Upon the death of the pope, the College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church gathers in secret conclave to select a new pope. The maximum number of Cardinal Electors allowed is 120. During the process, these Princes of the Church are sequestered and are not allowed any contact with the outside world: no television, newspapers, mobile phones, etc. If workers in Vatican City run into a cardinal, they are forbidden from speaking to him. The cardinals must take an oath that they will follow the rules and keep absolute secrecy about their deliberations.
After each vote, the ballots and all notes are burned, and smoke from the burning of the ballots appears over the Vatican Palace. Black smoke signifies no agreement; white smoke signals that a new pope has been elected. Shortly afterwards, the Proto-Deacon of the College of Cardinals steps into the main balcony of the Vatican and declares to the World: “Habemus Papam!” “We have a Pope!”
Recent statements in Cuba’s Catholic media reflect this elitist church tradition of exclusion and secrecy. Espacio Laical, a publication run by the Lay Council of the Havana Archdiocese; Palabra Nueva (New Word), the archdiocese’s own magazine; and a letter signed by bishops and vicars of Havana’s Bishops Council, all use confrontational and exclusionary language to condemn those criticizing the tactics of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The publications characterize critics of the cardinal’s Chamberlainian approach as factions full of hatred and prejudices with very little political intelligence. The argument is subtly made that Ortega alone has divined the right methodology for orderly and peaceful changes in collaboration with the Cuban government’s gerontocracy. In a modern day auto-da-fé, the archdiocese’s editorials declared that those who disagree with the cardinal exclude themselves from Cuba’s future.
It is perhaps understandable that Cardinal Ortega and his Episcopal Council feel more comfortable interacting behind closed doors with their counterparts in the Cuban government than with the church’s parishioners. During Cuba’s struggle for independence, the church similarly sided with the brutal Spanish crown and not with the freedom seekers. The church has a controversial but successful 2,000-year history with its elitist, top-down, nondemocratic governing structure.
However, the expressed disdain for inclusive, bottom-up, democratic participation by citizens in Cuba’s future is indefensible.
When politico-economic decisions are made without transparency by an elitist cabal of mandarins, citizen participation is nonexistent. Opposing this discriminatory, pretentious approach is not, as church officials claim, “an immature lack of political intelligence.” It is, in fact, a mature expression of political acumen and a rejection of the penchant for messianic, caudillistic leadership that has been so prevalent and so damaging in Cuban history.
It may make church leaders uncomfortable, but the legitimate and constructive expression of discontent is a necessary condition for a free, prosperous society. The church seems to ignore that governmental policy, unlike religious doctrine, must be supported by a citizenry that has confidence in the legitimacy of a system of independent institutions. All unchecked power exercised over a long time degenerates into a caste system.
Mirroring the Catholic Church’s traditions of leadership succession, Cardinal Ortega and his Ecumenical Council have decreed that the path for Cuba should be one of top-down “encounter, dialogue and consensus.” But that formula excludes participation by the citizenry and demonizes anyone who dares to object to the restricted government-church conclave.
There is, of course, another path. The church could and should support an inclusive call for bottom-up citizenry participation through free, multiparty, democratic elections under international supervision. But this, I suppose, is what would classify as scanty political intelligence outside the cardinal’s methodology.
This inclusive alternative was pointed out in a recent article by Cuban democratic activist Marta Menor. She reminds His Eminence that, as he is a prince of the church, all Cuban citizens are princes of the nation and thus entitled to select their leaders freely.
Cubans do not aspire to see black or white smoke coming out of the Castros’ command post and a military general declaring “Habemus Dictator!” They aspire to all the vicissitudes of exercising their rights and duties as citizens of a free nation. Amen.
José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, and the author of the book, Mañana in Cuba.