Castro, Cuba and Catholicism: A tangled trinity

New era of US-Cuba relations sees previously squelched church back in public eye

As news spread in December that the United States would normalize its relations with Cuba — realized when Secretary of State John Kerry attended a flag-raising ceremony at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday morning — waves of shock and disbelief traveled around the globe. Once Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the news, an equally shocking feature of their negotiations was revealed: the prominent role of the Vatican and Pope Francis.

With Francis’ visit to Cuba just a month away, many view Catholicism’s increasing public presence on the island since Raúl Castro took office as revolutionary. But the history of the Castro family with the Catholic Church and the church as a political actor in Cuba is a longer and more complex story.

Fidel Castro was educated in Jesuit schools. It is perhaps at Belén High School where he received his first taste of class consciousness, scorned by his elite classmates for his provincial background. The Jesuits who educated Castro were not the liberation theologians often chronicled in 1960s and ’70s accounts of the Catholic Church in Latin America but Spanish-born priests with a strong anti-fascist and anti-communist message.

Nonetheless, Castro highlighted the sense of discipline and justice he learned from his Catholic educators. “The Jesuits clearly influenced me with their strict organization, their discipline and their values,” he wrote in the collection of writings “Fidel: My Early Years.” “They contributed to my development and influenced my sense of justice.”

In 1961, Castro dismantled the Catholic educational system, arguably the church’s most concrete influence on Cuban life, through the nationalization of all schools on the island. As a result of those actions and growing hostility toward the church, over a hundred priests were exiled, and hundreds of others left.

The isolation of the Catholic Church on the island led to its isolation in the Americas, remaining sheltered from the groundbreaking reforms of Vatican II and the revolutionary insights of liberation theology. While this can be interpreted as a rejection of his Catholic education, a 1985 collection of interviews by Frei Betto, “Fidel and Religion,” reveals that, far from rejecting religion entirely, Castro had a nuanced understanding of the impact of religion on him personally and Cuba as a whole.

This understanding extended to Afro-Cuban religions. Although they were originally persecuted after the revolution, Santería, spiritual practices such as espiritismo (spiritism) and hybrid (known as cruzado) practices of different faith traditions overwhelmingly mark the religious landscape in Cuba today. On numerous occasions, Fidel Castro described all Cubans as Afro-Latin Americans, and Afro-Cuban culture, art, literature and religion are at the center of the contemporary understanding of Cuban identity.

‘If … Christ had been born in these times, you can be sure — or at least I am — that his preaching would not have differed much from the ideas or the preaching that we revolutionaries of today try to bring the world.’

Fidel Castro

from a 1998 speech

In 1991 atheism was removed as a requirement for membership in the Communist Party in Cuba, and the Cuban Constitution was amended to redefine Cuba as a secular rather than atheist state. Fidel Castro began to speak more publicly about religion. In a 1998 speech he aligned the teachings of Jesus with his ideology, claiming, “If instead of being born and elaborating his ideas when he did, Christ had been born in these times, you can be sure — or at least I am — that his preaching would not have differed much from the ideas or the preaching that we revolutionaries of today try to bring the world.” The new openness toward religion has been praised as indicative of growing tolerance, but one cannot help being suspicious of the political gain found in those actions, notably economic aid from the U.S. that entered the island under the umbrella of religion.

But the clear turning point for the Roman Catholic Church’s engagement with Cuba was John Paul II’s 1998 visit. His celebration of Mass on the Plaza de la Revolución represented the public reconciliation of the church and the Cuban government. As a result of the trip, Castro made Christmas a national holiday.

Raúl Castro’s presidency, beginning in 2008, marked a new era in Cuban-Catholic relations. The 2010 opening of a Roman Catholic seminary in Havana was the first of its kind since the 1959 revolution. Raúl Castro attended, along with Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega and Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, forming a symbolic trinity of a new era in Cuban, Cuban-American and Catholic relations.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Cuba visit in 2012 was overwhelmingly interpreted as supportive of Ortega, positioning the church as a political player and a human rights advocate on the island. The visit revealed that Catholic parishes in Cuba were providing education and community outreach, that Catholic charity Caritas was engaged in relief work and that church attendance on the island increased. Castro later granted the pontiff’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday.

"Raúl Castro has given the church a role of mediator with other sectors of Cuban society,” Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana, told The Washington Post in 2012. 

Much has been written about Francis’ and the Vatican’s role in brokering the U.S.-Cuba détente. Affirming the importance of the pope’s role, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in an interview on Vatican radio, “I would like to repeat the satisfaction of the Holy See for this important step in the relations between the United States and Cuba and also to stress that the role of the Holy Father was very significant in this conclusion.” 

The church has been able to further these efforts as well as become a player on the political scene by remaining quiet and reserved in its negotiations with the government.

In spite of this increasing openness, the church has many challenges ahead. U.S. politicians have critiqued its engagement with the Castro regime and the slow pace of reform, particularly in the area of human rights violations. The church is confronting a generation of Cubans who were not raised religious, as a result of the persecution of the Catholic Church and the legacy of the government’s tense relationship with religion.

Perhaps no symbol represents the past and future of religion on the island more than Our Lady of Charity, its patron saint. Evoked in independence struggles against Spain in the late 19th century; prominent in Cuban Catholicism, Santería and popular home-based religions; honored by Benedict on the 400th anniversary of her appearance; and respected by communists as a symbol of Cuba’s national identity, she reveals the complexity of religion on the island and its deep-rooted presence in the lives and identity of Cuban people.

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