Castro`s leap of faith

There was an obvious warmth between Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II when they met in November 1996. Their meeting in the Vatican was hailed as ‘a miracle’ by the 69 year old Cuban leader. Miraculous or not, it marked the high point of an often turbulent relationship between the church and state in the only Latin American nation that the Pope has yet to visit. This isolation is set to end this month when John Paul, an anti-Communist Pope, visits Castro, the communist comandante.

The World Today Published 1 January 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 4 minute READ

Relative to the rest of Latin America, the church has traditionally been weak in Cuba. As Spain expanded into the New World Cuba was used as a staging post for expeditions onto the mainland. As far as the Catholic church was concerned Cuba was low on their list of priorities.

When independence came to the majority of Latin America in the early 19th century the Cuban church remained solidly proSpain. Cuba was viewed as a dumping ground for wayward clergymen and conservative priests fleeing from the Liberal regimes in other Latin American countries. The fact that the Catholic faith was a mainly white religion meant that, on an island with a large slave population, it was less influential than in the rest of Latin America.

In the years immediately before the revolution the church maintained good relations with the Batista government. This did nothing to endear it to the Cuban public. Ye t despite this there were priests, such as Father Sardiñas, working with Castro’s guerrillas in the countryside. Castro himself was aware of the important message this sent to the local population: ‘his presence and the fact that he was working there as a priest, baptising a lot of children, helped strengthen the people’s ties with the revolution.’ Father Sardiñas was subsequently made a major for his meritorious conduct.

Some in the church tired of the idea that the lot of the poor was ‘God’s Will’ and embraced the revolution. From such clergymen came ‘The Cross And The Homeland’ movement which combined Catholic teachings with support for the revolutionary government.

Enemy within

But for many in the Cuban church the revolution was seen as a threat. In May 1960, Archbishop Enrique Pérez Servantes of Santiago, who had been known as a social reformer, described Communism as the enemy that was ‘within the gates of Cuba speaking loudly as though on its own property.’ However, the high degree of secularism on the island meant that the revolutionary government was less worried about the reaction of the church than it otherwise might have been.

Conflict between the Church and the State was inevitable, as Margaret Crahan explains: ‘since the Church proclaimed itself the centre of value and source of all meaning in life, the government’s attempt in the early 1960s to capture the ultimate loyalty of all Cubans was regarded as anti-religious.’

In the six months after the revolution the church became the major institutional opponent of the new government. The November 1959 National Catholic Congress was attended by 1,000,000 Cubans rather than the 10,000 who had previously shown up.

Following the attempted invasion of the island in 1961 relations worsened. In May, not even two weeks after the Bay Of Pigs, all Catholic schools from nursery to university level were seized by the government and all private schools nationalised because of ‘counter-revolutionary teachings’. Of the 690 priests that worked on the island in 1959 less than 200 were still there by March of 1964.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Cuban church remained untouched by the idea of Liberation Theology which emerged throughout Latin America. Margaret Crahan attributes this to the revolution itself: ‘the trauma of the radical changes initiated by the revolution and the political and economic isolation of Cuba instigated by the US helped insulate Cuban Christians from the liberalising currents which were present in the rest of Latin America in the 1960s.’

But although Cuban Christians may have been resistant to the revolutionary changes taking place within the church in the region, Castro was not. Whilst visiting Chile in December 1971 he spoke of how ‘the rapprochement between revolutionaries and Christians is a very important strategy because there are a great many Christians among the Latin American masses who are dedicated to the revolutionary effort… and we attach importance to that fact.’

Despite these seemingly welcoming words the Cuban Communist Party did not lift its ban on religious members until 1991. Nevertheless, within a few months Chilean priests were on their way to help with the Cuban sugar harvest.

‘We revolutionaries’

Castro’s latest overtures to the Vatican are not of recent origin. He told an interviewer in 1986 that ‘we feel honoured by any interest the Pope may have in visiting our country. I would also consider it a courageous action, because don’t think that all heads of state or all politicians dare visit Cuba; they have to take the opinion of the United States into account and many of them do.’ He went on to compare the Pope and revolutionaries like himself: ‘I must acknowledge that this Pope is an outstanding politician because of his activities, trips and contacts with the masses. We revolutionaries meet with the masses, speak with the masses, and convey messages to them but it’s a new thing for the head of the Catholic Church to do this.’6

Throughout the 1980s the Cuban bishops continued calling for democratic reforms. At the same time other denominations were experiencing rapid growth in Cuba. Castro met dozens of Protestant leaders in 1990 who explained that there were many people who wished to worship but had nowhere to do so.

Key to the change in atmosphere was the lifting of the ban on religious members in the Communist Party and the removal from the constitution in 1991 of all references to atheism. Membership of the Methodist church has grown from around 10,000 in the 1980s to close to 20,000 today with another 30,000 working towards full membership. Various African syncretic religions such as Santaria and Palo Monte have also emerged.

The Catholic church has also benefited from what has been widely referred to as a ‘religious renaissance’. According to Orlando Márquez, the Havana Archdioceses’ communications director, ‘Sunday services are packed and Sunday school attendance has quintupled. Where there is no church we use a home. We have no national statistics but in Havana confirmations rose from 259 in 1989 to 428 in 1993. First communions went from 643 to 1,954 and Catholic marriages from 138 to 390.’

This rapid growth has put a great strain on the church. The meeting between John Pauland Castro helped bring more priests and nuns to Cuba. Father Jacabo Morida had to wait for permission before starting work: ‘I knew I had to wait but didn’t know for how long. The visa eventually arrived almost coincidentally at the time the Pope met Fidel Castro in Rome.’

The church says that the continued lack of personnel restricts it. Italian Father Julia Batistella explains: ‘In Cuba there is an extreme need for help from priests and nuns. For 33 years they couldn’t come here so it’s left everyone in need. Some priests came but it was rare. Cuba has one priest for every 60,000 people, while in Latin America there are only 6,000 people for every priest.’8

Tensions with the state seem less pronounced with the Vatican than the local representatives of the Catholic church. The church’s move into social issues, such as abortion, threatens the monopoly of social control exercised by the Communist Party. ‘Pro Life’ groups have sprung up and have allied themselves with the Catholic Diocesan Movement. In Cuba, where abortion is legal and carried out by the health service, this represents a threat to the official line.

How the government reacts to such groups will be crucial in future church-state relations. The five day visit of Vatican Foreign Affairs Secretary, Jean Louis Tauran, in October 1996 prepared the ground for the arrival of the Pontiff. After celebrating mass in Havana cries of ‘Libertad, libertad’ (Freedom, freedom) could be heard, illustrating the highly vocal role that the church continues to have in the debate on Cuba’s political future.

Meeting of minds

Perhaps it is this realisation of the future, a future without both the Pope and Castro that has forged the apparently odd rapport between the two leaders. The constant speculation about the Pope’s health and similar discussions regarding a post-Castro Cuba has forced both men to confront their own destinies and those of their followers.

Yet John Paul and Castro have more in common than may initially be apparent. They both hail from small subjugated countries, Castro was educated by Jesuits and the Pope speaks fluent Spanish. There is also a genuine meeting of minds. Both realise that the era of Marxism has ended and that in the relatively short time they both have there is a real chance to shape the future.

The Pope wishes to ensure that there won’t be a violent power transition in Cuba when the Castro-era comes to an end. Castro wishes this himself. At the same time, the Papal visit and improving relations with the Vatican legitimise Castro in the eyes of Cuban Catholics. Even the United States and the vociferous Cuban exiles approve of the visit, seeing it as a valuable tool in promoting democratic change. The United States will allow cruise ships carrying exiles to visit Cuba during the Pope’s tour. Previously any cruise ship that called at the island was denied access to any US port, a measure designed to deny Castro further hard currency from tourism.

According to Tad Szulc, biographer of both men, ‘Castro soon saw in the Pope his political salvation and a guarantee of the tranquil completion of his lifetime rule.’ As the Pope kisses the Cuban tarmac and these giant figures of this part of the 20th century embrace, it will be easy to be cynical. Certainly both are unelected leaders with millions of followers. Both are known for their authoritarian tendencies and have an eye for good publicity. But as Castro has said: ‘A visit by the Pope shouldn’t be just a matter of protocol’. Beyond the niceties there is a chemistry, and the chance to make a real difference to the lives of many as the millennium approaches.