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.