A voice stilled, but is it a sign?
A voice stilled, but is it a sign?
A Catholic magazine's shift in Cuba arouses conjecture of political
By Michael Martinez
August 21, 2007
PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba
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For 13 years, under the protective wing of a Roman Catholic bishop,
layman Dagoberto Valdes wrote about democracy and free expression out of
this western province known more for tobacco than dissidents.
Using the Catholic magazine Vitral as his platform, Valdes challenged
Cubans to examine what kind of liberty they truly had and questioned
whether repression was behind so many Cubans fleeing the island — all
while invoking the word of Christ.
But two months ago, Valdes' voice was silenced. People close to him say
he was dismissed as director and editorial writer because of a change of
"ideology" under the Pinar del Rio Diocese's new bishop, who criticized
the publication. The bishop insists that Valdes stepped aside on his own.
"He resigned," Bishop Jorge Serpa said in a telephone interview. He
referred further questions to Valdes, who declined through a friend to
The departure of Valdes, whether on his own or at the insistence of
superiors, points to a broader picture of how Cuba's Catholic Church has
for now taken an acquiescent tack in its relations with the communist
government after a decade in which the church was able to secure greater
freedoms such as releasing publications and expanding its missions.
Indeed, the church appears to be sharing the government's overall
caution as Cuba faces profound questions about leadership succession now
that leader Fidel Castro has been ill and out of the public eye for a
year, analysts said.
"Clearly the [Communist] Party is more sensitive to criticism and
dissent in the society, and it may be that their pressure on the church
has increased right now," said Geoff Thale of the non-profit Washington
Office on Latin America, a liberal think tank.
Analysts point to other evidence of restraint in the church. The recent
retirements of Pinar del Rio Bishop Jose Siro Gonzalez, who oversaw
Valdes and Vitral, and Archbishop Pedro Claro Meurice in Santiago de
Cuba were seen as the loss of two socially progressive voices.
The two were "obispos guarijos, meaning that they were very Cuban and
very down to earth and close to the people," said Marifeli Perez-Stable
of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
"It's a difference between traditional spirituality and one that's more
engaged in the lives of people on this Earth," she said, putting the two
retired leaders among the latter.
The Catholic Church in Cuba was barely able to function after Castro,
who was schooled by Jesuits, repressed religion from his 1959 takeover
until 1992, analysts said. That year, a constitutional amendment
designated Cuba a secular state, ending its atheist status and allowing
Communist Party members to openly practice Catholicism and other faiths.
Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998 enhanced Cuba's religious opening,
though mass attendance today is spotty.
Over the past year, Cuba's Catholic leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, has
noted how the church has slowly advanced during the past decade,
creating hundreds of mission homes that function like parish centers and
occasionally using state-run media, though not with a systematic or
The cardinal said he wants to build new churches, re-establish Catholic
schools and have the ability to teach religion in Cuban schools. But
Cuban law forbids religion in schools.
In Pinar del Rio, Valdes invoked God to urge social change. He sought
peaceful, inclusive discussions about democracy and even held civics
workshops for 5,200 Cubans, including party hard-liners on two
occasions, since 1993. Valdes thrived due to the patronage of the
The 10,000-circulation magazine, which also is available on the
Internet, is produced on six photocopiers. Vitral, which means stained
glass in Spanish, had a modest international following, including former
Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose praise was included on a blurb for a
recent compilation of Valdes' editorials.
Valdes, a former tobacco farmer, was never arrested. He told the Tribune
in a profile in January that he never considered leaving Cuba despite
likening it to a giant corral.
"Two million [exiles] believe the fence was around the island and the
only way to jump the fence was to leave the country," he said then. "A
small number of us have freely decided to jump the fence inside the
country — something that is not easy."
Bishop counters editor's note
In April, Valdes published an editor's note saying that Vitral would
close due to a lack of resources. Days later, in his own announcement,
Serpa, the new bishop, denied the closing but stated: "I have asked that
Vitral magazine keep to the truth based on the gospel and the church's
social doctrine, without falling into aggressive and argumentative
The exchange came after other hints that church leaders want to take a
cautious approach during a period of uncertainty after Castro's transfer
of power to his brother Raul.
Cardinal Ortega acknowledged this year that the island faces a
"delicate" situation because of Castro's illness but said he was pleased
that tranquility reigned. Ortega suggested in April, before Valdes and
the new bishop exchanged words, that the church would promote the status
"At the outset, when the Cuban president fell ill, some believed that an
internal crisis would arise that would put our country in a difficult
situation," Ortega said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El
Pais. "The bishops made a vote that no outside interference or any type
of internal crisis should alter the peace and the coexistence. It's
worked out that way and it's the best thing."
One Cuban government official who insisted on anonymity said that
Valdes' separation from the magazine was an "internal decision" for the
church and that the state had no role in it. Nevertheless, the official
took exception to Valdes' work.
"Vitral was a magazine that distorted Cuba," the official said. "
Question of survival?
One priest who has contact with Pinar del Rio's new bishop said the
Valdes controversy must be viewed in a larger context.
"I know when [Serpa] went there he was afraid of the magazine because
it's been a thorn in the side of the government for a long time," said
the priest, who didn't want his name used out of concern about possible
government repercussion. "I know he supported it. Everybody does. It's a
wonderful magazine. But he realized that as long as the magazine is in
the diocese, it's going to be hell.
"Look, you've got to put yourself in their shoes. [Church leaders] need