At the Time of the Pope's Visit to the Island
By: Juan Clark, Ph.D.
What will Pope John Paul II find during his visit to Cuba? It is well known that religion has been severely repressed by Castro, but what has been the nature of said repression and what is its current status? What can be expected as a result of the pope's visit? Over two decades of experiential study of Cuban social reality allow us to explore this issue. Let us make a brief historical overview.
More than persecution in the traditional sense, religion has been seriously repressed through various direct and indirect means. All religious groups have been seriously affected. The Catholics, as the largest religious group in Cuba, have been the most severely impacted in terms of material losses, while the Jehovah's Witnesses have been the most directly repressed. All their temples were shut down.
In 1960, after initially supporting the revolution, the Catholic Church valiantly confronted the Castro regime. Indicators of a new dictatorial trend were visible, though shrouded by populist policies. Among these signs were the arbitrary executions and trials that started in 1959, the government's shrewd takeover of student, labor and professional organizations, along with the increased placement of communists or their sympathizers in government and military positions, the progressive confiscation of private property and, finally, the complete elimination of the free press. The Church alerted the people about the evils that would come from the turn towards Communism. The strong pastoral letter of August 1960 only increased the regime's antireligious actions.
Many believers, following the Church's teachings, decided to confront the regime. They fought justly and bravely, trying to implement the ideals of democracy promised by Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Many paid with their lives or long years in prison for this "crime."
In response to this confrontation, Castro launched a campaign against the Catholic bishops and attempted to create a national Church. By late 1960, mobs organized by the government began to harass church services. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion led to a more open and direct repression, with mass arrests of clergy and desecration of churches. In May, 1961, the government confiscated the vast private school system and many seminaries in an attempt to deeply strike at religion. In September, the traditional procession in Havana honoring Cuba's patron, the Virgen de la Caridad, in the church of the same name, was violently repressed, resulting in the death of one of the Catholics. Incredibly, the government portrayed the victim as a martyr of the revolution... That incident prompted the immediate expulsion of 131 clergy on board the Spanish ship Covadonga, including an outstanding bishop, Boza Masvidal and Father Goberna, a renown hurricane expert.
Direct repression had its climax at this time. Many religious personnel were forced into exile through coercion, intimidation or the inability to practice their teaching trade. Four priests were sentenced to prison for serving as chaplains to the opposition's guerrillas. To further hurt the Church, a dynamic young Franciscan priest, Miguel Loredo, was, in 1966, falsely accused and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, --the same amount of time Castro received in 1953 after leading the assault on the Moncada barracksfor harboring a suspect in a failed skyjacking attempt. He served ten of those fifteen years... This opportunity further served to confiscate the Church's only printing shop as well as the San Francisco convent. Many Evangelical ministers were also imprisoned, some for long periods. It must be pointed out that these actions were always undertaken through a nonreligious pretext, as in the Loredo case.
In this context, many ministers and seminarians, Catholic and Evangelicals were sent to the newly created UMAP labor concentration camps in 1965. Among those confined were the present cardinal Jaime Ortega and the current bishop Alfredo Petit, along with many lay people. Among these in the UMAP were homosexuals and others the regime considered "social scum." The Jehovah's Witnesses were especially mistreated at the UMAPs, which closed in 1968. The purpose was to terrorize the religious community.
The 1960s also saw the dawn of a more subtle, but very effective, indirect repression. This less visible form of repression used education and the work place as its main vehicles. It begun as early as grammar school with simple questions posed to schoolchildren practicing their faith, in an attempt to ridicule them in front of their classmates. Students have a Cumulative Academic Record that supervises "ideological integration" and the religious involvement of students and their parents. This involvement would constitute a "demerit" on their record and would be used to deny access to the university or to careers with social impact to those who had that blotch in their record. This indirect repression followed Castro's religious policy of "making apostates not martyrs," and thus began the slow process of gradually attempting to choke off the religious community.
Indirect repression has also impacted the individual through the work place. The government's economic monopoly, whereby the state owns all means of production promoted discrimination against those who practiced religion. "Being religious" has constituted a stain on the worker's Labor Record preventing occupational advancement, and affecting the person's standard of living, since the government use to distribute important consumer goods through the work place where "ideological integration" played a role. As with education, the "religious" have been forced give up opportunities for promotion, becoming second class citizens. This has been, in actual practice, an ideological apartheid.
Religious ministers have also suffered strong repression. Defamatory letters, instigation of rumors, and constant spying are routinely employed. Harassing phone calls and blackmail, mostly through sexual entrapments, are used to psychologically destabilize them and promote their departure from Cuba. Foreign clergy have also been repressed. Some have been openly expelled from Cuba, while others have had their visa renewal rejected as was the recent case involving Sister Ligia Palacio, a Colombian nun who dared to write "too harshly" concerning human rights in Cuba in Vitral, a modest (only over 1000 copies are made by photocopy procedure) but outstanding publication of the Pinar del Rio diocese. Other foreigners have suffered an equal fate.
After his release from prison in 1976, Fr. Loredo continued to be a persona non grata. He, along with many of his parishioners were constantly harassed. This culminated in a mysterious, near fatal car accident in which he was a pedestrian. The Church finally promoted his "voluntary" exit from the island in 1984. A rather similar case occurred in 1995, when small-town priest Fr. Jose Conrado Rodriguez wrote a letter which courageously but respectfully criticized Castro and his regime. This increasingly popular priest had to leave the country in 1996 "to conduct studies abroad."
The government has also used its complete control over the entry of foreign religious personnel, as well as its control over equipment and materials for religious activities, as a form of subtle repression. The clergy has also been victim to repeated attacks through Cuban television and movies. Catechism classes have also been the target of harassment in many ways, particularly through the so called "street plans" (planes de la calle) designed to interrupt the attendance of children. Meanwhile their parents have been intimidated in other forms.
Another repressive method has been the sabotage of religious holidays like Holy Week. The government has forced it to coincide with the Victory at Giron Beach celebration in April (accompanied with mobilizations of workers), to prevent attendance at these religious services. Furthermore, Christmas was taken away from the Cuban people when Castro ordered its cancellation in 1969 to prevent work shortages in an attempt to reach the failed 10 million ton sugar harvest of 1970. This is unprecedented in the Western world, where even former communist Eastern Europe observed this Christian tradition. It appears that it was restored as a holiday for 1997 as a conciliatory gesture toward the pope after the discovery of an electronic bug in a room His Holiness will use in his upcoming visit.
Evangelicals have been especially repressed, since the government considers them officially associations and not religious denominations, and thus are subjected to greater scrutiny.
Religious organizations have been denied access to the mass media since 1960. But it is noteworthy that the government has been, in a subtle way, constantly promoting the sincretism between the Afro and Catholic beliefs called Santería, which lacks a strong moral code, and is more pliable to the effort for control. Santería has been portrayed in the media, which is fully all in governmental hands, as Cuba's majority religion, in an effort to undermine the traditional Christian denominations.
By the end of the 1980s, and after the publication of the book Fidel Castro and Religion (Fidel Castro y la Religion), with Frei Beto, where Castro projected a rather sympathetic view of religion, there was a relaxation of repression for reasons of tactical convenience. People began to attend religious services in greater numbers. Educational as well as labor discrimination for reasons of religious practice have diminished. However, the Cumulative Academic and Labor Records still exist and totalitarian power can demolish any religious effort or individual considered potentially "dangerous."
The 1989 demise of the USSR contributed to the growth in religious participation, especially among the youth. Castro agreed in 1992 to let believers participate in Cuba's Communist Party. Paradoxically, the opposite has happened. Many young people are looking to fill their spiritual void and live another reality of true human solidarity within the religious lay communities. In these groups, a true sense of fraternity and desire to serve others is apparent.
Also noteworthy is the work displayed by Caritas, the Catholic charities organization, which has tried to mitigate the growing material needs endured by the people with international help and obligatory payment in dollars. Caritas has donated large amounts of medicine to government centers and has been buying powdered milk and other food products at wholesale prices at the dollar stores that now sell to anyone having that currency (the "Shopping" as they are popularly called by the people) to be distributed freely, mostly among the elderly. This sector of society is the most affected by the huge inflation generated by the government which only sells certain vital goods in stores using that currency (a bottle of cooking oil, practically available here only, costs about half the average monthly salary in pesos). Upon realizing the positive effect of Caritas on the population, the government has undermined their effort by demanding that they buy at retail prices, thus making those purchases prohibitive.
The religious rebirth in Cuba has had to face a great obstacle: the lack of churches. No new churches have been built since 1959, and many, particularly in the interior, have had their roofs fallen due to disrepair resulting from the absolute control of materials exercised by the government. On the other hand, the number of priests is about the same as in 1961, after the expulsions. The people have resorted to conducting religious services in private houses, mostly in the interior. The regime has curtailed this practice. Many have been closed. A very popular Pentecostal minister, Orson Vila, was went to prison in connection with this ministry. Indeed the distinction between freedom of worship (not entirely the case here) and freedom of religion (seriously curtailed due to the multiple controls) is very valid in Cuba today.
Religious centers that become particularly popular are harassed, and if possibly, eliminated. Such was the case of the Pentecostal Bible Institute at Cifuentes, in central Cuba, that was attracting many young people to special retreats. This institute was closed in 1995 through legalistic subterfuge. Outstanding lay leaders are also harassed. This has been the case of Catholic agricultural engineer Dagoberto Valdes from Pinar del Rio, who was professionally demoted and his family life disturbed. Another, Osvaldo Payá, has had his family harassed and his house defaced to the point of being forced to evacuate.
News from Cuba suggests a governmental attempt to undermine the papal visit despite their claims otherwise. The international press has reflected this in connection with the curtailment of TV coverage, the availability of transportation (very little is in private hands), and the intimidation experienced by some attending preliminary religious events, like the open air Masses. Some believe that Castro is quite concerned about possible negative internal repercussions for his regime. Which leads us to predict that Castro will try to minimize the positive impact of the visit upon the people by undermining the effort in various subtle ways. Regardless, there is great expectation among the people. John Paul's visit could do a lot to advance the cause of human rights and the promotion of a true civil society. But we must be alert about harboring excessively high expectations for this visit in the short run, due to the sophisticated nature of the prevailing repression. Indeed, the pope will not find a Solidarity movement in present-day Cuba.
In any event, it may be worthwhile to remind His Holiness that in comparative terms, Poland's Jaruzelski was an apprentice when measured against Castro's repressive experience. Religious repression has been stronger and more cunning in Cuba than in Poland and Cubans lack the religious militancy of the Poles. Nevertheless, this visit may provide a strong injection of faith, hope and valor... We must not forget that although the overt religious repression of the 1960s has abated, it continues to be "an iron fist in velvet glove" as expressed to me by a very knowledgeable person on religious matters who resides in Cuba.
Dr. Juan Clark is sociology professor at Miami-Dade Community College. He has researched the issue of Cuban living conditions for over 25 years and has published extensively on this subject. This article is based on his last book, Religious Repression in Cuba.