Pope Francis Means Business in Cuba

By Betty Clermont
Open Tabernacle: Here Comes Everybody
August 7, 2015

“For the umpteenth time, Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega shows his corruption and iniquity. And for the corresponding umpteenth time, the Vatican and the Pope (current and past) will do absolutely nothing about it,” noted Alberto de la Cruz who tweets and blogs “Reports from Cuba.”

Pope Francis will be visiting the Pearl of the Antilles – as Cuba is known for her natural beauty – September 19-22. Pope Benedict XVI went in 2012 and Pope John Paul II in 1998.

De la Cruz was referring to an incident this past 4th of July at a celebration hosted by the head of the US Interests Section in Havana. Officials from the U.S. and accredited diplomats were in attendance. When two members of the opposition to Castro approached Ortega to deliver a list of 51 political prisoners compiled by the Forum for Rights and Liberties, the cardinal claimed that there were no political prisoners on the island and that “the information all of you [the opposition] receive comes from ‘worm-infested’ Miami.”

“There exists a sector in the national Church that has not only turned its back on dissidents, but just like the government, it also attacks them,” said Victor Manuel Dominguez, a poet and independent journalist. “What can you expect from … the religious institution that supposedly should give shelter to all believers but repudiates dissidents,” another guest told a reporter.

During his 2012 visit, Pope Benedict XVI not only refused to meet with dissidents, but their treatment actually worsened during his time on the island. In a speech shortly after Benedict’s trip. Ortega referred to Cuban human rights activists as “low class delinquents.”

Ortega was declared “a de facto partner of Raul Castro” in a Washington Post editorial.

Two editors of a Catholic magazine promoting “debate on political issues” stated in their 2014 resignation letter that “they left not because of government pressure but due to pressure from people inside the Church hierarchy who did not want the Church to get involved in politics.”

A Vatican expert on Cuba told US diplomats in 2007 that Ortega had pushed to close another “highly regarded Roman Catholic magazine that often criticized the communist system, according to a State Department cable made available by WikiLeaks … Cuba’s government ‘must be happy because the Church did its dirty work for it,’ the expert noted.”

So far, Pope Francis’ appointments have shown continuity with his predecessor in Cuban affairs. Ortega considers Castro’s leadership as “highly suitable at this time to achieve desired changes.” and the “vision” of Yosvany Carvajal, appointed by Pope Francis in July 2015 as the first director of the newly created Institute for ecclesiastical studies in Havana, “coincides” with Ortega’s. “He sees the future unfold in the direction of change, that will also manifest itself on a political level … ‘I think Raul Castro… has the authority to make the necessary changes that will lead us down a new path,’” said Carvajal.

Pope Benedict’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was in Cuba Dec. 4-12, “the week prior to the Dec. 18 announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US … Bertone met with Caridad Diego Bello, head of the Office for Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist party, on Dec. 5. He also met for a working meal with Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuba’s foreign minister.”

In March, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, consecrated as bishop by Bertone, as nuncio (ambassador) to Cuba “as a sign of the attention the Holy See has historically given to Cuba.” (The Vatican maintained diplomatic relations after the 1959 revolution.) “Papal representatives to Cuba have always been high-caliber … Since 2010, Lingua had been present on another complex chessboard as nuncio to Iraq and Jordan.” He also served in the US and the Office of Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, mainly overseeing Latin American and Caribbean countries.

“Pushing 79, I believe that [Ortega’s] final task will be to guarantee the media success of the third Pope to visit Cuba in 20 years. To remain silent before irrefutable facts is unheard-of. The facts are: 1. Though the current government ended up releasing most of the country’s political prisoners, there are still such prisoners and new prisoners of conscience are being added to the list. 2. The repression of active dissidents (in broad daylight) has not ceased. It is actually being stepped up as greater challenges are posed to the authorities,” wrote journalist Fernando Ravsberg.

The Vatican held a seminar on communications in Havana in 2014. Thirty-five bishops from Central America and the Caribbean learned “how to communicate, what to communicate” and “the tools for improving their communication strategies in their dioceses.”

The quid pro quo

Those familiar with the history of the Vatican know that, with few exceptions, their alliances with monarchs, emperors, fascists, dictators, oligarchs and plutocrats involved a quid pro quo. The Church supported the civil government and that government provided the prelates with varying combinations of wealth, influence and a favored position in the political and social life of the nation.

The obvious benefit to the Church in Cuba is to “go from the ostracism of the 1960’s to the protagonist role it has had in recent years.” In 2011, a Church official declared “the Church’s situation in Cuba is a normal situation, completely normal, as it could be in any other Catholic country and better than in many.”

Construction for a new seminary complex in Havana began in 2010. The Knights of Columbus provided “approximately 80 percent of the $5-million budget.” Additionally, American Catholics “provided some $25,000-$30,000 to each Cuban diocese, and more than twice that to big dioceses. We provided up to $450,000 for the priorities that the local Church set out” in of 2010. In 2013 and 2014 combined, American Catholics donated over half a million dollars to Cuban bishops. Other sources of income are unknown.

“The president of the Latin American bishops’ conference called Pope Francis’ planned visit to Cuba an opportunity for the Church to play a larger role in a country experiencing reforms and re-embracing institutionalized religion. Cuba is considered one of the least Catholic countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with just 27 percent of the population professing the faith, according to a survey by Univision and Fusion. The small number of professed Catholics is a consequence of the communist government’s policy of secularism imposed after the 1959 revolution.”

“Since 2010 President Raul Castro has initiated a process of economic opening to the management of small private entrepreneurs or cooperatives, once unthinkable in a country where 80 % of employment was state.” Because the Cuban economy had been under state control for over 50 years, there was no scholastically trained and experienced business class. “‘Cuba has a ways to go in learning how to react with agility to business opportunities,’ said Pedro Freyre, who heads the international practice at the Miami-based law firm Akerman LLP, which closely follows the reforms under way on the island.”

An important quid pro quo is that the Church has been given a monopoly in forming the new business class.

Raul Castro “seems to have decided the Church is the only noncommunist entity he can trust to aid those transitions [to economic reforms] without seriously challenging his rule … Catholic dioceses are training “civic leaders and entrepreneurs,” TIME reported in 2011.

“The Havana Archdiocese … is running three-month workshops and a two-year degree program taught by clergy members on the basics of private business, including sourcing of materials, accounting and tax regulations,” noted the New York Times in 2013.

By May 2014, “Cuban entrepreneurs are learning the ins and outs of running a private business thanks to the two-year-old Cuba Emprende program.” In addition to Havana, the program “has since expanded to the Diocese of Camaguey. Since its start in May 2012, more than 700 people have completed the training.” Two of the projects “are managed by the Society of Jesus and by the Brothers of Christian Schools, while another course of a month is managed and directed by the Archdiocese of Havana.”

Not usually known for their business schools in the US, Jesuit Creighton University in Omaha recently accepted a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, part of the Koch brothers’ network which bankrolls right-wing politics, to form a new Institute for Economic Inquiry as part of their business school.

In Cuba, the Emprende program provides “training, counseling and linkage.” Latin American students studying at the top three business universities in Spain appreciate “their Latin American alumni networks.”

One of the top three is the Jesuit ESADE which started a study program called Doing Business in Latin America in 2013. Nineteen percent of that year’s graduating class is from Latin America. Another of the top three is Opus Dei’s IESE where 15 percent of its students are from Latin America. “With business in much of Latin America booming, there are a lot more opportunities in Latin America,” noted Javier Munoz who runs MBA career services at IESE.

No doubt the Church would like their Cuban students to further their education in Spain when possible or the other Opus Dei graduate business schools in Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Chile or Opus Dei’s Centro ELIS technical and management schools in Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay and Brazil.

“Latin America is recognized as a leader on the current international scene. In fact, it is hardly spoken of as a region marked by underdevelopment and backwardness, or even as a developing area, but rather as a group of emerging countries … Aren’t Latin American countries going through economic processes involving exportation to various markets on the one hand, and attracting foreign capital on the other?,” asked Cardinal Marc Ouellet, appointed president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America by Pope Francis in 2014.

The Church supports increasing US trade

The US embargo against Cuba is commercial, economic, and financial. It was first imposed in 1960 after the newly-communist Cuba nationalized American-owned oil refineries without compensation. It was extended by six acts of Congress. The UN General Assembly has, since 1992, passed a resolution every year condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo. Human rights groups have also been critical of the embargo.

In 1998, the Clinton administration initiated steps to increase humanitarian aid to the Cuban people – shipments of food and medical supplies, allowing Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives and charter flights for humanitarian purposes. In 2009, President Obama “helped reunite divided Cuban families, improved communication between the countries and helped humanitarian aid to the island.” In 2011, he took action “allowing many Americans to travel there for the first time and increasing the amounts that they can invest in the island.”

In addition to supporting humanitarian aid, Catholic officials – including Pope John Paul II who “remarked on these issues in the audience he granted to then-U.S. president George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2008” – have called for removing the embargo and increasing trade between the two countries.

After the loss of USSR subsidies, a series of horrific hurricanes and other factors, the economic situation of the Cuban people was dire. “The government should promote exports and small- and mid-size businesses, provide a safe environment for foreign investment, institute business reforms, and a single currency,” wrote economist-priest Boris Moreno in a 2010 publication of the Havana Archdiocese.

Raul Castro wanted the US Congress to loosen trade embargo restrictions by passing HR 4645, a bill proposed in 2010 which would remove obstacles to legal sales of US agricultural commodities to Cuba and end travel restrictions. The legislation was backed by big agri-business.

Castro thought that by releasing some political prisoners, Congress would be more amenable to passing HR 4645. Even though the critical negotiations had been done by others, Castro gave credit to Cardinal Ortega for brokering the release of the prisoners because he thought a Prince of the Church would be more effective lobbying on behalf of the Cuban government. “I think the Castro government is happy to elevate the stature of the Church, knowing that the Vatican may be able to help mediate with Washington and Miami,” noted a Havana-based reporter.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote a letter dated March 8, 2010, to members of the House Agriculture Committee expressing support for HR 4645. Then the USCCB “coordinated a series of meetings” for Ortega with various US officials. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ortega met with Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee.

Ortega returned to Washington DC in August 2010 to pick up a personal check for $100,000 from the Knights of Columbus. “In his acceptance speech, he astounded Cuba watchers by referring to jailed democracy activists as ‘convicts,’ who were – in words that were clearly soothing to ears in the Castro regime – considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International … The prelate even spent more than an hour in a secret meeting with Newt Gingrich, presumably to press for support and discuss the former speaker of the House’s upcoming bid for the White House.”

Ortega told Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl that “he has been meeting with officials in the Obama administration and Congress. He suggests that a big part of Raul Castro’s agenda is improving relations with the United States so that Cuba’s economy can be revived by US trade and investment …

Does that include the democratic reforms the Obama administration has demanded as a condition for improved relations?

‘Everything should be step by step,’ Ortega said. ‘It’s not realistic to begin at the end. This is a process. The most important thing is to take steps in the process.’”

Pope Benedict criticized the US embargo on the last day of his March 2012 visit to Cuba following a trip to Mexico. Two weeks later, Mexican President Felipe Calderon met with President Castro “to expand bilateral trade and investment with Cuba.”

Calderon also met privately with Ortega.

Following Benedict’s visit, chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, Bishop Richard E. Pates, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton repeating the pope’s request for the “complete abolition of the embargo,” plus establishing “full diplomatic relations” and “engaging a trading partner that will benefit American commerce.”

The Cuban Bishops’ Conference sent a letter to the Cuban government Sept. 15, 2013. “The letter praises recent economic reforms undertaken by Raul Castro [which] has allowed small private businesses, greater freedom for foreign travel and the sale of homes and cars, and decentralized state businesses … ‘It is necessary to consider the relations of Cuba with the US, which during long decades, in different, constant and steady ways, has affected the life of our people.’ they stated.” Pates followed up with a letter dated Sept. 26 to National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice from the USCCB calling for a policy that “withdraws all restrictions on travel to Cuba” and “encourages trade that will benefit both nations.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu, current chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a letter to Congress in June 2015 “urging Congress to lift the travel and trade embargoes to Cuba.”

In July 2015, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, appointed by Pope Francis as the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, gave an interview about economic and political issues in Latin America, “particularly in relation to the consequences of the thaw in Cuban-US relations.”

Although the critical negotiations were done by others, Presidents Castro and Obama were wily enough to blunt their critics by giving the pope credit for negotiating the restoration of diplomatic relations between their two countries.

While people of good will are applauding the resolution of differences by the two countries, Pope Francis – who has packed the Vatican with vulture capitalists and appointed and promoted supporters of multi-national plutocrats (there are no effective opponents in the Vatican curia or episcopate) – can celebrate the opening for development and commerce by American business.








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