Critical forum may end with Cuban magazine changes

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HAVANA (AP) — Launched as a bulletin for Catholic lay people, Espacio Laical magazine became an unusually open and critical forum for debate in Cuba, a rarity in a country where the state has controlled all media for five decades.

Now, the sudden departure of its two longtime editors may have endangered that status just as Cuba's Roman Catholic Church and the Communist-run country embark on major changes.

First published in 2005, Espacio Laical's reflections on faith and daily life were augmented by articles about politics, economics and society. The magazine became a must-read for members of Cuba's academic and intellectual elite — some of them the very architects of President Raul Castro's ongoing reforms, such as allowing limited private enterprise and decentralizing state-run businesses.

Espacio Laical "gave room to opinions from different points of view," said Cuban analyst and former diplomat Carlos Alzugaray, who has worked with the magazine. "It is something that is very needed today in Cuba, which is a public space for debate about the nation's problems."

But editors Roberto Veiga and Lenier Gonzalez resigned in early May, later confirming they quit because the magazine's content was controversial in the ecclesiastical community. The magazine's director, Gustavo Andujar, said the editors left voluntarily.

Published four times a year with a press run of just 4,500, Espacio Laical also has a website that is likely seen by few in a country where Internet access is difficult and costly. Its footprint is much smaller than a publications like the Communist Party newspaper Granma, published daily and distributed to the masses across the island.

But its audience was influential, and its articles provoked debate.

In July 2013, Espacio Laical published a supplement titled "Cuba Dreamed, Cuba Possible, Cuba Future," outlining what the country should aspire to, including freedom of expression, political association and private economic rights.

University of Havana religious historian Enrique Lopez Oliva said that surely set off alarms both within the Catholic community, which is divided over how much the church should involve itself in politics, and for government and party officials, who say Raul Castro's reforms do not contemplate change to Cuba's single-party system.

"These points constitute a platform for a political movement," Lopez Oliva said. "They must have caused a certain amount of concern."

After the reforms began in earnest in 2010, Espacio Laical published analyses by economists such as Omar Everleny Perez and Pavel Vidal, who are associated with the government but have been relatively outspoken in criticizing its programs. In one piece, they said there were not enough approved free-market activities for half a million laid-off state workers, and not enough white collar jobs for an educated population.

Other contributing writers have included academics, energy experts and sociologists both inside and outside of Cuba. Espacio Laical also organized gatherings with diverse participants including prominent Cuban exile businessman Carlos Saladriegas.

Andujar told The Associated Press in an email interview that some aspects of Espacio Laical won't change. But he also acknowledged there will be more emphasis on topics like the arts, sciences and religious ethics, rather than an overwhelming focus on economics and politics.

"It is not desirable that other, very broad and important aspects of the cultural life of the country and the world find comparatively little space," he said.

The changes at the magazine come as the church gets ready for a major transition. Cardinal Jaime Ortega submitted his resignation in 2011 as bishops customarily do upon turning 75. The Vatican has not yet accepted it, but Ortega is widely assumed to be leaving soon.

Relations were hostile between the Catholic Church and the officially atheist state for decades after Cuba's 1959 revolution. It was Ortega that negotiated better ties, beginning the 1990s as Cuba removed references to atheism in the constitution and Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

Ortega's successor will be named by Pope Francis, a Jesuit seen as a reformer keen on social issues. Whoever takes his place as head of the Havana Archdiocese will have to chart his own course between emphasizing spiritual work and political involvement.

Catholic authorities want further concessions such as more access to radio and TV airwaves, the return of more church property and permission to begin some kind of religious education — causes that could be helped by not antagonizing the government.

The changes at the magazine, Lopez Oliva said, "could be a shift toward being more cautious in the political arena."

Gonzalez said neither he nor Veiga would comment on Espacio Laical beyond their initial statement. But in a hint of their post-magazine plans, he said Monday in a follow-up email to the AP that they are launching a project called "Cuba Possible" — a clear echo of the controversial 2013 supplement's title.

Gonzalez did not say whether it will be a new publication, entail more seminars or even be affiliated with the church.

It involves a "platform that allows for the airing and channeling of concerns and proposals from Cubans and foreigners that keep communion with those principles," he wrote. "We hope that participants ... interact with Cuban civil society, diaspora groups and other entities abroad, always through open and pluralistic dialogue that seeks consensus."

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

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