HAVANA – The call to a symbolic protest issued by the Cuban dissident movement and a controversial comment by lawmaker Mariela Castro, the daughter of former president Raul Castro, politicized on Tuesday the celebration of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint and one of the rare symbols of unity among residents of the communist island.
Opposition organizations like the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unpacu) and Cuba Decide (Cuba Decides) had called for a peaceful protest on Tuesday that they dubbed “The Sunflower Revolution” at which people were to dress in yellow and carry or place in prominent locations ribbons of that color or sunflowers to reject “the Castro-communist tyranny and its policies that have created profound misery, injustices and oppression.”
According to promoters of the protests, since Monday and up through noon on Tuesday, 44 people had been arbitrarily arrested, including the leaders of Unpacu and the Ladies in White, Jose Daniel Ferrer and Berta Soler, respectively.
However, the color yellow and sunflowers are also traditionally associated both with the Virgen del Cobre and the Afro-Cuban deity Oshun, and hundreds of Cubans dressed in yellow or displayed sunflowers on this day to symbolize their faith although they had no intention of joining the protest.
Thus, many have criticized the opposition for being opportunistic by trying to associate their protest with these symbols linked to “Cachita” – as Cubans lovingly call their patron saint – and to Oshun, the “orisha” or spirit in the Afro-Cuban Santeria belief system that symbolizes the Virgen del Cobre.
A comment by Mariela Castro on Twitter heated tempers up regarding the protest in a country where religion, although not legally banned, has been officially proscribed for decades, believers have been persecuted and many assets of the Catholic Church have been seized by the state.
“Thanks Cachita for protecting … #Fidel (Castro) and the Cuban Revolution. Oshun will not accept offerings of mercenaries and traitors,” the lawmaker wrote on Twitter.
The remarks caused a stir on the social networks, where dozens of users criticized the legislator for politicizing and trying to appropriate a symbol of all Cubans, some saying that her words were “hypocritical.”
“The Virgen de la Caridad is not partisan property, madam. She belongs to all Cubans, on or off the island, communists or not …” wrote journalist Julio Batista, while another tweeter who identified himself as Alex said: “I didn’t know that Oshun was now taking part in politics. Please, using the patron saint of Cuba (and) the sensitivity she awakens in the entire population for political ends is … disgusting. No matter which side it comes from.”
On Tuesday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel also joined in with several tweets, although his comments were more conciliatory than those of Congresswoman Castro.
“The Virgen de la Caridad is with the Cuban people in their hours of sacrifice and triumph. In the national soul, her image is adored as a symbol of hope and faith. Writers and poets, musicians and dancers have dedicated works to her,” wrote the Cuban leader.
Controversy to the side, the celebration this year will be marked by the coronavirus pandemic and the calls for social distancing to limit the spread of the virus, and churches on the island will be closed and will not see their regular throngs of thousands of the faithful accompanying images of the Virgen del Cobre as they are carried in processions through the towns, especially in Santiago de Cuba, where the shrine consecrated to the island’s patron saint is located.
Meanwhile, in Miami, where most of the Cuban exile community is concentrated, there is also a shrine dedicated to the venerated saint.
And from the top ranks of US society and politics, amid the contentious US presidential campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, for instance, issued a message to Cubans urging the “love and compassion” that Cachita inspires to fill the hearts of her believers all over the world.
The Cuban government, at the request of the island’s episcopate, gave permission for the religious celebrations to be rebroadcast on state television and for the bishop of each diocese to be allowed to issue a message on local radio, according to a statement released by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba.
The main Mass that Santiago Archbishop Dionisio Garcia celebrated early Tuesday morning in the Cobre basilica will be rebroadcast later this evening, 12 hours after the celebration, on state television’s educational channel.
“We call for the motherly intercession of the Virgen de la Caridad among the entire Cuban people, especially for those who are suffering the consequences of COVID-19 and for those who need it most,” said the bishops’ statement.
So far, 4,377 coronavirus cases have been officially confirmed in Cuba and 104 people have died.
Estimates are that some 60 percent of the Cuban population of 11.2 million are Catholics on the basis of the number of baptized people, although the percentage of Cubans who attend Sunday Mass only amounts to about 2 percent and in recent years there has been a significant expansion in Protestant and evangelical churches on the island.
Relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban regime have gone through highs and lows over the past six decades, with periods of tension but also more relaxed instances – including the visits of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – and the mediation of the Vatican in the negotiations that temporarily during the presidency of Barack Obama led to a political “thaw” with the United States.