Liberation theology in Cuba

Faith is no longer a private matter.

In Cuba, a country that must put a great deal of effort in being economically viable, politically participative, socially just and ecologically sustainable, the Church must retake, in a creative and complex way, the relation between faith and politics.

 “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.”

       (Psalm 85)

 

Cuba: sugar and coffee. A frenzied and original mixture of races and cultures, myths, beliefs and subjectivities. Blacks, whites, Chinese, Arabs…. A present and future memory that struggles and is being stubbornly built. An island open to the seas, to the winds from the North and the South. Sitting at the entrance to the Americas, in the middle of many roads and crossroads; it guides its sail to the four cardinal points to form part of the universe from the depth of its mestizo roots.

Cuba is a melting pot, a jumble of dreams and determinations, of lamentations and disagreements. How can the religiosity of a nation be understood, a nation in which varied forms of cultural representation coexist?

Just like the very white sugar and the very black coffee got together to make a synthesis and mixture of the “Pearl of the Antilles,” in the religious sphere the Catholicism of the white conquistadors coexisted, dramatically, for centuries with the animistic religions of the enslaved black Africans.

Though the blacks got to be, for centuries, a majority compared to the whites, the Catholic religion was the “official” and public, while that of the blacks was proscribed.

Through the force of the whip and the shackles, and confined to barracks or under the burning sun of the cane fields, the black population had to hide its religion and adopt dissimilar strategies to keep alive their religious beliefs and practices. For example, they named their deities according to the Catholic saints of their masters’ religion; thus Ochún is Santa Bárbara, Yemayá is the Our Lady of Regla…. However, for centuries, in the merging of African and Spanish ethnic-cultural influences a Cuban religious complex, of African origin, started to be formed which is still valid until our days.

The Protestant churches from the United States, with their multiple denominations, were added to this singular intertwining of people and religions since the late 19th century.

Based on these historic and cultural antecedents, attempting to attribute to the Cuban people a well-defined religiosity is contrived, more so since in daily life Cubans express a faith in different ways and frequently not through systematic practice; though it is also true that there is a tradition of the organised, methodical and active religion.

Perhaps its condition of being an island, or rather an archipelago surrounded by water, has contributed to reaffirming unity within diversity. As part of that diversity of thinking and feelings, the Cubans’ religiosity forms part of the national being.

In the midst of such an evident scheme, where being Catholic and a Mason, venerating Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre – the national patron saint -, attending Sunday school, offering masses for the dead, praying against the “evil eye,” consulting a Babalow and walking more than 20 blocks dragging a rock tied around the waist up to the sanctuary to San Lázaro, Babalú Ayé, to keep a promise, was and is natural; what conflict could there be in January 1959 between faith and revolution, between Church and politics?

 

Power struggle

The principal run-in took place between the cultural and ideological power of the Catholic Church and the new revolutionary power. The radical measures taken by the government – agrarian and urban reform, nationalisations – were not seen right by the Cuban Catholic hierarchy, historically allied to economic and political power for more than 50 years of neo-colonial domination. However, it is convenient to clarify that not all the priests reacted negatively to the changes made by the Revolution. Some of them, like father Guillermo Sardiñas, placed their Christian vocation on the side of the poor and knew how to share their bread and wine with them, premonitorily preceding the Christian commitment made years later to the cause of his people by Colombian Catholic priest Camilo Torres.

An active Catholic militant from the city of Matanzas says that “the Catholicism that got to the island was committed to the Spanish colonisation, to a plantation, slave and classist economy that entered a crisis with the 1959 Revolution and since then has lived as in a ghetto.”

The Roman-Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Cuba was the most affected from the economic point of view and because of the loss of its hegemony. This is why a process of distancing began since the first days of 1959. Gabriel Coderch, a Catholic and coordinator of the Oscar Arnulfo Romero Reflection and Solidarity Group, is of the opinion that “the Cuban Church’s hierarchy was not prepared or in a position to accept the changes; it became allied to the powerful sectors of society and tried to defend their interests. But there were exceptions: father Sardiñas and others, including laypersons, expressed their commitment to the Revolution.”

An interesting aspect that helps to better understand the causes of the confrontations between the Catholic Church and the Revolution has to do with the fact that, when the Cuban Revolution triumphed, the Vatican Council II had not taken place, which was in 1962; therefore, the repercussion of this event took long in getting to the island.

There is no doubt that the Catholic authorities that clashed with the Revolution had a pre-council thinking. As María López Vigil well explains in her article “Un pasado aún presente1” (A Still Present Past), “those bishops – as well as priests and nuns – lacked the theoretical tools and practical experiences to understand what was happening.” On the other hand, a great deal of the Catholic clergy was foreign, fundamentally Spanish, whose nationalist ideas had a pro-Franco overtone. How then could the Catholic priests understand the deep transformations carried out by the revolutionary project?

Protestantism, on the other hand, adopted different positions with respect to the process, which were in accordance with their own denominational diversity but also marked by the fact that the Protestant churches in Cuba inherited from the U.S. churches and missions a conservative and apolitical theology. There were misunderstandings that generated in some of them some situations of conflict and hostility; while the majority confined their Christian life to the temples.

However, there were pastors and laypersons who at an early stage lived their faith based on the revolutionary commitment, resisted the conservative attitude of their hierarchies and started opening a path so the Evangelical churches would have a space in the social transformations. This explains a faster identification of sectors of these churches with the liberation theology of the 1960s than what could have happened with the Catholics, despite the fact that that theology had an enormous Catholic tradition in Latin America.

Many of these pastors, educated in the Matanzas Evangelical Seminary of Theology and in the most progressive Protestant thinking of the time, tried to carry out a contextualised theology based on the commitment and participation in the revolutionary process. A small ecumenical sector started rethinking the church’s mission in the context of a socialist society.

Baptist pastor Raúl Suárez, a Cuban MP and director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre (CMMLK), has said that his “second conversion” began in 1959, with the triumph of the Revolution, when he was able to gradually get rid of the “apathetic and indifferent Protestantism” in which he had been educated. “The revolution, with its human charge, of social justice and opportunities for all, helped to land my faith, in a process that has not been exempt of tensions.”

 

Socialist Cuba

Meanwhile, the revolutionary power never felt in conflict with the Church, despite the fact that the wealthy, privileged sectors, the upper and middle class made an effort to place the churches against the Revolution.

Fidel Castro, in an interview with Brazilian priest and writer Frei Betto – which became the book Fidel and Religion -, recognises that socialism in Cuba was going to be built in the most organised way as possible, during a reasonable period of time, with the least amount of traumas and problems, but the attacks by imperialism speeded the revolutionary process.

In 1961 Cuba declared itself socialist after the mercenary attacks through the Bay of Pigs. This made many Cuban Church consciences tremble. A ghost made its appearance: the fear of “communism”. In that sense, Ofelia Miriam Ortega —Presbyterian pastor and the first woman ordained as a pastor in Cuba and Latin America – remembers a personal experience: “The U.S. missionaries always spoke to us of the famous iron curtain, of communism as the evil that all Christians had to combat. When the Revolution was proclaimed socialist, all of us were fearful: I don’t believe there was a single church that was exempt of that fear of communism; and some pastors and laypersons left Cuba because of that fear that had been ingrained in them, they did not know how to respond to the changes, to the transformations that were beginning to take place in the country.”

On the other hand, the universalization and gratuitousness of education, ensured at a an early stage by the revolutionary power, was preceded by the nationalisation, among others, of the religious schools. In this situation an unprecedented exodus took place in Catholic and Protestant churches. Close to 80 per cent of the pastors of these churches left the country, mainly for the United States.

 

Fence-sitting

The Catholic Church on the one hand, which never had a popular base in Cuba, shut itself out, in what sociologist Aurelio Alonso calls interior exile and “endangered its prestige in the task of placing the people in conflict with their own interests.” Meanwhile, in the Evangelical and Protestant churches, frankly decimated because of the exodus, a great awareness and insertion into the process of social transformations opened by the Revolution started taking place, perhaps because the social base on which they carried out their practice was historically linked to the poorest sectors of the Cuban people.

Because of the aforementioned conflicts, in the 1960s sentiments of intolerance toward religious people came to the fore. The practice of religion was seen as a political risk and, in fewer cases, with prejudice.

The acceptance of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine gradually took place. Regarding this point Alonso specifies: “Giving a doctrinal rank to atheism, even in spite of the evolution of the Christian thinking in our own continent, hindered the understanding of the cultural dimension of the entire religious phenomenon…. Dogmatic atheism tended to make the Revolution a confessional alternative and, therefore, it was felt in forms of ideological discrimination.”2

At that stage, many Christians were the object of discrimination and intolerance. However, the immense majority of them assumed those attitudes as part of an educational process. Of course, the discrimination that occurred in Cuba did not have the connotations it had in other socialist countries or in other revolutions. Part of the Christian testimony was to establish an educational dialogue and do away with the barriers that existed in the society that also saw apathy toward the Revolution in other Christians.

In the 1970s, the island consolidated its relations with the bloc of socialist countries and especially with the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Soviet-style Marxism, already present in the Revolution, took over all fields and imposed its dogmas. “The Soviet model,” says Reverend Raúl Suárez, “placed a great deal of emphasis on scientific atheism, so that it was seen as an essential part of Marxism. This had an influence on the Revolution’s relations with the churches because it strengthened an anti-religious mentality in some persons, in some officials, who saw Christians as ideologically weak persons.”

Around that time, the majority of religious Cubans expressed their faith in their hearts. They did not stop believing and venerating God, but their visits to the church were no longer that frequent. It is obvious that when religion was privatised, the institutional spaces were socially weakened; but in the mind of a few extremely obstinate the conviction of a faith and a commitment that demanded a space within the construction of socialism was being strengthened.

At the same time, the U.S. blockade, officially imposed against Cuba since 1961, separated the Cuban churches from the rest of its Latin American sisters and cut the historic links that united the Evangelical and Protestant churches from their U.S. counterparts. Thus they were isolated and cut off from the social context and the theological thinking of the moment.

On the Catholic side, starting 1969 there were positive signs in the hierarchy, which in some way received the airs of the Medellin Latin American Conference and pastoral documents came out which implied a certain recognition of positive aspects of the Revolution. That opening is characterised by a slow recovery of the dialogue, whose main protagonist was Archbishop Francisco Oves (1970-78).

Gabriel Coderch was a seminarian when Oves was named Archbishop of Havana. “He was a great humanist,” Coderch recalls, “a man who began studying the Cuban reality and understanding the changes taking place in it. Unfortunately, he was only one among the Cuban Catholic authorities, with an open way of thinking. Some superiors of religious orders wrote to their head offices in the Vatican or in Spain to denounce Oves’ position regarding the growing dialogue with the revolutionary government.”

Very much despite the U.S. blockade and the Marxist atheism, that minority of ecumenical mother churches began rereading the Bible “without using the missionaries’ eyeglasses”; it continued to rethink theology and the praxis of faith within socialism, unfolding a consciousness-raising work inside their churches, trying to bring down the walls between church and politics, between church and the world and promoting the social responsibility of Christians as an effective testimony.

As a result, an ecumenical movement was formed and it was established around the Ecumenical Council of Cuba, today the Council of Churches of Cuba (CIC), the Christian Student Movement (MEC), the Latin American Union of Ecumenical Youth (ULJE), the Latin American Ecumenical Social Action (ASEL), the Latin American Evangelical Commission of Christian Education (CELADEC) and the Baptist Student Worker Coordination of Cuba (COEBAC), among others.

 

Theology in Revolution

After the Vatican Council II, the Church’s real change in this continent takes place with the Medellin Latin American Episcopal Conference in 1968. Starting then, the Church declared the focus of opting for the por. Frei Betto himself has said in his book Fidel and Religion that the poor did more by opting for the Church than the Church did when opting for the poor, by force for the popular movement and the union movement, that is, they sought in the Church an option to keep being organised, coordinated, conscious and active. Thousands of Grassroots Ecclesial Communities were created throughout all of Latin America and, on a par, a theological reflection emerged, authentically Latin American, which served as a guide and support for the struggle of the farmer and indigenous, union and worker communities.

While this revolution of faith was taking place in the continent, in Cuba Sergio Arce, Presbyterian pastor, who assumed the rectorship of Matanzas’ SET in the 1960s, had already written in 1965 a pamphlet titled “La misión de la iglesia en una sociedad socialista” (The Church’s Mission in a Socialist Society), where he outlined the guidelines of theological reflection in the context of the Revolution.

But the economic blockade and the isolation in which the churches lived during those years prevented knowing in Cuba about the Latin American theological thinking. Almost a decade had to go by for the first contacts to be made.

This confirms what many of the Cuban leaders of churches and ecumenical leaders affirm: that before many of them made contact with liberation theology, already in the Cuba of the 1960s there was a theological reflection, based on the concrete referents of their practice of faith in the revolutionary context. Years later, the contact with the principal liberation theologians would confirm the certainty of this thinking and, above all, of a Cuban theological and pastoral practice at the side of the Revolution.

The government opened a parenthesis to the isolation of Cuba. In 1971, during his visit to Chile, Fidel Castro met with some Catholics members of the Christians for Socialism movement, and asked about their militant commitment; in an unprecedented manner he defended the strategic alliance between Christians and Marxists. The First Latin American Meeting of Christians for Socialism took place in Santiago, Chile, in 1972. A Cuban delegation, headed by Sergio Arce, participated in the event. Seminars and theological meetings where the documents were debated were immediately organised in Cuba and, in 1973, an edition that collects the memoirs of the meeting started circulating. Around those years the International Meetings of Theologians and Social Scientists started being held in the Evangelic Seminar of Theology of Matanzas.

When recalling that stage, Reverend Raúl Suárez remembers: “We had already intuitively scraped through many of the aspects that were presented by the liberation theologians in Latin America, basing ourselves on the Bible, on pastoral experience.”

The fact is that these meetings and the avidness of many Cuban Christians to learn about the theological thinking in vogue in Latin America created the foundations to gain greater access to that thinking. But, in essence, which were the coincidences and differences between the theology in Cuba during those years and liberation theology?

In short, the coincidences were given in the general theoretical framework, which continued being valid in liberation theology and which were based on the unity of profane and holy history; the history of the human being is one and, on the other hand, in it is where the saving process takes place that demands the committed co-participation of Christians; and later on, what was still in the making during those years, the Latin American hermeneutics and biblical exegesis that, with the contribution of popular education, recreated the movement of the popular rereading of the Bible

The differences are explained by Presbyterian Pastor Reinerio Arce: “The first major question that maintained the debate in the 1970s and 1980s, with the Latin American liberation theologians, was: what terms were to be used to speak of liberation in Cuba? It was clear that some categories and ideas of liberation theology could be used, but others could not; even with those questions that were later problematic – like the very category of poor, which is central –, how to speak of the poor in the Cuba of those years, who were the poor, how to identify them? In Latin America it was very easy, but in our context it was not. Another difference is that Cuban theology or new Cuban theology is of an Evangelical-Protestant matrix, while in liberation theology it has a fundamental weight in Catholic thinking.”

Many Cuban theologians refer that another of the differences lies in that if for Latin American theology the Exodus is what’s most important, for the Cuban it is the Genesis, that is, the theology of creation, of work.

Pastor Ofelia Miriam Ortega, when recalling the years in which the first contacts with liberation theology took place, says that “the reaction was not very favourable, there were many run ins, above all because some liberation theologians said that theology was not being carried out in Cuba. It should be taken into account that the Cuban Revolution takes place before the Vatican Council II, before liberation theology, before the Nicaraguan revolution. Well, we understood that rather well! It is also true that the exit of many pastors and priests and nuns made us react in a cautious way toward the biblical paradigm of the Exodus, a paradigm par excellence for the Latin America of those times; for the Cubans, however, the paradigm was that of ‘the theology of the desert,’ that is, of those who wanted to return to the past, to eating from the full pots, and even the word ‘exodus’ sounded like ‘exile’ to us, then the churches were empty. Those were very difficult times for those of us who decided to remain in Cuba and to defend our faith.”

“Liberation theology got to Cuba when it was already devised, not just theoretically, but rather in practice,” Gabriel Coderch affirms for his part, “since it emerges as a consequence of the economic, social and political situation existing in Latin America. In our country it could not be adopted exactly as it was for one reason: the fundamental basis of its theological planning in the economic and social field was almost resolved in the country; however, it served as a guide for another understanding and to improve our own society in many aspects, even today it serves to rethink  faith in the current conditions, where Cuba’s panorama is no longer the same, new problems and new subjects have emerged that continue being permanent challenges for all of us.”

 

The 1980s: the dialogue is revived

According to many experts, the great change in the perception of the revolution in the face of the religious fact was provided by the Nicaraguan revolution. María López Vigil affirms that “in that permanent, daily exchange, which lasted more than 10 years, Cubans immediately came across the religiosity of a great deal of the Nicaraguan people, who did not have contradictions with the Revolution…. They found priests who were ministers of God and ministers of the people at the same time. They experienced what liberation theology sounded like, not in the opposition and denouncing injustices – like in the rest of Latin America -, but rather in ‘power and announcing achievements.’”

In the 1980s – years of economic bonanza for the Cubans – the tensions between the Church and the State seemed to have become flexible. Diverse ecumenical movements and institutions, whose presence in society was already being noticed, were strengthened and demonstrated a more systematic projection geared at the understanding with the State and the Party, in a context of committed social insertion.

An event took place within the Catholic Church that undoubtedly positively marked this Church’s relations with the State and which has its culminating point in the Cuban Ecclesial National Meeting (ENEC) of 1986. The ENEC took place as part of a long process of the complex relations between the Catholic Church and the Revolution, where the latter appears consolidated, above all in 1985, when a period broke out that we Cubans, used to giving fabulous names to everything, labelled as Process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies, which generated a deep and serious debate of ideas; it led to a critical view of our relations with the socialist camp, also a view of what was happening inside the country and proposed a recovery of the original values of the Revolution and its most authentic thinking.

By 1986, the Revolution displayed a consolidated and lasting project of Cuban socialism. This aspect is present in the background of the ENEC. There are some affirmations that are symptoms of these changes, perhaps the most well-known is the one in which the Catholic Church affirmed that “the Revolution taught us to justly give what we gave as charity.”

It is no less true that also during those years, though not massively and openly, the relations and interlocution with the Latin American churches was encouraged; that is to say, with the church that was opted by the poor; the visits to Cuba of some committed bishops, Frei Betto’s trips, took place. And all this created an atmosphere that led to that reflection. However, it was expected that the ENEC would be the Catholic Church’s platform for the following years. But it was not so. When referring to this, Reinerio Arce describes it as an event at the wrong time. A process that 10 years ago had taken place in the ranks of the Evangelical churches took place there, though it was, undoubtedly, a step forward for the Catholic Church, perhaps its moment of greatest opening, something really positive.

“The years following the ENEC register, until 1990, the highest point in State-Church communication since 1959,” Aurelio Alonso affirms in his book Iglesia y política en Cuba, “referring to the diplomatic sphere, relations with the Vatican as well as domestic policy – relations with the local hierarchy: in that related to the exchange with the institutions as well as the understanding of the religious fact in the cultural field.”

If we attempt to make a tour through some events that exemplify what Alonso describes as “the highest point in State-Church communication” we would confirm that in late 1988 Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Justice and Peace Pontifical Commission, travelled to Cuba with the aim, among others, to activate the initiative of a visit to Cuba by the Pope. In April 1989, the Archbishop of Havana travelled to Rome with the official invitation of the Conference of Bishops of Cuba and then the head of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Party did so to also take the official invitation of the island’s government to the Supreme Pontiff.

Religion started coming out of the worship centres to occupy spaces in Cuban society. During these years, four events gave a boost to the lack of privatisation of faith and are significant because of the unprecedented visualisation they achieved even in the country’s media:

  • During the difficult summer of 1993, Cuban ecumenical leaders, convened by the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre, called for a vigil and fasting in solidarity with the Pastors for Peace, who were on a hunger strike on the Mexico-U.S. border to obtain the release of a yellow school bus seized by the U.S. authorities and which they were bringing as a donation for the people of Cuba. Almost a hundred Cubans joined the fasting. For the first time an ecumenical institution mobilised all of society through the media as a gesture of solidarity.
  • In September of that same year, when the crisis hit rock bottom and many people abroad were forecasting the final hour for Castro, the Cuban bishops made public the pastoral letter El amor todo lo espera (Love waits for everything) “as a taking of position within the gravity of the critical scenario the country is living,” and though it did not get to be “a strict return of the Church to the confrontation of the 1960s,” it did “awaken a profuse and at times surly reaction in the country’s press.”
  • When the start of the economic recovery was visible in 1998, Pope John Paul II arrived in the island. Aurelio Alonso summed up the impact of this event: “The Pope’s visit to Cuba was a fiesta and the Cubans enjoyed it in many ways: the Catholics with the happiness that the entire country was living its celebration; the political class with the satisfaction of the respectful visit of a top-class leader, who was demanding the space for his children without challenging the social system, and whose global projections were not alien to him; the people with the curiosity and satisfaction of witnessing the transcendental in the novel.” With this visit, many people even forecasted changes; but actually – as some of the interviewees affirmed – “the Pope did not come to Cuba to change things, he came because things had already changed.”
  • Between May and June of 1999 a Cuban Evangelical Celebration took place where almost all the Protestant parishioners participated in more than 18 worships in squares and public places, together with a people who had quenched its curiosity because of the original aspect of these religious events during the visit by the Supreme Pontiff.

 

The 1990s: vindication of faith

In 1990 the island suffered the blow of the disappearance of its fundamental economic relations. That same year the Call to the 4th Congress of the Party was presented in Santiago de Cuba, a brave and self-critical document that called for the creativity of all Cubans to respond to the new situation the country was facing after the collapse of the socialist camp. The document contains a declaration “against the inequality and discrimination from the past,” in which it points out the one directed at “believers of the different religious creeds who share our life and assume our project of social justice and development.”

In March, Fidel Castro visited Brazil and during an exchange with representatives of several grass-root ecclesial communities and liberation theologians, he reproached the Catholic hierarchy’s position, “rather lying in wait for the Revolution to have difficulties to take action against it” and he explained: “The response we had wished to receive has not happened, so that it would give us sufficient confidence for Christians to join our party without creating a problem of conscience for those members….” (Granma, March 15, 1990) And he concluded his speech with a phrase that many still remember: “if we had Christians like you over there, they would have been in the party a long time ago.”

Those statements, reducing the problem to the position of the Catholic hierarchy and, above all, the latter expression led to many reactions in the Christian media, especially in those involved in the ecumenical movement with a long trajectory of revolutionary commitment. The then Ecumenical Council of Cuba (CEC) requested a meeting with the country’s leadership. On April 2, 1990, some 70 evangelical leaders and representatives of the CEC spoke for more than six hours with Fidel.

Joel Suárez, as so many other Cuban Evangelists, was present in the meeting and he recalls: “That event, transcendental for Church-State relations, between Christians and the Revolution, had a favourable effect on the entire religious field and was led by the ecumenical movement.”

The CEC encouraged similar meetings in all the country’s provinces between leaders of the Evangelical churches and Party and government authorities.

According to Aurelio Alonso, that moment was “the most significant test of the evolution toward the breaking away from the doctrinaire framework and recognised ‘the need to consolidate in the ranks of the Cuban people the unity between revolutionary believers of all the churches and denominations and the Marxists, as a fundamental contribution to the unity of all the patriots around the programme of socialism.’”

The 4th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba opened the possibility for believers to join the Party ranks by withdrawing atheism as a condition for membership, and suggested to the Cuban parliament modifications to the Constitution that strengthened the right to freedom of religion, the rejection of religious discrimination and the elimination of all reference of Marxism-Leninism as the State ideology, defining it as secular.

A stage was then opened for believers in Cuba where subtle and official religious discrimination seemed to be a thing of the past.

For many people, grass-root Party members educated under the doctrine of Marxism, it was difficult to assimilate that rectification; meanwhile, the elimination of the Party restrictions and the changes in the constitutional text are in themselves the vindication of the revolutionary commitment of believers, the restitution of rights for all independently of their political positions and – as Aurelio Alonso notes – “not a credit card or an instrument of negotiation with the churches.”

 

New challenges for faith

With the resounding fall of the Berlin Wall, the crisis of the 1990s inaugurates an unprecedented stage in the historic fate of the Cuban Revolution. For the first time in more than 40 years the island finds itself literally alone, without its allies of Eastern Europe and, above all, without the former USSR, with which it maintained more than 80 per cent of its economic relations. For the first time the Cuban people lost referents it believed were stable, almost eternal. It was logical to think that, in the midst of such an agonising panorama, one had to turn to heaven. The change to religion thus took place in all orders and directions. The number of Catholics, Protestants and Evangelists of all denominations grew, as well as the spiritualists, santeros and believers of other religions of African origin.

And in the midst of that search for real and community sense that religion offers there are those who pass from one church to the other, from one denomination to the other, to see what is offered here, or there; there is “tropical market” that skilfully exploits the folkloric Santería promoted by a boom in tourism and also numerous revolutionary militants, linked or not linked to the Party, who when participating from an experience of contextualised faith and a fierce spirituality and ethicality, opt for giving a new sense and horizon of hope to their political and social commitment with their incorporation to the life of the church.

“The general crisis due to the socialist collapse,” notes Aurelio Alonso, “deprived the State of the possibility of maintaining the level of response it had achieved – it should not be forgotten that some needs never found a satisfactory solution. Maintaining the principal social achievements has become a difficult goal…. The new social scales of legitimated inequality imply the space for ethical dimensions that had been banished from the project.”

The new panorama, made up by the gradual introduction of the market, brings to light many inequalities and individualist attitudes. This is one of the major challenges for the Christian faith in today’s Cuba.

These recent years have seen deep economic, legal-administrative transformations, of the social relations and of the spiritual sphere. There exists a complicated coexistence, not exempt of confrontations, between activities, attitudes, lifestyles, representations and very diverse values. These dynamics affect and weaken the ecumenical institutionalism, which has had to seek new adaptations in the face of Cuba’s complex socioeconomic and spiritual scenario.

There are those who believe that the most serious challenge of the present passes through two key questions: what country and what church will come out of this entire complex scenario in which the Cuban nation is living? There can hardly exist a single recipe, but goals can be perceived: a country that will have to make a careful effort in being economically viable, politically participatory, socially just and ecologically sustainable; and a church that must retake in a creative and complex way the relation between faith and politics, which is the same as again thinking about what being Christian today means, faced by the new neo-fundamentalist religious  currents that have been introduced in the last decade of this century.

Defending the sense of unity in the diversity we Cubans are made of is another of the crucial issues for faith in Cuba in current times. About this matter, Presbyterian Pastor Dora Arce Valentín affirms: “The ecumenical movement must face a problem, essential for me, which is that of recognising which are the talents that each denomination can contribute to try to minimise certain competition existing on a level of each church, since that endangers the unity of the Protestant and Evangelical movement in Cuba, and divides the great contribution we can give as churches to the consolidation of the Cuban socialist project, to the improvement of Church-State relations and to the very future of that project. The reality we are living, with the development of tourism, of the entering in Cuba of the so-called ‘new churches or emerging churches,’ demands unity and, if we are not united, if there isn’t a sense of commitment, we are done in, as we Cubans would say.”

Ever since the 1990s there have been diverse sectors of the Cuban population that express a growing interest in and greater existential approach to religious faith. This is confirmed by an unusual assistance to temples, parishes, Christian centres or places of worship and popular devotion. As a consequence, the churches appear as predominant actors in civil society. It should be taken into account that the factors found at the bottom of this phenomenon are multiple and even contradictory: the evident improvement in the objective conditions for the development of a vocation and religious practices (changes in the policy toward religion by the State); the breakdown of ethical models and moral practices current during previous years, the tendencies toward resolving urgent problems through miracles or similar means and, as a result of this, the attention attracted by the religious forms that offer resources of that type in their ideas and practices.

It is also significant that many Cubans find in the churches the space where they can meet their needs for spirituality; in addition to being a permanent motivation to maintain, based on their faith, the commitment to the Cuban social project and to a supportive and prophetic practice that connects with the theology of the poor and with the values and contributions it maintains in force in this continent. That is why faith in Cuba has stopped being a private matter.

Under these predictions, and in the midst of new and complex circumstances, especially with the start of a long and thorny road toward the full reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, this small island, anchored in the Caribbean, is getting ready to receive Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope holding the reins of the Vatican, giving the Catholic Church a new vision in matters that today are demands and priorities for the planet. (2015).

 

1 Published in the magazine Envío, Year.16, Nº 188.

2 See Aurelio Alonso Tejeda. Iglesia y política en Cuba (Church and Politics in Cuba), Havana, Caminos publishing house, 2002.

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