Cuba 12/03/2012

The country prepares for the Pope, the Culture Minister steps down, and Santos visits with news of Cuba’s Summit of the Americas fate.

Preparations for the papal visit underway

With three weeks to go before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of the Charity of Cobre, Cuba continues to prepare for the papal agenda.

In Havana, construction is nearly finished for the altar in the city’s Plaza de la Revolución, from which the pope will conduct an open air mass. Meanwhile, in Santiago de Cuba, the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patroness, has been restored for the pope’s visit, including structural improvements and updating of the building’s electrical and sound systems.

Not all groups with be graced with the Pope’s presence, however. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict XVI will refuse to meet with leaders representing Santería, a syncretic local religion mixing Catholic and West African beliefs. Santería is thought to be the majority religion in Cuba, with 80 percent of Cubans observing some kind of Afro-Cuban tradition. Strict Catholics are thought to number no more than 10 percent of the population.

Though the Cuban Catholic Church is tolerant of Santería as a ‘form’ of Catholicism, Vatican representatives rejected outright any suggestion of a meeting with santero priests, known as babalaos. The official Vatican view of Santería is that it is a corruption of Catholicism, which has attracted accusations of racism from some scholars.

The Vatican also turned down requests by dissident groups for a papal meeting.

Last week, 750 Cuban activists signed a letter to the pope asking him to reconsider his visit, saying the visit will lead to more repression on the island.

‘We would be very happy to receive you in our country, if the message of faith, love and hope that you could bring us also would serve to halt the repression against those who want to go to church,’ the message said.

A letter from opposition figure Guillermo Fariñas on 5 March voiced concerns that the papal visit will legitimize the government. ‘You represent a high moral authority in this world. If you cannot do your part for the oppressed, please postpone your trip to our country,’ Fariñas wrote.

Culture Minister Abel Prieto replaced

Cuban officials announced the replacement of Culture Minister Abel Prieto on 6 March, a role he had held since 1997. Prieto will now form part of the Council of State.

Prieto is an author and short-story writer and is well respected among Cuba’s intellectuals. He has been a strong defender of the socialist system, and has historically walked a line between encouraging artists to tone down their critiques, while asking the government to be more lenient with censorship.

Officially Prieto said he would step down to return to his writing career, though rumours have swirled as to his health. Deputy Culture Minister Rafael Bernal Alemany was named as his successor.

Bernal is considered more of a Communist Party hardliner than Prieto, with CubaEncuentro qualifying him as ‘more of a bureaucrat than an intellectual’.

Cuba will not attend the Summit of the Americas 

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to meet with President Raúl Castro to discuss Cuba’s attendance at the Summit of the Americas. Santos also met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who is in Cuba recovering from surgery he underwent there last week. This was the first visit to Cuba by a Colombian president in more than a decade.

As Pulsamérica previously reported, Bolivarian Alliance members threatened a boycott of next month’s Summit of the Americas if Cuba were not permitted to attend. Two weeks ago, the Organization of American States said the fate of Cuba’s invitation will rest with the host country, Colombia.

The United States, joined this week by Canada, said Cuba did not meet the threshold for participation at the Summit of the Americas as it is not a democracy. A number of Latin American countries qualified Cuba’s exclusion as ‘impermissible‘.

After meeting with President Raúl Castro on 7 March, Santos announced that without a consensus among members, he could not extend an invitation to Cuba. President Raúl Castro expressed understanding regarding Colombia’s predicament. Santos said he would work for Cuba’s inclusion at the next Summit of the Americas to be held in Panama.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said he was not surprised by Colombia’s decision, calling it ‘the chronicle of an exclusion foretold‘. Cuban officials blamed the United States for their exclusion from the summit, calling their posture on Cuba’s exclusion ‘unacceptable and unjustified’.