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Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 09:34:11 EST
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Subject: [Atheist] re; AANEWS for January 20, 1997 (Evening Edition)
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subject: AANEWS for January 19, 1997 (Evening Edition)

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Hype and glory as Cuba prepares for papal visit. "Official Atheism" masks an attack on freedom, individualism, secularism

American Atheist #377, 19 January 1997

With Pope John Paul scheduled to begin a much-publicized trip to the island nation of Cuba beginning this Wednesday, media is already promoting the visit as a confrontation between "official atheism" and the promise of a new, open civil society orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church. For both the Vatican and the Cuban government, the papal excursion does indeed offer high stakes. Cuban President Fidel Castro desperately needs international aid, and more pressure on his behalf to end a 35-year-long - U.S. led economic embargo against his nation. The Vatican seeks a beach head in Cuba, seeking to connect with the remnants of the Catholic church. Critics, however, worry that Pope John Paul will follow a pattern established throughout Eastern Europe and nations such as Poland, where after the demise of Soviet client governments, the Church moved quickly to grab control of the educational system, ban abortion, and curtail the prospect of widespread civil liberties such as press freedom.

Background -- Seizing Power, Expelling the Church

After seizing power from dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar in 1958, Fidel Castro (raised a Roman Catholic and educated by Jesuits) began consolidating power, and eventually declared himself a Marxist revolutionary aligned with the Soviet Union. Some suggest that failure by the United States to support Castro in the early days of his regime may have driven the young, charismatic revolutionary leader into the Moscow geopolitical orbit. Batista's government was marked by widespread official corruption, and many Cubans considered it a pawn for U.S.-dominated interests, including banks, mobsters and the powerful United Fruit Company. Castro nationalized American holdings, and took over 350 schools operated by the Roman Catholic Church. More than 200 foreign priests were expelled from the nation, and religious holidays such as Christmas were no longer recognized by the government.

A policy of "Official atheism" existed from 1962 to 1992. In addition to the confiscation of property formerly held by the church, the government limited religious instruction to the confines of church building; criticism of state policy was limited, although that restriction applied to many areas of the society as well, not just the pulpit. Religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, were never banned outright; but Catholics and other believers were forbidden to hold membership in the Communist Party, a key requirement for advancing one's position in Cuban society, obtaining better jobs or housing, and receiving other perks.

Baptisms rates dropped precipitously; prior to Castro, nearly 40% of Cubans were baptized into the Catholic Church. That figure declined to an estimated one in 1,000.

But unlike many Latin American countries, Roman Catholicism was never a predominant belief in that Caribbean nation. Protestant churches boast a membership today of over one million adherents; and up to 7 million Cubans practice a form of Santeria, a practice culturally transmitted from the African slave trade which fuses nativist and Christian beliefs. (It has even been rumored that Castro himself has flirted with Santeria.) In fact, the Cuban government has funded Santeria museums and groups; elders of the Santeria faith demanded a meeting with Pope John Paul II during his visit, a request which was promptly turned down by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The Pope's Plan For Cuba... and Beyond

Faced with the loss of former allies such as Russia due to the collapse of the Soviet system, Castro has had to look elsewhere for financial aid and support. Internationally, the U.S. economic embargo has produced mixed results, and the Vatican has emerged as a key opponent of the sanctions against Cuba, insisting that they do little to change the Castro government and instead harm the Cuban people. Many political and business interests have come to oppose the embargo as well, seeing it as futile; they suggest a policy of "engagement," where economic leverage would be used to bring about reforms in Cuba's socialist economy. In 1996, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, head of the Vatican's "humanitarian" arm, Cor Unum, denounced the embargo, along with Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a senior church official. He blasted the Helms- Burton Act, which reinforced the trade embargo on Cuba and other "pariah states."

The Church has also had to appease a powerful segment of supporters in the United States, namely, the Cuban exile community. Shipments to Cuba of food, medical supplies and other aid are funnelled through Catholic Charities, or Caritas; but exiles and the church want any aid to be distributed by priests who accompany these shipments, not officials of the Cuban government.

In planning for the pope's Cuban visit, Vatican leaders have announced several goals; access to the mass media, reopening of Catholic schools, the right to bring in priests from other countries, and an expansion of the church's "charitable" work. Issues of control might be an obstacle in some cases, but Castro and John Paul may also find that they have a considerable amount in common -- this despite efforts to contrast the "anti-communist Pope" and the "official atheist," Castro, in the popular media.

Both men share a revulsion over globalization and economic development as advanced by western nations and financial interests. Latin American expert Saul Landau of California State Polytechnic University told CNN, "They share a larger agenda: a common opposition to current free-market capitalism" which John Paul considers to be "sinful" and Castro as "shameful."

"Both men are dedicated men of the cloth," adds CNN ("Icons at the crossroads"), "one in the revolution's fatigues, the other in church robes -- who sit at the top of well-defined hierarchies." Journalist Tad Szulc mentioned an additional synchronicity between the pope and the Cuban leader, referring to what he termed a "quasi-mystical bond" between the two.

"He suggested Castro showed 'deference if not veneration,' while the pope extended 'paternal warmth' to one who may be said to be a long-lapsed Catholic."

Just as Castro needs allies, however, so does Pope John Paul II in his crusade. With the Soviet Union gone, the Church has found a new enemy in the form of pervasive secularism and western consumerism, with its emphasis on material indulgence, individual rights and -- from the Vatican's point of view -- rampant sinfulness and permissiveness. Despite the opposition to "godless communism," Pope John Paul II has also expressed disenchantment with many of the social reforms sweeping Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. In his homeland of Poland, for instance, Catholic authorities opposed a draft constitution for the nation that omitted any reference to "god" in its preamble, as well other reforms instituted by the Democratic Left Alliance of President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Liberalized rules concerning divorce, press freedom, and abortion also attracted opposition from the Vatican.

And Rome remains concerned by what it perceives as an emergent global ethic identified with consumerism, materialism and free trade. In November, 1997 at a gathering of bishops from North and Latin America, Vatican officials took turns denouncing American "individualism" and called for a new effort to "revitalize" the church. Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh told fellow prelates, "Heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights has greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves." Wuerl then denounced "the privatization of religion and morality" where "Both were seen by many as matters of purely personal and private concern, such as a hobby or an appreciation of music, but without a proper role in the public arena."

Even democracy was singled out for attack, suggesting the Vatican's ambivalent fears about permitting people to have "too much freedom." One rant by Monsignor Dennis Schnurr of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- a U.S. group which lobby for a ban on abortion, school vouchers and funding of religious social outreaches -- lamented, "In our democracy, divergent political viewpoints are more often resolved by a facile reliance on the rule of the majority rather than by genuine discernment of what is best for the common good." Schnurr then singled out what he described as "unspeakable crimes," such as abortion or physician-assisted suicide which are "embraced in the name of individual rights and democracy."

Indeed, even with the considerable media and political attention being devoted to the pope's upcoming Cuban excursion, the Vatican is already thinking of developments in a post-Castro era. The church has already launched an impressive evangelization effort which, according to the current issue of NEWSWEEK magazine, is funded by "wealthy foreign diocese." And the clerics have already positioned themselves as an icon of acceptable resistance to the Cuban regime, should Castro not tow the line to Vatican demands. Dagoberto Valdes, editor of a Catholic magazine published in Cuba, says, "The church is the ultimate sanctuary, the last redoubt of freedom." Valdes has also spear headed a Center for Civic and Religious Formation, a group designed to "plant the seeds" for the church's specific vision of limited democracy and clerical participation in the post-Castro era.