Updated: June 28, 2021 08:33 AM GMT
French priest Regis Maurel rides his motorcycle to visit residents in the village of Placetas, Santa Clara Province, Cuba, on April 24, 2021. For decades, despite the strained relationship between the Catholic Church and the revolution led by late Fidel Castro, the help of priests was tolerated in Cuba and today it is more than welcome. (Photo: AFP/Adalberto Roque)
In Cuba, where communism and religion live uneasily side by side, there is a city where it is no longer strange to see a priest walk down the street in a white cassock followed by enthusiastic greetings of "Good day, Father!"A small order of Catholic clergy have become a beloved and indispensable part of the community in Placetas, offering survival essentials to its economically devastated population of about 40,000 souls.The priests have become, in part, a surrogate for the government, which in Cuba has political control over just about every aspect of life -- though in practice it cannot always deliver where it is needed most.
Every Wednesday, a van comes with fresh supplies for the Placetas pharmacy. The night before, some people sleep outside to make sure they can get what they need.
In smaller towns nearby, people tell of having to wait four days in a queue for medicine.
In such difficult times, the Church "could not and did not want to remain on the sidelines," said Arturo Gonzalez Amador, bishop of Santa Clara -- the capital of Villa Clara province, where Placetas is located.
He too, was quick to stress that the Church was "not creating a parallel structure" to the state, saying: "We are providing support."
From Placetas, where Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel was born, the priests crisscross the countryside all week by bike, motorcycle or horse-drawn carriage, bringing spiritual and material comfort to a community scattered over some 40 villages mostly composed of simple huts.
In the small village of Baez, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Placetas, about three dozen people come every week to the soup kitchen in a wooden house that also serves as a daycare center.
"I have a waiting list of eight people in need," said 64-year-old Maricel Garcia, who runs the establishment -- one of many beneficiaries of the Caritas charitable foundation based in Placetas.
In recent months, volunteers have noted growing "fatigue and anguish among residents in the face of so much uncertainty related to the ongoing pandemic and worsening crisis," said Maritza Sanchez, director of Caritas Cuba.
In 2020, the foundation helped some 40,000 people -- about 7,000 more than in 2014.
"At first, there was a lot of mistrust" from the authorities, "maybe even a bit of fear," said Pichon of the Church's growing presence.
After the revolution, the new communist state in 1961 seized the assets of the Catholic Church, including schools and clinics.More than 130 priests were expelled.The country was atheist until 1992, when it amended its laws to become officially secular. However, a government office of religious affairs still regulates anything to do with worship.Today, the country of 11.2 million has only 300 Catholic priests -- half of them foreign.According to Church estimates, 60 percent of Cubans are baptized -- but only two percent attend Mass.Practicing Catholics are still prohibited from working for certain government ministries in a country where the state is the main employer.
Cuba 'needs change'Relations between the Catholic Church and Havana eased somewhat after a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998.The Church played a decisive role as mediator in Havana's liberation of dissidents in 2010, and then in secret talks leading up to the historic rapprochement with Barack Obama's United States in 2014.Pope Francis visited in 2015, and then-leader Raul Castro described a "constructive climate."In another sign of changing times, state television last year, for the first time, broadcast Mass several Sundays in a row.And the Vatican has used this newfound tolerance to its advantage.In 2018, when the first draft of a new Cuban constitution sought to open the route to gay marriage, it lashed out at a symptom of "ideological colonialism". The proposal was erased.Leaders of the Church have also become increasingly bold in denouncing the living conditions of the Cuban people, in a country where criticism can easily land one in trouble."This country needs a change," priest Alberto Reyes of Camaguey recently wrote on Facebook.
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