The Catholic Archdiocese of Havana is defending the considerable risks in that the Catholic Church in Cuba took in negotiations with the Cuban government to help secure the release of over 100 political prisoners.
Church leaders weren't “neutral but committed, and the Church took risks and accepted being in the eye of the hurricane,” according to spokesman Orlando Marquez.
He said that throughout the tense situation, the Church effectively showed “pastoral and charitable concern for all,” both “on one side and on the other.”
Marquez gave a timeline of the political saga and defended the Church's role in negotiating with the Cuban regime in a June 22 article published in the archdiocesan magazine Palabra Nueva.
He said that the Church-government discussions began in May of 2010 after the Women in White – an organization for spouses and relatives of political prisoners – met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana.
When the Church accepted their request to serve as a mediator with the government, Marquez recalled, it faced a two-fold situation: on the one hand the Women in White “demanded family reunification, while their family members in prison demanded political changes.”
Authorities, however, “granted the former but not the latter.”
Marquez said that to “expect or demand that the Church bring opposition leaders to the ‘negotiating table’ with government officials was inappropriate in this process.”
“Negotiation is a term that defines a different phenomenon,” the spokesman explained. “It is a process by which the parties in a conflict seek to resolve their differences and mutually recognize one another, without the need for mediation by any third party.”
“Nevertheless,” he added, “what the Church has done for many years is express its conviction that all those in Cuba who show an interest in contributing ideas and efforts for the good of the country should be heard.”
Marquez recalled that the Women in White were calling for three specific things: the return of prisoners to their places of residence, the releasing of sick prisoners as soon as possible, and the option for their loved ones to leave Cuba, alone if need be, rather than having them remain in prison.
On May 19, Cardinal Ortega outlined these requests to Raul Castro's government, which accepted them. Marquez said this landmark response showed how something “new and unheard of began to take shape in Cuba.”
The prison releases began on June 1 and days later Spain offered to receive any political prisoners who wished to travel there.
By the end of the process, the government had released a total of 126 prisoners, 114 of whom went to Spain with their families – including another former prisoner who had already been released to Spain – totaling nearly 800 people.
Marquez said that Cardinal Ortega met personally with each of the prisoners and gave them his blessing if they decided to go to Spain.
But “he never tried to convince anyone to emigrate,” the spokesman noted. “Only 12 said they did not want to go to Spain and instead wanted to remain in Cuba.”
A few asked if going to Spain was a condition for their release, to which the Cardinal replied it was not, “and he assured them that they would be released later, and they were.”
“Those who accepted to make the trip were taken to one place and their families to another, separately, while the immigration process took place, in which the Church was not a participant,” Marquez said.
Upon arriving at the airport, they were greeted by Spanish officials who asked them “if it was their will to leave Cuba, and if this was the case, they were asked to sign a statement of agreement, as Spain would not accept transferring any of them by force. All of them gave their consent and signed.”
Referring to what he called unfounded criticism of the Church's role in the situation, Marquez said it's “wrong” to imply that prisoners “were forced into exile or forced to leave as a condition for not remaining in prison.”
“It is even more wrong to assert that the Cuban government and the Church joined together in exiling these persons,” he emphasized. “The best proof against this assertion, perhaps, is the 12 that decided to remain in Cuba.”
In the end, Marquez said, “as incredible as it seemed at the beginning,” the requests made by the women who met with Cardinal Ortega on May were completely granted. “And the governments of Cuba and Spain surpassed those demands.”