According to an official Cuban Roman Catholic Church communiqué published in the Cuban regime’s daily Granma, Ortega asked the police to evict 13 dissidents on March 14 after they had occupied the Our Lady of Charity church in Havana.
Following their forced eviction by anti-riot police clad in black uniforms, the dissidents, including an 82-year-old man, said they were beaten and taken to a police station, where they were interrogated for five hours before being conditionally released.
They had wanted to submit a petition to the pope, and to voice their demands for democracy and human rights, they said.
How usual is it for a cardinal to ask police to evict peaceful protesters from a Church, I asked some of the biggest international human rights groups and best-known international law experts.
Recalling my days as a foreign correspondent during the rightist dictatorships of South and Central America, and judging from what I read from what happened in Poland and other communist dictatorships in Europe, I couldn’t recall any incident like this one. I’m not alone on this.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, referring to the dissidents’ eviction. “This is the result of a Church hierarchy that is obviously subordinated to the Cuban government.”
Vivanco recalled that in 1977 and 1978, during Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime, hundreds of relatives of missing people regularly sought refuge in churches to draw international attention to their demands.
Many spent long periods of time there, without ever being forced out.
“It wouldn’t have crossed any Chilean bishop’s mind to call the police,” Vivanco said. “Chilean Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez used to say that the Church was there to give a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. The Church never allowed the state security services to get even close to churches.”
Javier Zuniga, a Latin American expert at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London, told me that Cardinal Ortega’s request to the Cuban police was “very unusual.”
“The Roman Catholic Church has played a very important role in the defense of people who suffered under dictatorships in Chile, in El Salvador, and in several other countries,” Zuniga said. “In those cases, the Church defended them, and gave refuge to relatives of political prisoners and missing people who couldn’t express themselves in any other way. That was respected.”
Claudio Grossman, dean of American University’s School of Law and former head of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, told me that “the use of religious sites for asylum is an ancient practice, and may be considered customary law.
From that perspective, this incident is shocking. It goes against the traditional role played by the Church.”
Cuba’s human rights advocacy groups are equally appalled. Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz heads Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, the island’s best-known human rights group.
He told The Associated Press shortly after the raid that “I can’t get over my astonishment” about Ortega’s decision.
What has been the Cuban Church’s response? A statement by the archbishop’s office March 14 said that “the Church listens and welcomes everybody,” but “nobody has the right to turn temples into political barricades.
Nobody has the right to spoil the celebratory spirit of Cuban Church-goers, and of many other citizens, who await with joy and hope the visit of his Holy Father Benedict XVI.”
My opinion: The Cuban Church hierarchy has made a big mistake. It’s one thing not to openly antagonize the regime in order to gradually open up spaces for the Church in a closed society, and something very different to call in anti-riot police to evict peaceful dissidents. Cardinal Ortega could have stayed aside, and told the police, “It’s your call.”
Barring a surprise during Pope Benedict’s visit — and unlike what happened in Chile, El Salvador, and Poland — the Cuban Church hierarchy will go down in history as siding with the oppressors, rather than with the oppressed.