WSJ: Cuban Dissidents Beg to See the Pope

Monday, September 21, 2015
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Dissidents Beg to See the Pope

The struggle for freedom and dignity in Cuba is essentially a Catholic movement.

The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear.’

Those words were spoken in 2002 by Oswaldo José Payá—a Cuban Roman Catholic and the founder of the island’s Christian Liberation Movement. He was addressing the European Parliament, which had given him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. He emphasized his dream of Cuban reconciliation: “We are going to seek the truth together. This is the liberation which we are proclaiming.”

Payá was brave, eloquent and dedicated to nonviolent change. That made him dangerous to the regime. In 2012 he was killed when the car he was riding in, according to its driver, was run off the road by another vehicle. The Castro regime did not allow a transparent investigation of the crash.

The Cuban dissident movement that Payá energized is essentially a Catholic movement. Its struggle for human dignity is built on a faith handed down by the earliest Christians, who were brutalized by pagan Rome. Its heroes are also harassed, beaten, imprisoned, exiled and even murdered for peacefully expressing their love of God and neighbor.

This is why Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba that began on Saturday evening and runs until midday Tuesday is generating controversy. Any refusal to acknowledge the men and women of the resistance risks turning the trip into a papal punch in the gut to the island’s devout Catholics. However, the pope would not be in Cuba if Raúl Castro hadn’t thought that his tour would be good for the regime’s image. To express solidarity with dissidents the pope would have to offend his hosts.

The signals ahead of the visit were not encouraging for nonconformists. The Vatican spent months preparing the public for a show choreographed by Castro, his military dictatorship and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Last week Rome said that a meeting with dictator emeritus, Fidel Castro, was “probable.” Catholic activists, who were begging for an audience of their own, were still waiting for an answer.

Another troubling development this summer was a statement by Cardinal Ortega that the dictatorship no longer holds political prisoners. That’s a howler. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported in June that it has documented 71 political prisoners. There are likely many more. The penal code, modeled on the Soviet penal code, makes the mere appearance of “dangerousness” a crime. Anyone not judged sufficiently revolutionary can be, and often is, locked up.

Earlier this month the regime announced that in honor of the pope’s visit it would release some 3,500 inmates from its jails. But the dictatorship said that those who have committed “crimes against state security” or the crime of killing a cow—to get food—are not part of the release. Translation: Desperate acts to feed your family or political transgressions are unforgivable.

Catholic dissidents have not lost hope that the pontiff will see them. Earlier this month five democracy activists holed up in the Cathedral of San Rosendo in the province of Pinar del Rio and issued a statement asking for human rights and support from Francis. Church officials had them arrested.

In the year the Castros took over (1959) they executed more than 1,000 men, many of faith, by firing squad. Valiant cries of “long live Christ the King” are said to have reverberated in those prison courtyards just before the triggers were pulled. Soon priests and nuns were exiled and God was outlawed to make room for Marxism.

The dictatorship has refined its methods, turning in the sledgehammer for a scalpel to control the population. Intermittent crackdowns on individuals and small groups to terrorize the rest are highly effective. Yet managing the international image remains a challenge.

At times it seems as if the church is being used to help solve this problem. Rome wants to send more priests to the island to administer the sacraments and evangelize. The Castros may be willing to go along but at a price: The moral authority of the church must not be used to condemn the police state.

It’s a messy trade that can’t end well for the Vatican. On Wednesday Afro-Cuban activist José Luis García Pérez “Antúnez” who spent 17 years in a Castro dungeon, initiated a group hunger strike called “Holy Father, we too are Cuba” at his home in the city of Placetas. By Sunday afternoon the pope met with Fidel while dozens of dissidents—including some of the Catholic group Ladies in White—who tried to be recognized by the pope had been detained.

When this column went to press there was no sign of the pope reaching out to marginalized souls like Antunez. Things could still change, but if not Pope Francis’ departure Tuesday will leave a lot of disappointed Catholics behind.