Testimony from Cuba: The Pope’s Visit was an Oasis

Part 2 in a series. Click here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

As I explained in a previous post, I have traveled to Cuba multiple times to visit family members. During my visits, I became close friends with a group of young Cubans who are very active in a parish in Santiago de Cuba. Anxious for news from my friends in Cuba about the Pope Benedict’s visit, I emailed this group of friends in Santiago to tell them I would be thinking of them during his visit and to ask them to send me news of their experiences.

One of them, who I will call Laura, wrote me a beautiful testimony of her experience of Pope Benedict’s visit. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, communication between Cuba and the outside world, especially the “imperalist” northern neighbor, has been limited. Laura now has occasional access to  email, and given that the connection is dial-up (if you are even old enough to remember those days) she typed her message in Word and sent it as an attachment. Her words are so beautiful that I want to share them with you word for word.

First, let me tell you a little bit about Laura. She works as an accountant in a government job and in her free time, she teaches the Catholic faith at a local parish and visits the sick in her neighborhood. Being a practicing Catholic with a government job is challenging for her, given all the pressure to conform to ideology, not to mention that most people steal from their jobs to sell things on the black market. Laura sees her vocation not only in teaching her faith, but in living her faith by being  a good example at work, such as by not stealing.

However, when another friend of mine in Santiago de Cuba landed in jail for stealing from his job (he stole a few bags of soy), I knew she would help. I sent her one email gently suggesting she go visit his house to see how he was doing. I could tell by her reply she didn’t get the gist of my email, so I sent another more urgent message saying “Alejandro is in jail. Would you please go visit his family and see if you can help?”

Most people in Cuba avoid prisoners and their families; but I knew Laura is courageous and would try to help them. The next day I got an email from her saying, “I found out some things and I need to talk to you,” and she gave me a specific time to wait for her call. Calling from Cuba to the US (and vice-versa) is expensive and difficult, but she called me right on time and told me in less than 60 seconds that if we could send a certain amount of money, something could be done for Alejandro. After two months languishing in jail for trying to sell Cuban soy on the black market (the Cuban government sells its people soy because it’s cheaper than beef), Alejandro was released from prison. I was too afraid to ask Laura by email what she did to help him; but I knew I could count on her to risk her own safety and find a way to help Alejandro get released.

Laura is in her 30s, stunningly beautiful, and not yet married (although she would like to be). To reward her hard work, she once won tickets from her employer to go to a night club with live music. Such clubs are frequented by tourists to Cuba, but the entrance fees are out of the  reach of most Cubans, even those like Laura with good jobs. When leaving the club, Laura’s beauty caught the attention of the police, who accused her of having gone to that club to work as a prostitute for foreigners. She sobbed and pleaded with them, but under Cuba’s “ley de la peligrosidad” (law of dangerousness), you can be accused of loitering, working as a prostitute, or other offenses with no evidence. If you are stopped three times for the same offense (or in Laura’s case, unfounded accusation) you can go to jail. Unable to persuade the police that night she had just been with friends at the club, Laura went back to the police station the next day with her father so that he could give testimony that she is not a prostitute. Known by her friends as “The Black Virgin” because of her beauty and purity, I can only imagine how humiliated both she and her father felt that she was accused of being a prostitute.

Probably to counter the rampant prostitution and promiscuity in Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the importance of marriage in nearly every talk he gave in Cuba. In his March 28, 2012, homily in Havana for instance, he said that seeking the truth about the human condition “we discover a foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person.” At a panel on Catholic social teaching a couple of years ago, Duke Divinity School’s renowned Professor of Theological Ethics, Stanley Hauweras, said that the most radical element of Catholic social teaching was the idea that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society and that the state cannot violate the rights of not only individuals but also the rights of families. Knowing that communism tried to break the bonds of the family in order to make individuals more dependent on the state than on blood relations, I was not surprised to hear Pope Benedict repeat many times the importance of marriage and family to a thriving society, for it is in the family that we find and nurture the love that should permeate all our actions, both to our relatives and our neighbors. The family in many modern societies is fragile, and the state of families in Cuba is nothing less than a crisis. It’s hard to imagine sweeping change in Cuba without strengthening families.

In her email to me this week, Laura said  how elated she was that since Cuba decided to recognize Good Friday as a holiday, she can live her life as God asks. Then, in an attached Microsoft Word document, she wrote (in Spanish):

“Dear Sister,

I have so many marvelous things to tell you!!! I have had so many transforming and beautiful moments during this Lent that I have to share them with you. Every year, I live Lent in a different way and with different intensity. Well, you could say that this year God knocked me off my feet. That’s not to say I heard divine voices, but God spoke to me in the deepest part of my heart, telling me that even though I am his beloved daughter, that does not give me any privilege or advantage over anyone else, whether that person is a believer or not. Rather, I should be the humblest of all people; I should not fall into the temptations to hate, to have hard feelings, to be selfish; temptations that surround us and can trap us in this world full of competition and rivalries (we live in a world that thinks that the law of retaliation — “an eye for eye, and a tooth for tooth” — will resolve problems). That is why we need to love, it is love that unites us with God and with our neighbor, it is love that allows us to forgive others and forgive ourselves.

Pope Benedict’s visit was an oasis, for this Lenten period and for my whole life, like a spring of crystal clear water in which I can drink and see my true essence reflected.

I had the privilege of receiving the Pope when he arrived to the Archbishop’s residence in Santiago. I was very close when he arrived in the Popemobile, and my heart leaped for joy and my whole being smiled (those around me said my eyes were shining too). I only know my heart was pounding and I wanted to have wings to fly to the Pope’s side and ask for his blessing (like the sick person in the Gospel who is cured just by touching Jesus’ mantle).

On a side note, the Pope looked a bit tired.

Later I went to the Plaza of the Virgin of Charity and I was inside the rope that blocked off the entrance. His holiness arrived a little bit late (about 30 minutes after his scheduled time; maybe he needed to rest from his trip to Mexico). The entrance of the statue of the Virgin into the plaza was just as we had hoped-spectacular.  Her image moved all the multitudes of people gathered, and everyone who had taken cover in the shade ran out and the plaza filled up even more.

There were people there from all parts of Cuba and the world. Next to me were some Germans who were very proud showing their flag, but I didn’t recognize the shield on it. Everyone was very disciplined despite the sun, the threatening rain, and thankfully the lightning never came too close. Everything was beautiful and peaceful, although someone yelled some things out of place, but  everything turned out all right.

Finally, I want to tell you that you were in my prayers in a special way during that wonderful Mass.

From your friend Laura who loves you. I wish you a blessed Holy Week.”

People in Cuba like Laura and Rodrigo, who I wrote of in my my previous post, are examples of heroic virtue to me. They are examples that the Pope’s words of forgiveness and service to all people–whether believers or not–have taken root in the hearts of young Cubans. And their testimony and example continue to inspire me to imitate their virtues of generosity and humility. Gracias, Laura. Te quiero tambien.

Pope Benedict in Cuba: There is No Fatherland Without Virtue

   In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, Wednesday, March 28, 2012.   Part 1 in a seriesClick here for my podcast interview on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, hosted by Research on Religion.

Perhaps by now you have seen one of these images of two ideological opposites, Pope Benedict XVI and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who met for 30 minutes at the end of the Pope’s visit to Cuba in March. If you don’t know the history of Cuban communism or the main themes of Benedict’s writings on liberty, reason and truth, you may have missed the significance of his words to the Cuban people. For example, Benedict’s profound statement “No hay patria sin virtud (“there is no authentic fatherland without virtue”) seemed to be a play on the Cuban slogan “patria o muerte” (fatherland or death). As I’ve written before about the contradictions of Cuban communism, there is nothing virtuous in denying people liberty in order to achieve a real or supposed collective well being.

As a college student with great interest in development in Latin America, I made my first trip to Cuba (my mother’s homeland) in 1994. From 1994-2006, I traveled to Cuba 7 times. (In case you are wondering, although traveling to Cuba for tourism or business is prohibited, travel for Cuban-Americans like myself to the island is not prohibited by US law). During my many trips, I became close friends with a group of young Cubans in Santiago who are very active in the Catholic Church. This March, the Pope first visited Santiago. One friend in Santiago, an active Catholic and a member of the political group Christian Liberation Movement, who I will call Rodrigo, wrote to me,

“I’m exhausted but seeing the Pope has renewed my spirit. I was at the Mass and at his pilgrimage to Our Lady of Charity. His words words of hope echoed with the heart of all Cubans. It’s hard to express what is is like to have him so near; you can see goodness and purity incarnate in a human being.”

Watching Pope Benedict celebrate Mass on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012, I was struck by several themes in his homily, all themes of his extensive writings, but which take on particular significance in Cuba. Those themes are: trust in God, truth, reason, religious freedom, and reconciliation. The text of the homily can be read in Spanish or English on the Vatican’s website, and if you speak Spanish, I strongly encourage you to listen to the Vatican’s video recording of the homily to hear how Benedict emphasizes words like authentic liberty and the innate desire to search for truth.

Referring to the first reading from Daniel 3:32, Pope Benedict said, “Truly, God never abandons his children, he never forgets them.” One of the worst elements of the Cuban revolution has been how it has isolated people from their families, their church and the outside world. In the name of a putative national community, in other words, they have destroyed many actual communities. I have met many people in Cuba who feel abandoned–abandoned by their family who left Cuba never to return, abandoned by the church which was decimated after the 1959 revolution, and abandoned by all the people in the world who look the other way as their suffering continues.

As the deacon chanted the Gospel in Spanish, I thought of Rodrigo, who wrote me the above words. The Gospel  reading (from John, Chapter Eight) recounts Jesus discussing the nature of the truth with the Pharisees. This back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees reminded me of Rodrigo who had numerous encounters with Cuban police about his political activity. Those who have called for political change in Cuba are often dismissed as imperialists, trying to impose Western or American ideals. But the Christian Liberation Movement can’t be charged with imperialism, as its purpose is to educate the Cuban people about their current constitution and ask the Cuban government why it doesn’t follow its own laws. Where does the Cuban Constitution say it’s prohibited to read certain books? Where does it justify Cubans’ inability to travel outside of Cuba? And how does Cuban law decide that those who emigrate elsewhere become “desertores” (deserters), more commonly called “gusanos” (worms) or “vendepatrias” (traitors to the fatherland)?

Benedict’s words help explain why many of the most vocal political dissidents in Cuba, like Rodrigo, also are practicing Catholics. As Benedict explained, “The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom.” Those Cubans like Rodrigo who have embraced the Catholic faith despite the innumerable impediments and penalties also yearn for greater political and economic freedom. Although Pope Benedict read in clear Spanish from prepared remarks, he slowed considerably on the word “authentic” before freedom. Why? Because Cubans are told all the time they have freedom. But what kind of freedom is it? Freedom to go to school for free? Freedom to visit the doctor at no charge? As a Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, told me, health and education are means to the end of freedom, but those means lose their connection to authentic freedom if people are denied basic freedoms like reading newspapers and the internet. What kind of religious freedom is it that won’t let the church assist  in education or taking care of the sick, activities which Benedict later made clear are part of the essential mission of the church and and an essential (Benedict’s emphasis) part of religious liberty?

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Benedict further explained, “The truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person. This ethical patrimony can bring together different cultures, peoples and religions, authorities and citizens, citizens among themselves, and believers in Christ and non-believers. Christianity, in highlighting those values which sustain ethics, does not impose, but rather proposes Christ’s invitation to know the truth which sets us free. The believer is called to offer that truth to his contemporaries, as did the Lord, even before the ominous shadow of rejection and the Cross. The personal encounter with the one who is Truth in person compels us to share this treasure with others, especially by our witness. Dear friends, do not hesitate to follow Jesus Christ. In him we find the truth about God and about mankind. He helps us to overcome our selfishness, to rise above our vain struggles and to conquer all that oppresses us. The one who does evil, who sins, becomes its slave and will never attain freedom (cf. Jn 8:34). Only by renouncing hatred and our hard and blind hearts will we be free and a new life will well up in us.”

What does this authentic search for freedom, this desire to share one’s faith look like? Benedict closed his homily by recalling the exemplary life and work of Father Felix Varela, born at the end of the 18th century in Cuba and renowned for his work in education and human rights.

Benedict explained how “Father Varela offers us a path to a true transformation of society: to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation, for this transformation depends on the spiritual, in as much as “there is no authentic (Benedict’s emphasis) fatherland without virtue” (Letters to Elpidio, Letter 6, Madrid 1836, 220). Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”

My friend Rodrigo suffered great persecution going door to door getting signatures for the Varela Project, inspired by Father Felix Varela’s legacy, which asked the Cuban government to follow its own promises of human rights for his people. Rodrigo’s backpack containing signatures for the Varela Project was confiscated, and his mother-in-law was harassed until he moved out with his wife and three children to protect her. When I met Rodrigo, many of his friends from the Christian Liberation Movement were in jail or exiled. But he won’t stop proclaiming the truth–both in his work teaching the Catholic faith in the parishes and mountain communities around Santiago and in proclaiming his right to economic and political liberty.

Although I haven’t seen Rodrigo since 2006, we have maintained contact through occasional emails and a mutual friends who visit Cuba. Unable to work for the government (the sole employer in Cuba until very recently) because of his known political opposition, Rodrigo asked me to send him a professional camera so he can try to make money through photography. When the Cuban government announced last year it would let the Catholic Church train small-scale entrepreneurs and give them micro-loans, we connected Rodrigo to that program. In his email to me last week, Rodrigo promised to send me pictures of the Pope’s visit. After the Pope’s departure the Cuban government announced that Good Friday will be a holiday for the first time since the 50-year old revolution.

These baby steps towards religious and economic freedom go a long way towards opening spaces for people like Rodrigo to live their aspirations to authentic freedom. As I could tell from Rodrigo’s hopeful email, the Pope’s visit may not change everything overnight, but his visit reminds him that God does not abandon his people. And Rodrigo’s struggle for truth remind us that the Cuban people will not abandon their hope for greater changes. Those changes, Benedict concluded in his homily, must be based on truth, not “tinieblas de error” (the darkness of error), and without rancor.

Benedict’s meeting with Fidel Castro by no means indicates agreement between the two on most issues, but in extending his hand to the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Benedict was putting into practice his own advice to “respond to evil with good.”  His visit and his wise words are all examples of proposing the truth to undo error and treating one’s ideological opposite with humanity, not rancor. Father Felix Varela, Pope Benedict XVI, and Rodrigo are all tough examples to follow, but they inspire my own hope for a free and virtuous Cuba–the virtuous “fatherland” that so many dear friends on the island and those forced into exile have been longing for during the last 50 years.

Are Religious Organizations Like Firms?

Can ideas from economics, such as that monopolies are lazy and that competition leads to better products, be applied to understand religion? Every year I teach my students–both those in my class on economic sociology and those in my class on sociology of religion–about the economistic or the rational choice perspective on religion.

Most people think individual religious behaviors and religious organizations are driven by emotions, theology, and/or tradition. But rational choice theories of religion are modeled are assumptions about human behavior now current in mainstream economics: humans are rational, self-interested beings who seek to maximize rewards and minimize their costs. What makes religion so powerful in motivating  human behavior is that most religions promise rewards or punishment in another life.

One path-breaking book which applies the rational choice perspective to American religion is Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy,” which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Given that the U.S. has never a state-established religion, religious groups here have always had to win over adherents. To explain which religious groups thrive under these conditions of an open market for religion, [Read more...]

Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right

A public event on March 1, 2012, hosted by Georgetown University’s Berkely Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs launched the monograph Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, authored by Timothy Shah under the auspices of the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom. At this event, Princeton political science Professor Robert George quoted extensively from Martin Luther King’s Letters from the Birmingham Jail to illustrate why religious freedom deserves legal protection. In the Birmingham letters, Reverend King argued persuasively that human laws can be judged unjust when they degrade basic human goods. Racial segregation, King argued, debases human dignity because it designates one group (Whites) as superior to another group (African-Americans); thus such laws are unjust.

Too often, we think that asserting “I want something” equals “I have a right to something.” But just as African-Americans had the right to civil equality because it upholds their human dignity, George explained that human rights exists only when if those rights leads to a human good.  To illustrate, there is no human right to take an innocent human life because being dead is bad. The human good is to be alive, so our laws protect human life.  To talk of human rights thus requires explaining the good those rights protects. [Read more...]


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