Passersby walk the streets in masks in Cuba © Ramon Espinosa Cuba is rumbling. Not only low wages, lack of medicine and food burden the people. Meanwhile, church officials visit hunger-striking dissidents. This is also a signal.
In its letter to the Cuban government, the "Cuban Conference of Religious Men and Women" (Concur) openly criticizes conditions in the country. "The people can't take it anymore," the signatories write, enumerating: Low wages, lack of medicines and food, and lack of freedom of expression burden Cubans.
For many, Concur is seen as a covert mouthpiece of the Catholic Church, so as not to have to expose itself as the Cuban Bishops' Conference. The portal "ABC" wrote therefore a few days ago: "The Church in Cuba demands reforms."
The government blames the U.S. embargo, which has lasted for decades, for the supply shortages. Opposition circles report far too high prices for far too little food. Recently, however, Cuba initiated another "Anpang" of the system with free-market reforms to expand the private sector. In the all-important tourism sector, on the other hand, there is no shortage of foreign guests.
Activists and artists caught in crossfire
The situation in Cuba is tense. Recently, security forces have cracked down on activists and artists who openly criticize the one-party system. The most prominent of them, homosexual Afro-Cuban action artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, has been on hunger strike for days, refusing to take in food and water. According to his own statements, he is protesting against the theft of his artwork and massive repression by the police.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch drew attention to the fate of Otero Alcantara. Meanwhile, the artist was apparently transferred to a hospital against his will. His death the government apparently wants to avoid at all costs.
Last week, Otero Alcantara received a visit from a church representative. The Archdiocese of Havana sent its chancellor, Ramon Suarez Polcari, to check on the artist's condition before security forces picked him up. Unlike activists or journalists critical of the government, the churchman was allowed access to the hunger striker.
Church as mediator
For the Cuban government, the church has always also been a mediator, making possible an exchange with the dissidents, without there having to be direct talks that could be understood as recognition.
Cuba's ruling communist party makes a point of defining for itself who can and cannot be part of civil society. Otero Alcantara and other journalists, artists, intellectuals and musicians organized in the rebellious artists' movement "San Isidro" do not belong to this group, according to the official interpretation.
It is the second time in a short time that the church has made contact with government opponents. Havana Archbishop Dionisio Garcia recently visited dissidents of the officially banned opposition party Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), who are also on hunger strike.
Its spokesman, Jose Daniel Ferrer, thanked the archbishop for his visit on Twitter. Garcia had inquired about the health of hunger strikers at the UNPACU headquarters, which also serves as a soup kitchen. Earlier, police cordons around the building had been reduced, Ferrer said. With the hunger strike, opposition politicians are demanding the allowance of political parties, access to state media, and freedom of expression in Cuba.