Catholic media in Cuba multiply, but change is slow

An interview with Gustavo Andújar, Cuban Catholic communicator

October 26, 2010

HAVANA

In the context of ongoing conciliation between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church, the communications media of the latter are growing quickly on this Caribbean island where the press remains under strict state control.

All told, there are dozens of small publications — some with regular editions, others sporadic — coming from parishes and different groups. Forty-six bulletins and magazines, 12 websites and seven e-mail newsletters currently reach more than a quarter million people, directly or indirectly, according to estimates by Catholic Church sources.

“In this context, Havana is notable for its two magazines with highest circulation: Palabra Nueva (New Word), the official magazine of the Havana archdiocese, and Espacio Laical (Secular Space), of the Lay Council," said Gustavo Andújar, vice-president of Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication.

Andújar spoke with IPS about the role of the religious media in Cuba.

Q: The progress that the Catholic media have made in the communications media -- is it a result of improved relations between the Catholic Church and the government, or is it just pushing ahead, breaking a new path?

In my understanding, it has gone ahead on its own. The magazines began to multiply in the hardest years of the Special Period, in the 1990s. [The economic crisis that began in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba's main source of aid and leading trade partner.] I think it was also a reaction of the Catholic Church to the disconcerting and desperate situation the population was experiencing.

The publications brought a word of hope, of support, because the Church that had been so absent from the public spaces had plenty to say. And not necessarily a word of protest, opposition or alternative views, but rather a different word that was at the same time one of consensus and coming together.

Q: What role has the Catholic layperson played in the growth of this space for communications?

In fact it has been a fundamentally secular effort. With strong support from the hierarchy, priests, bishops, but the ones who have carried it forward are laypeople -- many without professional training in communications. That gap is being filled by classes and seminars. Furthermore, most are volunteers.

Q: What are the biggest challenges laypeople like yourself face in this field?

The first challenge is professionalism, to do things increasingly better. But the biggest is to maintain this genuine dialogue that can only be achieved from the religious identity itself, expressed clearly and calmly. There has been growing understanding that our publications do not represent a problem, that they are not competition for or threatening anyone.

But we have a limited reach, and we would like to extend to the whole world, for the Cuban media to disseminate in a normal way the religious events that are news. Events of the Church that are widely broadcast internationally are usually ignored by the press in our country.

Q: What is it that makes the experience of the Cuban Catholic laypersons different in this sphere?

The Church in Cuba was very small for a long time, with very few resources and very limited possibilities. Those difficult years created a path of very intense commitment to the Church. In the 1960s, our country was left with just 200 priests and 300 nuns for seven or eight million inhabitants.

In that reality, the laypeople have served a very important function, accepted to a great degree by the Church hierarchy. That has left a mark on us in comparison to other Latin American churches. Ours is very participative, very united. In addition, we have learned to expand the spaces over objective obstacles.

Q: Do many of those obstacles still exist?

Often there are more self-imposed obstacles than those that really exist, and part of our responsibility is to push back that wall a little. But we also have to keep in mind that 40 years of structural atheism are not erased with one stroke of the pen. Changing some articles in the Constitution does not change the mentality of hundreds of officials who were trained and developed all their work with the idea that the Church was something alien and dangerous, something related with the enemy. [The 1992 constitutional reform established, among other things, that Cuba is a secular state.]

It would be ingenuous to think that, just because the highest levels of government have expressed an effort and willingness to dialogue, things will automatically change. There are many mid-level officials who impose a thousand problems, they are afraid to talk to anyone who represents the Church.

But my experience in the field of culture, with which I have had ties all these years through my responsibilities at the Archbishopric, is often one of opening doors and collaboration. Dialogue is possible -- still difficult in some sectors, but the barriers are beginning to crumble under their own weight.

Q: Are you as optimistic about the dialogue begun in May 2010 by President Raúl Castro and the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega?

Good things always come out of dialogues of this nature. In this case there has already been a humanitarian outcome, which was the release of prisoners. Openness and exchange have to do with a climate in which there is no room for suspicion, fear or doubt. As we get to know each other better, the prejudices fall away.

Q: Nevertheless, some critical stances on certain issues that appear in Catholic publications tend to be confused with expressions of political opposition.

The Church is not a political alternative or an opposition party. Its very nature prevents it from entering the partisan fray. The Church is the mother of all, and has no political color or program. But it does have a gaze, a critical view about reality from the ethical perspective, which is an inalienable part of its mission.

It defends the person and criticizes anything that restricts a person's full dignity. It does so with due prudence, which does not mean inhibiting itself from doing what should be done at a given moment. When the Church criticizes something, it does not do so in a tendentious way from the political point of view. 

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