Cuba's Catholic Church may restrict rare forum for open debate

HAVANA, June 16 Mon Jun 16, 2014 5:28pm BST

HAVANA, June 16 (Reuters) - The resignation of two editors of an outspoken Roman Catholic Church magazine in Cuba threatens to stall what had been a thriving political dialogue inside Cuba and a rare forum to challenge the ruling Communist Party publicly.

The former editors of Espacio Laical magazine, Roberto Veiga and Lenier Gonzalez, used the Internet to promote debate on political issues such as the need for a multiparty system, internet expansion, reintegration with the diaspora and the strengths and weaknesses of reforms under President Raul Castro.

They quit last week after 10 years on the job, saying in their resignation letter it was because of pressure from inside the Church hierarchy, not the government, from people who did not want the Church to get involved in politics.

While small by Latin American standards, the Cuban Catholic Church is by far the largest and best organized force on the Caribbean island with a different ideology than the Communist Party.

Now Church insiders and diplomats fear conservative bishops from the Cuban provinces are attempting to reverse the course of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a moderate who is scheduled to retire soon and who had improved relations with the Cuban state.

Although Ortega helped open space to criticize the Cuban system, a faction within the Church was skeptical about striking a bargain with Cuban authorities given past repression.

"I hope this doesn't signal a historic mistake by the Church at a critical moment for Cuba," said a European ambassador who follows Church politics and supports Ortega's policy.

An East European diplomat had a different take, stating any cooperation with the government was useless and only gave it credibility.

The magazine, which is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Havana, had proved uniquely able to bring to the discussion Cubans from various political persuasions on and off the island and sponsored forums in Havana that drew a mixed political audience, from government supporters to opponents.

It had a run of just 4,500 issues but a larger and more active presence online. Most intellectuals, artists and academics have some access to the Internet while the general population does not.

"It's always hard to say, but no one is indispensible," the magazine's recently appointed director, Gustavo Andujar, said in a brief statement about their resignations. "Espacio Laical will continue with a new team."

Espacio Laical and its editors had become more outspoken after the cardinal brokered the 2010 release of most political prisoners and forged a tactical alliance with Castro, supporting his reforms in exchange for more visibility in state media and other minor concessions.

Church insiders said the former editors and recently appointed director were often at odds due to the latter's efforts to tone down the magazine.

The director, former editors and the Havana archdiocese had no further comment.

Veiga and Gonzalez said their work had provoked the ire of those "who think that the Church should not get involved in politics and those who believe that it should not provide space to all actors in Cuban civil society." (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)

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