Catholic Church gains foothold in communist Cuba

communist cuba

In Cuba, where communism and religion live uneasily side by side, there is a city where it is no longer strange to see a priest walk down the street in a white cassock followed by enthusiastic greetings of “Good day, Father!”

A small order of Catholic clergy has become a beloved and indispensable part of the community in Placetas, offering survival essentials to its economically devastated population of about 40,000 souls.

The priests have become, in part, a surrogate for the government, which in Cuba has political control over just about every aspect of life — though in practice it cannot always deliver where it is needed most.

From Placetas, four French priests have set up three-day care centres, five soup kitchens, an after-school centre, a boarding school and an old-age home serving about 70,000 people of the larger district in the centre of the island nation.

“In Cuba, the Church is… putting a foot in the door so that it stays open,” smiled 38-year-old Jean Pichon, one of the four clerics who moved to Placetas 15 years ago.

But he insisted “the idea is not to convert people or to seek a more prominent role, but truly to help.”

‘No more medicine’

The beige-walled church on one of the town’s squares has become a popular gathering spot for members of the community.

On Thursdays, the priests meet youngsters from Placetas on a field near the church to play football.

On the same block, a soup kitchen feeds the hungry twice a week, a library is open to all and, crucially for many, a makeshift pharmacy dispenses free medications that the priests get from Europe.

These are all services that fall under the purview of Cuba’s one-party state.

But the government in Havana has recently moved to reduce Cubans’ reliance on free essential services — announcing it will cut subsidies for food and other basics in a bid to entice people into the workplace and revitalize the economy.

The country is battling its worst economic crisis in 30 years, fueled by six decades of American sanctions and the collapse of its critical tourism sector due to the coronavirus epidemic.

“I am 53 and this is the worst (time) I’ve ever experienced,” said Tania Perez, who in non-pandemic times rents out a room to tourists in Placetas and relies heavily on the medicines the priests provide.

“My mother has only 20 days’ worth of pills left and her medicine cannot be found. Without it, she cannot walk. Me, I suffer from lupus and I have no more medicine,” Perez said.

Providing support

Every Wednesday, a van comes with fresh supplies for the Placetas pharmacy. The night before, some people sleep outside to make sure they can get what they need.

In smaller towns nearby, people tell of having to wait four days in a queue for medicine.

In such difficult times, the Church “could not and did not want to remain on the sidelines,” said Arturo Gonzalez Amador, bishop of Santa Clara — the capital of Villa Clara province, where Placetas is located.

He too was quick to stress that the Church was “not creating a parallel structure” to the state, saying: “We are providing support.”

Mistrust and fear

“At first, there was a lot of mistrust” from the authorities, “maybe even a bit of fear,” said Pichon of the Church’s growing presence.

After the revolution, the new communist state in 1961 seized the assets of the Catholic Church, including schools and clinics.

More than 130 priests were expelled.

The country was atheist until 1992 when it amended its laws to become officially secular. However, a government office of religious affairs still regulates anything to do with worship.

Today, the country of 11.2 million has only 300 Catholic priests — half of them foreign.

According to Church estimates, 60 per cent of Cubans are baptized — but only two per cent attend Mass.

Practising Catholics are still prohibited from working for certain government ministries in a country where the state is the main employer. Continue reading

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