Creating a Sacred Space: Cuban Reconciliation and the Catholic Church

Sarah Park


This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"Diaspora, like death, interrupts all conversations." - Jose Luis Arcos in "Epistle to Jose Luis Ferrer (From Havana To Miami)" in Bridges to Cuba: Puentes a Cuba

"Our lives have been marked by the rupture. It is our nation, it is our lives, after all. I am comforted by the fact that no matter how hard states try, they cannot control the nation or legislate identities; they cannot erase our history. Our identity is multiple, for power struggles have fragmented who we are. A collective understanding, recognition, an areito to heal, may still be the way to continue searching for coherence, to begin reconciling with our enemies-ourselves." - Maria De Los Angeles Torres in "Beyond The Rupture: Reconciling With Our Enemies, Reconciling With Ourselves", in Bridges to Cuba: Puentes a Cuba

Religion and Conflict

Protracted conflict is often the result of damaged relationships A traumatic event, misunderstanding, or breakdown of communication can lead to animosity and polarization. A pattern of mutual distrust, fear, hostility, and alienation develops until both sides believe they have nothing in common with one another. In order to repair the relationship, a space outside the parameters of the conflict must be created in which those affected by the conflict can come together.

The creation of a safe space for dialogue and healing is an essential component of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a peacebuilding process. The members of the community, or the "third side[1] ," play an important role in fostering reconciliation. They can serve as a bridge that unites the parties in conflict and enables them to begin to dialogue.

Religious leaders and institutions are an increasingly valuable "third side" in promoting reconciliation. Although religion has been the source of conflict and broken relationships many times in history, it has also served as a mediator, facilitator, healer, and general "third-sider" in restoring relationships, building community, and sustaining peace.

Religious actors can be effective facilitators of reconciliation for many reasons. One, religion occupies an important space in the lives of many people. Religious beliefs and practices are intrinsic to personal and cultural identity. Two, religions have legitimacy and resonance with multiple sectors of society from the top-level to the grassroots. Three, reconciliation is part of the social ethics of most religions. And four, religions have the resources and the organizational capacity to offer a space of encounter and to mobilize people at a national and even international level.

Reconciliation through the Third Side in Cuba

Cuba is a case study of a protracted conflict characterized by damaged relationships in which a religious institution, the Catholic Church, has become an effective facilitator of reconciliation. The strength of the church as mediator derives from the trust and communication it has maintained with both sides of the conflict; its historical importance and organizational capacity; and the skills, commitment, and experience of the church in reconciliation.

The Cuban conflict that will be the focus of this paper is the ruptured relationships between Cubans living on the island and those who are living in exile outside of Cuba. Cubans identify the point of rupture as 1959, the year that Fidel Castro came to power and launched the Cuban Revolution. The nature of Castro's Communist government forced thousands of Cubans to flee the island.[2] This sudden and traumatic exodus divided families and erected a wall of separation, suspicion, and silence between those who chose to leave and those who stayed. The rupture was greatly exacerbated by the policies of the Cuban and United States' governments. Fidel Castro vilified those who left as "worms" and "traitors," while the U.S. government enacted an embargo and a travel ban against Cuba and launched a covert counterinsurgency campaign.

The Cuban people were caught in the middle of this ideological battle. The most painful aspect of the conflict was the damage it caused to families. For example, 14,000 Cuban children were separated from their parents and flown to the United States after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 as part of a United States' State Department/ CIA operation code-named Peter Pan.[3] For almost twenty years, Cubans on the island and those in the diaspora had almost no contact with each other. There were almost no avenues for Cubans on either side to voice their pain and longing for reconciliation. Any expression of desire to communicate across the divide was condemned as betrayal and treason by the respective authorities in each community.

The Cuban Catholic Church was a victim of this rupture as well. Soon after coming to power, Castro nationalized all church property, closed down the Catholic schools, and expelled over 100 priests. Thousands of Catholic clergy and laity left for Spain and the United States. Cuba became an atheist state and the church was silenced. However, throughout the years of the revolution, the Catholic Church in Cuba has continued to minister to the community in a quiet way. Meanwhile, the church in the diaspora has offered refuge and support to Cubans as they adapt to a new country and culture. The church has welcomed ‚migr‚s and provided them a space to retain their cultural heritage and religious identity. Slowly, the church has accompanied both communities towards dialogue and reconciliation.

When members of the exiled community met with Fidel Castro in 1978, a formal process of reconciliation began.[4] This visit was followed by a Family Reunification Program, through which the Cuban government allowed over 100,000 Cuban exiles to return home to visit their families. Cubans on the island and in the diaspora began to reevaluate what they had in common with each other.

Since 1978, Cubans have begun to venture outside of the narrow boundaries of political rhetoric. They have overcome considerable obstacles in order to reestablish communication with estranged friends and family members. Cubans in the United States send millions of dollars back to their families in Cuba and travel home as often as they are permitted.

Polls indicate that Cuban-Americans no longer conform to the monolithic hard-line stance with which they have been identified by the U.S. government and media. Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, the biggest and until recently one of the most hard-line group of Cuban exiles, said that CANF's own internal polls show a trend toward a national reconciliation among Cubans: "Over the past few years, but especially since the Eli n Gonz lez episode, there has been a change. Growing numbers of exiles no longer look at the situation in Cuba in terms of confrontation, but in terms of reconciliation, in the sense of looking for a common destiny, and not one in which there will be winners and losers." Hernandez said the change is the result of demographics: Since the 1994 migration accords that allowed more than 20,000 Cubans to emigrate annually to the United States, about 250,000 Cubans - including rafters - have come to America. Most of them are young people, who have parents, siblings and close friends on the island, and who don't consider the people left behind as their enemies."[5]

Cubans are assuming their identity as the third side, "the emergent will of the community."[6] They are acting from a deep-seated impulse to reaffirm the "vital relationships linking each member and every other member of the community."[7] The Catholic Church has been in tune with the pulse of the Cuban community throughout the conflict and has been instrumental in empowering the third side to emerge.

The role of the Catholic Church in facilitating reconciliation took on new prominence with the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba. With this historic event, religion officially reentered the public sphere. Cubans were no longer afraid to go to church or express their religious beliefs openly. The Pope called on Cubans to take an active role in shaping their future and to work towards national reconciliation.

The Catholic Church, both in Cuba and in the United States, is helping to foster a vision of Cuban national reconciliation. The term national reconciliation, according to Holly Ackerman,[8] carries at least two meanings. The first, which she calls "literal reconciliation," is simply the meeting of alienated parts of a national community with the intention of accommodating differences. Parties that have refused to sit at the same table or to attempt to discuss their differences are reconciled to the necessity or benefit of acknowledging and speaking directly to each other with the intent of making an accommodation.[9]

The Catholic Church espouses Ackerman's second definition of national reconciliation: "process reconciliation" involves a mechanism for trying, in good faith, to sort out and verify past history and differences so that rancorous divisions can be concluded without destroying the life of the nation. A social space must emerge or be designated where this process can take place through more or less formal mechanisms and relationships."[10]

The Catholic Church has identified the contribution it can make to process reconciliation--it can offer a "sacred space" for dialogue. To this end, the Archdiocese of Miami, Florida, where the majority of the Cuban community in the United States resides, has created a forum called "In Communion." In a statement about the formation of this forum, the Archbishop of Miami John C. Favarola wrote in January 2005:

"An old saying states: 'The longest journey starts with a single step.' I am happy to say that, here in the Archdiocese of Miami, we have taken the first step toward a future Cuba. It is not a political step. It is a step toward reconciliation, first among Cubans here, and hopefully later between Cubans here and on the island?

I believe, along with the Pope, that the church must be the conciliatory force. Because we espouse no political ideology, and preach only the love of Christ, we can provide a safe place where Cubans with different views can come together, reflect on their experiences and arrive at a common course of action.

The group, "En Comuni¢n", arose out of such encounters, first one-on-one, then in small groups, then in plenary sessions. It now numbers about 40 Cuban church leaders: priests, religious and laity, all exiles from different time periods, all highly dedicated and committed Catholics."[11]

This statement expresses a commitment to a long-term process on the part of the Catholic Church. The church is not operating within a fixed timeframe with rigid goal-oriented objectives, but rather it sees itself as a permanent member of the community who will accompany the Cuban people through past, present, and future.

The dialogue that "In Communion" has generated has led to a change of hearts and minds on the part of many Cuban-Americans. One Cuban-American wrote about his own process of healing and reconciliation: "Only we Cubans can resolve our problems. I have to free my heart of hate. And only love can get rid of hate and loves come through forgiveness. The first act of forgiveness was the one that took me the longest to give and was the most difficult to achieve. It was to forgive myself for having chosen to be an exile and not a martyr.

The second was to accept that others can think in different ways and not be wrong. The visit of the pope came and finally I went back to Cuba for the first time, in January 1998, 37 years later?and then "In Communion" came about, that isn't a goal but rather a path that respects everyone. That offers a sacred space so that all Cubans like me, now can open our hearts to hope; we can overcome the fears and say what we think and accept what other think, even though those views might conflict with mine.

In Communion seeks dialogue rather than unity, it searches for coherence rather than hegemony. It searches for forgiveness as a way of eliminating hate and of laying the foundation for reconciliation with justice."[12]

The effectiveness of the Catholic Church as a mediator depends in great part upon the skill and leadership of committed individuals. Bishop Thomas Wenski has dedicated his life to the community of south Florida and has been invaluable in bringing Cubans on the island and in the diaspora together. Rolando Suarez, former director of Caritas Cuba, explained Bishop Wenski's approach to reconciliation by saying that his actions "broke the ice and began the great game of love."[13]

What most impressed Suarez, he said in an e-mail interview from Cuba, is how, "before every charitable action, before every project, Bishop Wenski always strived to find a way of proceeding that took into consideration the Cubans here and the Cubans there. He defended this principle even in the most difficult circumstances. The thoughts, passions, hopes of Cuban exiles were always part of his decisions, and he explained that to us and even to the authorities? That is what it means to act as a bridge, which is an invaluable service."[14]

Jared Hoffman, Catholic Relief Services' regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, praised Bishop Wenski that he "was never afraid of saying what different groups, both in Miami and elsewhere, maybe didn't want to hear but needed to hear anyway?Particularly on many issues that divide the community, he is able to help people talk to each other, something that many times groups were not able to do on their own. This requires honesty and trust, but also the courage to speak plainly and say the truth."[15]

Bishop Wenski embodies the third side in action. He listens to both Cubans in Florida and Cubans on the island with patience and respect. He acknowledges their points of view, and at the same time invites them to consider the cost of isolation and antagonism. He identifies cross-cutting ties and initiates joint projects. He is rekindling a web of relationships and forging new spaces for encounter.

While the Catholic Church has taken a leading role in promoting national reconciliation among Cubans, it does not dominate the process nor can it be successful on its own. A myriad of actors, both internal and external, must participate in order to create a "critical yeast"[16] of activity for reconciliation in order to overcome the fear, hostility, and inertia of conflict.

Although the Catholic Church is recognized as an authentically Cuban institution and a legitimate actor even by the Castro regime, not all Cubans feel welcomed by the Catholic Church or want the church to define the parameters of their Cuban identity. Fortunately, Cubans are generating other forums dedicated to dialogue and reconciliation in which alternate voices can be heard. One initiative is the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a political lobbying group committed to reconciliation: "The CCD believes in the reconciliation of the Cuban nation. Cubans who live on the island and Cubans who left Cuba must begin to forge a common agenda based on the future of Cuba rather than focus on differences if the nation is to progress. To do so, the CCD encourages Cuban-Americans and Cubans to forgive past wrongs, to respect political differences, and to celebrate the common links of our history and culture."[17] The CCD sponsors Reconciliation Breakfasts in Little Havana Miami and plans to replicate the dialogues, via TV-Satellite, with people in Cuba: "The operational hypothesis is that the more open and frequent the discussions are, the greater the chances of reconciliation."[18]

Another beautiful and inspirational project of reconciliation is the work of Cuban writers, scholars, and artists in the United States and Cuba who came together to produce an anthology entitled, "Bridges To Cuba/ Puentes A Cuba". In the introduction to the anthology, editor Ruth Behar writes:

"Bridges to Cuba is a meeting place, an open letter, a castle in the sand, an imaginary homeland. It is a space for reconciliation, imaginative speculation, and renewal. It is a first time event?After being "enemies" it isn't easy to trust one another. But conversations can begin again. Walls can be turned on their side so they become bridges. It is possible to resurrect ourselves. As Jesus Barquet writes from this side, "Let's think of the bridges peace could bring us."[19]

Cubans both in the diaspora and on the island are generating sacred spaces in which to come together and begin to reconcile. They are discovering their potential as a "third side" to a conflict that has paralyzed and divided their lives for generations. The Catholic Church has taken a leadership role in facilitating the reconciliation process. Catholic clergy in Cuba and in the United States have offered the auspices of the church as a sacred space where Cubans of all backgrounds can share their stories in an atmosphere of trust and good faith. The church's approach to reconciliation is cognizant of its role as not only a mediator but a companion and healer. Catholic peacebuilders such as Bishop Wenski value and cultivate relationships that foster shared interests and joint projects. They recognize the importance of listening with respect and humility while courageously asserting the consequences of conflict.

Ultimately, the process of reconciliation must engage the political powers who are most entrenched in polarity and mutual antagonisms. However, the new spaces in civil society are transforming walls into bridges that link the two countries together and reveal their common interests and shared histories. The efforts of Cubans to reunite and reconcile are both courageous and inspiring. At the same time the emergence of a Cuban third side is a natural resurgence of life to its normal contours of unity. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness?We are meant all, all to belong to this family, this human family, God's family."[20]

"As paredes Vueltas de lado son puentes. -- Walls turned on their sides are bridges."

--Anonymous. A message on a 1994 New Year's greeting card from Cuba.[21]

[1] Ury, William L,

[2] Over one and a half million Cubans are now living in the diaspora. Ackerman, Holly. "Incentives and Impediments to Cuban National Reconciliation" in Cuban Transitions At The Millenium, Eloise Linger and John Cotman, eds. (Largo, MD: International Development Options, 2000), 313.

[3] De Los Angeles Torres, et. al., p. 29.

[4] Ackerman, et. al., p. 325.

[5] Oppenheimer, Andres. "Poll Says Exiles Shifting From Hard-Line Positions" The Miami Herald, May 16, 2002. http://www.bendixena

[6] Ury, William L.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ackerman, Holly, et. al., p. 315.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Archbishop John C. Favarola, "Church Will Help Cubans Come Together", Archdiocese of Miami, January 2005, /news/columndetail.cfm?abc-id=76

[12] Diaz, Sammy. "En Comunion es Un Camino No Una Meta", La Voz Catolica, El Periodico del Arquidiocesis de Miami, Vol. 53, No. 2, Febrero/Marzo 2005,

(quote translated from Spanish by Sarah Park)

[13] Rodriguez-Soto, Ana. "Like A Bridge Over Troubled Cuban Waters - Bishop Wenski Strives For Reconciliation Among Exiles And Their Counterparts On The Island" The Florida Catholic, Miami Edition, http://www

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] John Paul Lederach.


[18] net/cuban/cuban%20affairs/ca1997/marcelino10-7-97.htm

[19] Behar, Ruth, ed. Bridges to Cuba: Puentes a Cuba. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995), 5.

[20] Helmick, Raymond G., S.J. and Peterson, Rodney L. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation. (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001), xiii.

[21] Behar, Ruth, et. al., 1.


Behar, Ruth ed., Bridges to Cuba: Puentes a Cuba. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Diaz, Sammy. "En Comunion es Un Camino No Una Meta", La Voz Catolica, El Periodico del Arquidiocesis de Miami, Vol. 53, No. 2, Febrero/Marzo 2005,

(quote translated from Spanish by Sarah Park)

Favarola, Archbishop John C. "Church Will Help Cubans Come Together", Archdiocese of Miami, January 2005, /news/columndetail.cfm?abc-id=76

Helmick, Raymond G., S.J. and Peterson, Rodney L. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001.

Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Linger, Eloise and Cotman, John, eds. Cuban Transitions At The Millenium. Largo, MD: International Development Options, 2000.

Oppenheimer, Andres. "Poll Says Exiles Shifting From Hard-Line Positions" The Miami Herald , May 16, 2002. http://www.bendixena

Rodriguez-Soto, Ana. "Like A Bridge Over Troubled Cuban Waters - Bishop Wenski Strives For Reconciliation Among Exiles And Their Counterparts On The Island" The Florida Catholic, Miami Edition, http://www