government as part of a “process” that has no timetable but whose goals include an improvement in conditions for Cuba’s political prisoners, if not their release.

Read an opinion about the Catholic Church's Pope Benedict XVI. [2]

“We’ve always said that this is process, and like any process, it won’t necessarily move forward at the same speed and along a straight line,” said church spokesman Orlando Marquez at a recent Havana press conference. “The process has begun, and we hope it will continue,” he said.

The Castro government hasn’t commented on its plans, but it has long maintained that it holds no political prisoners. Many of the jailed dissidents given lengthy prison sentences were convicted of treason for engaging in political activities supported by U.S. officials and Miami exile groups that aim to topple the government. Amnesty International recognizes more than 50 “prisoners of conscience” on the island, while local activists put the number of Cuban political prisoners at about 190.

The new engagement with the church has already paid dividends for the Cuban government abroad. At a European Union meeting in Brussels Monday, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos reportedly told members that the Castro government would free more prisoners “in a week,” as he successfully urged the postponement of a key vote on a Spain-led push to ease EU policy toward the island. The vote will now be delayed until September, in order to allow the church more time to continue its dialogue with Cuban leaders.

Moratinos’ prediction of imminent prisoner releases may also be linked to an official visit this week to Cuba by the Vatican’s top diplomat, Dominique Mamberti. His trip coincides with the “Catholic Social Week,” and a church-organized conference in Havana that will bring together Cuban prelates and top Cuban scholars, including several from U.S. universities. Discussion topics include economic reform and national reconciliation.

Marquez, the church spokesman, said the conference would help inform the church’s “social mission,” not a political one.

Observers say the Castro government could gain other advantages by using the church as an interlocutor. The government may be looking to improve its image after triggering a wave of international condemnation when prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February [3] after an 86-day hunger strike.

The church can also help the government soften its stance without appearing to bow to outside pressure. In turn, the Vatican may be able to nudge Washington at a time when a new bill in Congress proposes to lift travel restrictions on Americans visitors to the island. And Cuba continues to campaign vigorously for the release of the "Cuban Five," a group of Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in U.S. prisons who were sent to spy on anti-Castro militants in Florida.

“The church has always played a mediation role in Latin America,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor and religion expert who teaches at the University of Havana. “The Cuban government needs an interlocutor, and the church is an ideal one. It has international stature, but it’s a relatively weak institution here.”

The church’s role is not without risks, Lopez Oliva said. If the government fails to release a significant number of prisoners, it will add to criticism, particularly among Cuba exiles, that the church has been too accommodating and is helping the government buy time.

Still, for Julia Nunez, whose husband Adolfo Fernandez Sainz was moved to Havana last weekend from a rural prison 300 miles away, the church’s intervention has brought results, and at least a minor comfort. Nunez is one of the Ladies in White [4] made up of the wives and relatives of 75 dissidents who were rounded up in a 2003 crackdown. Fifty-two are still behind bars.

“It’s a relief for me, but these are small steps,” Nunez said. “Our main goal is to bring our husbands home. We won’t be satisfied until then.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Variety of Viewpoints Expected at Church Conference

By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jun 11, 2010 (IPS) - Cuban intellectuals, religious and non-religious, including three who live and teach in the United States, will take part in a four-day conference organised by the Catholic Church next week in the midst of a relaxed climate of dialogue between the Church leadership and the government of Raúl Castro.

"This conference is taking place against a favourable backdrop marked by progress in Church-State relations," sociologist Aurelio Alonso, who will take part in the "dialogue among Cubans" panel, told IPS.

His fellow panelists will be Jorge Ignacio Domínguez, a Latin American studies scholar at Harvard, and Catholic priest Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.

Alonso said the conference would not be an "apologia", would likely take on a critical tone at times, and would highlight unfulfilled hopes and expectations. "But that will be beneficial to the country, which has to evolve towards a greater openness," he said.

The Jun. 16-19 event in Havana will be the 10th edition of these conferences that are organised regularly by the Catholic Church. The current agenda includes issues that go beyond Church questions, such as the economy, migration and the relations between Cubans at home and abroad.

The panelists on economy and society will be Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Pável Vidal, prominent researchers at the University of Havana Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC), along with Carmelo Mesa Lago, Professor Emeritus of Economics and Latin America at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Rafael Hernández, director of Temas magazine, will discuss reconciliation among Cubans with Arturo López-Levy, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative politics and a lecturer at the University of Denver, Colorado, and Lenier González, editor of Espacio Laical, the publication of the Havana archdiocese's lay council.

"Under the present circumstances, it is important to listen to the views of these people who are experts in their various fields of politics, society or the economy and make use of that contribution in benefit of the Church's pastoral work," Catholic Church spokesman Orlando Márquez told journalists Thursday.

The Church as an institution is not removed or separate from social issues, said Márquez, who is also the director of the Havana archdiocesan magazine Palabra Nueva. Questions like migration, family break-up and economic difficulties are issues of concern to the Catholic Church, he added.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's foreign minister, will also take part in the conference, during a Jun. 15-20 visit to Cuba. His schedule includes talks with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and Cuba's bishops, and a possible visit with President Castro has not been ruled out.

Mamberti's visit to Havana will be the second by a senior Vatican official since Raúl Castro officially became president in February 2008 after taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in July 2006.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited the island in February 2008 on the 10th anniversary of the late Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba. Bertone was the first official envoy of a foreign state to meet with the new president.

Mamberti's visit is in response to an invitation by the Catholic Church in Cuba and the Cuban government, to participate in the commemoration of the 75th year of relations between Cuba and the Holy See.

Both this visit and the conference organised by the Church are taking place in a climate of warming of relations between the government and the Church since the lengthy May 19 meeting between Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, and Dionisio García Ibáñez, president of the Catholic bishops' conference of Cuba.

In the talks, the Church leaders expressed concern over the conditions of Cuba's political prisoners, which could eventually lead to the release of some, according to remarks by Cardinal Ortega.

In early June, six prisoners were moved to penitentiaries closer to their homes. The six form part of the original group of 75 dissidents handed lengthy sentences in 2003 on charges of treason for conspiring with the United States to destabilise the government. (Fifty-three are still in prison.)

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, headed by dissident activist Elizardo Sánchez, there are 200 people imprisoned for political reasons on the island. But the government claims that all dissidents are mercenaries in the pay of Washington and does not recognise the existence of political prisoners.

"We continue to hope for further gestures, although we do not know when they might occur," said Márquez, who pointed out that such processes are not always linear and do not always move ahead at a steady pace.

"We hope that what started will continue. There is nothing to indicate that the process has ground to a halt or has ended," said the spokesman for the Havana archdiocese

The sentencing of the 75 dissidents cut short a process of rapprochement with the European Union.

And although Havana and Brussels resumed political talks in 2008, Foreign Minister Rodríguez has repeatedly stated that the European bloc's "common position" on Cuba, which seeks "to encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," is "obsolete meddling" and is the final hurdle for the full normalisation of relations.

Rodríguez met this week in the French capital with his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Spain will apparently end its six-month rotating presidency of the EU this month without fulfilling its aim of replacing the "common position", which dates back to 1996, with what it describes as a more "realistic" policy towards Cuba.


A Cuban view of the dynamic within the church by Manuel Alberto Ramy can be read in the Progresso Weekly.

Cuba expands program cutting free lunches


HAVANA — Nearly a quarter million Cuban workers are discovering there's so such thing as a free lunch.

The government is dramatically expanding a program that shuts workplace cafeterias while giving people stipends to buy food on their own. It is part of a larger plan to chip away at the raft of daily subsidies that have long characterized life on the island.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma reported Friday that a pilot program begun in October to eliminate free lunches for 2,800 government workers will grow to include another 225,000 as of July 1. The move will save the cash-strapped country $27 million.

The reform is being extended to state bank workers, employees at the tourism, transportation, foreign investment, natural resources and foreign relations ministries, as well as workers at the government retail giant CIMEX and the Office of the City of Havana Historian and the Cuban Chamber of Commerce.

The new round of cafeteria closings means that in all, about 5 percent of Cuba's official work force of nearly 5 million will have to fend for themselves at lunch time, though the government will provide about 70 U.S. cents per work day to help pay for it.

The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and almost everyone works for the state. Education through college and health care are free and housing, utilities, transportation and food are heavily subsidized, but government workers earn an average of less than $20 per month.

The reform represents a change in philosophy for the government, which has traditionally micromanaged many aspects of Cubans' lives — from monthly ration books to determining who can own a car.

Cuba's always-fragile economy has been hit hard by the global financial crisis and President Raul Castro, who took over from his elder brother Fidel in February 2008, has said he wants to cut costs by streamlining the stifling bureaucracy and putting a measure of decision-making in the hands of citizens.

A simple meal like a pork sandwich from a street stand costs about 25 cents, while pasta bought from a vendor may run about twice that — meaning some workers could save money.

Still, some were dubious.

"It doesn't seem good to me," said Susana Garcia, a 35-year-old who has worked in the Havana City Historian's office since 1998. "If you don't go to work or you get there late they dock you, and what you get isn't enough to buy anything — it's two packets of chicken per month."

Others affected by the new rules told The Associated Press they were called to meetings at work last weekend and informed that their free-lunch days were numbered.

Interviews Friday with six state employees who will lose them yielded only complaints, though many declined to give their names for fear of landing in hot water at work.

Some said that even if they can find a way to bring food from home — no small feat in a country where things like plastic kitchenware are hard to come by — they have no way to heat it up without access to state cafeterias. Others said they work nontraditional hours and will have trouble buying food during the times they have to eat it.