By Daniel A. Espinosa,
Fourteen years after the historic visit of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba for the first time on March 26 – 28, 2012. After celebrating two masses—one in Santiago, the other in Havana—many wonder what affect the visit will have on the people of Cuba. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba yielded an era of greater religious expression. What will Pope Benedict XVI’s visit yield? Eager to find out, a group of young Cuban-Americans, including myself, embarked on a missionary trip to Cuba on March 23, 2012.
As the son of Cuban exiles, Cuba was never a topic of discussion at our dinner table. The Castro Regime caused much pain and suffering and broke many families apart. Naturally, visiting Cuba was never an option for me. But the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI was visiting Cuba created a sense of hope that I could see the country where my roots originated. As a father of three beautiful children, I was hesitant at first. After much prayer, deliberation, and discovering that a trip was being led by Miami’s Roman Catholic Archbishop, Thomas Wenski, I took the plunge and went on the pilgrimage to Cuba with three other missionaries—I still haven’t told my grandparents.
Prior to our mission, my colleagues and I were taken aback by the division amongst those for and against the Pope’s visit to Cuba. A crystalline example can be found in several Miami Herald articles, one of which was written by Sylvia G. Iriondo in March 2012. Let me preface my commentary with the utmost understanding that the debate of traveling to Cuba is filled with emotion—rightfully so—and much resentment for obvious reasons. In her article, Sylvia takes an adamant stance (one which I respect very much) against travel to Cuba, especially disguised as a “pilgrimage of reconciliation.” I do, however, take issue with the statement that a pilgrimage to Cuba “constitutes a humiliation and shows a lack of respect to the dignity of Cubans.” Be that as it may, the beauty of this heated debate is that people like me and Sylvia live in a country where we are free to discuss these issues openly. By contrast, people living in Cuba are oppressed as the Castro brothers dictate every aspect of their life.
It was in Santiago that the sad reality of religious and political oppression hit home. Me and one of my fellow pilgrims, Jose Carlos Blanco, were standing next to the media booth when all of a sudden we noticed intense commotion. A frustrated Cuban resident yelled “down with communism” during the Pope’s Mass. Cubans started running away from the scene while others like JC and myself just watched in awe. I later came to discover that this person was Andres Carrion Alvarez. Alvarez was smacked and hit over the head by Cuban officials and still remains under detention at the provincial state security office in Versalles, Santiago de Cuba.
Additionally, several individuals were arrested in Havana. On March 28, 2012, prior to the Pope’s second mass in Cuba, Alejandrina Garcia de la Rivas and Laura Maria Labrada Pollan, members of the Ladies in White—Damas de Blanco—were arrested before 6 a.m. The Ladies in White, relatives of former political prisoners, march every Sunday after Mass at Havana’s St. Rita of Casia Church to protest human rights violations by Cuba’s communist regime. The organization originated to protest the 2003 imprisonment of 75 Cubans connected to the Varela Project, an initiative promoting free elections and other political reforms. Those people and more than 50 others were released in 2011 under a deal brokered by Havana’s Cardinal. Most of those released went into exile abroad. The group has continued protesting on behalf of those prisoners still imprisoned in Cuba. Members have been attacked by what they describe as government-controlled mobs.
During his visit, the Pope urged the faithful to seek a humble and pure heart and trust in God in the face of evil. The Pope called for genuine freedom in one of the world’s most authoritarian states. The Pope’s holy mass at “La Plaza de Antonio Maceo”in Santiago came at the perfect time: the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre; so, after two papal visits, the Roman Catholic Church enjoys growing support from long-suffering Cubans. However, support from the Communist Party that rules this island nation can be described as reluctant at best.
Cuban priests say it remains nearly impossible to operate with a semblance of normalcy. They are prohibited from conducting the kind of church services or evangelical outreach that’s commonplace in the United States and Latin America. There’s a strain on religious freedom in Cuba that elsewhere in the Americas is taken for granted. Whether it’s being forced to celebrate Mass in someone’s crumbling home, or having government agents sitting in on sermons to keep a leash on what’s said from the pulpit. The Cuban government still won’t let the church build new places of worship. Only Roman Catholic churches that predate the 1959 revolution are permitted to be restored. Meanwhile, there are newer hotels in Havana. Still, in most cities across the country, buildings generally either predate the revolution or were constructed before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Pope prayed “for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.” He stressed that a nation founded on spiritual principles is necessary. As Americans, we live our lives with the knowledge that there is a higher law yet. America is great because we have been blessed by God. America is great because it has maintained that all human beings are endowed by God their creator with rights. That the source of those rights is not your king or your president, your laws or your government, but that you are born with them. People in Cuba are born with those same rights but, unfortunately, those rights are stripped from them before they take their first breath. If we expect Cuba’s regime to crumble on its own, we’re dead wrong. Instead, we should make it a priority to instill faith and hope in the lives of all Cubans not only in Miami, but also in Cuba. Wouldn’t it be great if Cuba can one day be like an America—a country that gives everyone hopes and dreams?
In a sermon at the Cathedral in Havana, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski called for Cuba to move away from the “spent ideology” of Marxism without embracing materialism. Essentially, he criticized Marxist ideology and urged Cubans “to be the protagonist of their own future.” Wenski’s homily on Tuesday was amazing. In fact, church goers gave him a sustained standing ovation. Wenski called for “soft landing” from Marxism and said the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church desire a political evolution that provides dignity to all Cubans who have been ruled since 1959 by the Castro’s.
While it was difficult to gauge the religious fervor of the Cuban people, the value of the trip was being there with the people. I think it opens the appetite to know more about each other. I was particularly impressed by the people I met around the island, both on the street and at the Papal Masses. It was great to speak with them, to find out how they lived, and to understand how they think. Cuban people have emptiness in their souls, and the Church has a great opportunity to fill that. Our group was fortunate enough to make a small difference by baptizing four kids into the Catholic Church.
Cubans are hopeful that the Pope’s trip will allow for new churches to be built in Cuba. My suggestion is that people don’t hold their breath. Although it is not the church’s role to inject itself into legal or political affairs, the church is an important agent in addressing Cuba with realism, humility, and change. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but they can do it with our help. After 50 years of failed U.S. policies—namely, the trade embargo—I think it’s time to revisit the topic and determine whether lifting the embargo can help facilitate change in Cuba. Clearly, any change will be gradual, but it has to start at some point.
After seeing Cuba with my very own eyes, it is my opinion that those who suffer most from the embargo appear to be the residents of Cuba, not the government. Although you may disagree with my opinion, what matters is that we come together and discuss the issues instead of putting them off. We should all come together and follow the examples set by those leaders such as Carlos Saladrigas, head of the Cuba Study Group, who encourage political and economic change in Cuba. Maybe one day we’ll all be able to have open dialogue in Cuba like we do here in America. Maybe one day the people of Cuba will be free again. Maybe one day each of us standing up for the liberty of Cuba will lead to a nation where people can enjoy freedom of speech, expression, and religion.
Daniel A. Espinosa, Esq., is the founding partner of ESPINOSA | JOMARRON, a full-service law firm in Miami’s Midtown area. For more information, you can e-mail him at email@example.com. Feedback, comments, and questions are welcomed.