The Last Revolutionary Offensive of Fidel Castro

Nelson P Valdés
Reforma (Mexico)

January 27, 1998

A CubaNews translation, April 2005
by Ana Portela and Nelson Valdes

version en e

This piece was written just as the Pope visited the island. The most important feature of the article was the historical context that led to the visit. Granted, there were projections made in the article as well. But there were three parties to the dance, but the United States was not a willing partner. The most significant outcome of the visit, in retrospect: relations between the Vatican and the Cuban government improved, the Church and the state worked out areas of agreement and disagreement, the Catholic Church gained and consolidated numerous and new spaces for its work. Since 1998 there have been no confrontations between the Church and the state.     ---

Nelson Valdes
April 5, 2005


Fidel Castro, historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, has a political thought and vision that its primarily strategic in nature. The visit of the Pope to Cuba should be understood in this context. Otherwise it would impossible to explain the fundamental reason for the invitation and the moment, in time, that it occurs.

The Cuban revolutionary process confronts three major issues: The first problem is how to improve the economy of the country and integrate it in an acceptable fashion into the world capitalist system. Since 1991 the measures adopted by the Cuban government seek that model. Although everything has not been done in this arena, several results can be seen but there is much to be taken up..

The second problem of the Cuban government is how to recover its political legitimacy - lost dramatically, particularly after the disappearance of the Soviet bloc. This in itself becomes an even more complex and profound problem considering the health of Fidel Castro. Added to the difficulties posed by the legitimacy question should be added the need to seriously consider the transfer of revolutionary power to others: be it Raúl Castro or someone else.

The third major problem is the relationship of the United States toward Cuban, or how to end or reduce United States pressure on the Havana government. It is evident that a crisis of the transfer of revolutionary power, if it were to happen in the immediate future, imposes upon the successor of Fidel Castro serious problems at the same time. If legitimacy is not regained and US pressure does not end or diminished then the successor would have to govern with a stern hand and probably under the command of the Armed Forces.

Fidel Castro is seeking a way out of these problems. The visit by the Pope could very well suggest the strategic thinking of the commander-in-chief. The religious opening is the method that the revolutionary leadership has chosen to increase its internal and external legitimacy since the Catholic Church stresses that any transition must be peaceful even while asking for greater individual and civil liberties. A religious opening could well have an impact on Washington's policy towards Havana. The visit by the Pope takes place as part of a strategic and pragmatic Cuban initiative; possibly the most original and daring vision in 37 years of revolutionary experience.

Already a religious opening can be observed in the Island.

This process began with the Congress of the Communist Party in 1991 when religious believers were allowed to enter the ranks of the party. But, at that time, it did not seem that there was yet a clear strategy as to what the role of the Cuban Catholic Church would be as a stabilizing and legitimating factor. The intention was to increase the social support of the Cuban government. The Catholic Church, for its part, did not foster the entrance of the faithful into the ranks of the Communist Party.

The party initiative occurred at the precise moment (1991) when the papal encyclical, Centesimus Annus, had declared that capitalism was not the absolute answer to the problems facing humanity. The anti-Communist Pope, as far as analysts in Havana were concerned, had adopted a critical perspective of capitalist neo-liberalism. The stress on social justice, its opposition to the embargo and the denunciation of the foreign debt were elements that called the attention of people in Havana. The Pope was speaking a language that was very much like, or coincided with that of Fidel Castro. But the Vatican and the church in the Island did not seem to be speaking yet in the same terms.

Then began what became known in Cuba as the religious "opening up" and religious people from all walks of life of Cuban society began to appear - those who proclaimed it publicly and began to practice their beliefs. By December of 1991, in a letter Cuban Catholic bishops informed the priests that in the world and in Cuba there was a move away from confrontation and towards dialogue, from confrontation to collaboration. They added that it still wasn't clear how it would be be expressed within the country.

The constitutional reform of 1992 represented a state initiative that although it did not explicitly open up new spaces for the Church, it redefined the functions of the Cuban state. No longer would the state espouse atheism instead the state now defined itself as secular. It was not an opening, nor were new spaces offered; but, at least, the state was laying down new foundations for developing its relations with the church. Nonetheless, in practice, there were many openings made to religious freedom.

The State-Church relation ostensibly improved during October 1992 when the Conference of Bishops declared "its rejection of all that could increase the great economic difficulties presently suffered by the Cuban people", an obvious reference to the Torricelli Law recently adopted by the US Congress.

Even with the move away from atheism and the possibility of believers entering the ranks of the Communist Party, this was not enough for the Church. It began to demand an end to all forms of discrimination for religious reasons, still in force in daily life. The religious hierarchy called for the constitutional reform of articles 2, 18 and 54, in order to have access to the state educational system, so as to have its own schools and to put an end to the materialist concept of the world in education. Still, at that time, there wasn't a clear position by both sides, what would be the collaboration that could develop or their long-term goals.

By 1993, State-Church relations began to improve, although the escalating rafters' crisis caused the Catholic hierarchy to keep its distance from the revolutionary regime and the opposition. On September 8, the Bishops released a document "Love Expects All" which was a call to all Cubans and "to those who flaunted greater powers."

The bishops declared support for a dialogue, claiming that Cuba's crisis was due to a division among Cubans. At the same time the document added that considering the serious circumstances faced, there were no real economic, political or social changes and that "the achievements obtained could be lost after years of sacrifice". The church self-defined as having a mediator role but at the same time prescribed what had to be done. The reaction from the government, informally, was immediate - numerous statements appeared in the press against the document. But the public tension between the State and the Church was not long-lasting. In the following two years, the church stressed its missionary, evangelical and assistance work as well as its institutional growth.

By the end of 1995, the Vatican and the Cuban state began a series of intense contacts and collaborations. Such developments, in turn, opened up new spaces for the Catholic Church. It seems that it was then that the revolutionary leadership designed the strategy of incorporating the Catholic Church into a highly complex process that would allow it to play a role as mediator between Cubans at home and the exiles. This would have important consequences since it would mean that an institution outside the State or the Communist Party would favor conciliation, and a peaceful transition and the integration of Catholics on a national project; provided that they accepted. The incorporation of Catholics could eventually bringing social and moral pressure within and outside of Cuba to change the policies towards Cuba of the Cuban exile community and the U.S. government.

The importance of the visit of the Pope goes much farther than gaining positions and spaces for the Catholic Church or increasing the religious liberties of Cubans. Although both have been happening and will continue. We cannot limit ourselves to searching if the Pope called for civil and political rights or if he declared as unjust the US policy towards the Island.

The visit of the Pope is a spectacular moment congruent with the revolutionary strategy - whose aim to find an eventual political transition in the island without having to confront the powerful US opposition or the lack of legitimacy of the revolutionary project. To prevent a civil war is the great risk that Fidel Castro has decided to take. But to avoid that danger, it is necessary that the government of Washington, the Cubans in Miami and the island, the Catholic Church and the Vatican understand the real reason behind the religious opening. In other words, it is necessary for everyone to understand this last revolutionary offensive by Fidel Castro.


Edited by Walter Lippmann