By Tom Tracy
Catholic News Service
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A Philadelphia businessman and Cuban-American who follows developments in Cuba said it’s becoming more normal to be openly religious in the communist island nation.
“It is popular to be a Catholic in Cuba today — although we have a long ways to go to get to the next level,” said Jorge Fernandez, a Cuban-born business executive who first went back to his homeland for the 1998 visit of Blessed John Paul II as well as numerous additional trips over the years. “I truly think the winds of change that started with John Paul will just be accelerated, and a positive thing for the world,” he said, adding that he urges the Obama administration to further ease general travel restrictions because “it is through engagement that change will occur.”
A member of a parish in Buckingham, Pa., father of three and executive director at Marketorum LLC, a Lambertville, N.J.-based marketing, business strategy and technology agency, Fernandez is organizing a private delegation for 50 Americans planning to travel to Havana for the closing Mass with Pope Benedict XVI, who will be in Cuba March 26-28.
The trip is not officially associated with any diocese but is permitted under the State Department rules that apply to religious-based travel to Cuba.
Active in the local Knights of Columbus and Catholic Association of Latino Leaders and Spanish-language Mass ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Fernandez also has argued publicly for an easing of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and has testified before Congress to that effect.
He points to a recent release of political prisoners, the expansion of the Knights of Columbus councils in Cuba and the 2010 dedication of the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary as indications of a growth and vitality for the church in Cuba.
Meanwhile, much of the Cuban-American leadership in south Florida seems open to new ways of dealing with Cuba, he believes.
“I know a lot of Cuban Americans are a lot more tolerant now; they realize engagement is the way to go, that time heals a lot of wounds — Catholics and Christians especially have to forgive.”
Fernandez thinks the lack of trade and openness with Cuba hurts ordinary Cubans and he has worked with Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic agencies to bring food and aid to Cuba. “I hope this trip of the Holy Father will push those on the fence about engagement with Cuba (to) see it is the right thing to do and that innocent people in Cuba are more important than the politics of one or two men,” Fernandez said.