|Central American University - UCA
Number 197 | Diciembre 1997
The Religious Agenda For the Time of Crisis
A COMPASS FOR PILGRIMS TO CUBA PART III
María López Vigil
All economic crises turn into crises of values, and of conduct. A material crisis always makes the leap into a spiritual crisis. If in 1993 the Inter-American Development Bank described the adjustments Cuba is making to deal with its economic crisis as "the most complex" in all of Latin America, one can magine the unending subjective adjustments that the Cuban men and women who are living stoically and uncertainly but united in the heart of that crisis have had to make since then.
In the religious terrain imagination isn't necessary. It's enough to observe. Churches and temples are fuller than ever, although, as many say, "they were never empty." The bible sells like hot bread in all book fairs. Many youths and adults are asking to be baptized. Anywhere one goes one frequently sees men and women of all ages dressed completely in white: they are making themselves "saints" in the Santería religion. And in the spiritist centers more and more participants are coming together to join hands and speak to relatives and friends who have already passed on to the invisible life.
For some years now, all journalists who report on Cuba have felt the need to underscore the religious revival. The Pope's visit has added dynamism to this awakening, and has put the religious agendas of both institutions and believers into greater relief.
* Return to the HereafterThe current renaissance of religiosity began in the mid-1980s, when the taboos imprisoned in the depths of people's consciences began to break down, from above, and official atheism decided to begin withdrawing from some spaces. From the basement of the soul, sentiments that had been repressed, hidden, forgotten or dissembled began to creep out from clandestinity.
"In the university we began to really debate a lot more themes," a friend told me, "although not in the classrooms. And if you were religious, they asked you all kinds of things. There was lots of curiosity, positive curiosity." Boys and girls began wearing crosses around their necks and peaking into the previously forbidden churches. The very Cuban "Alabao!" and "Ave María Purísima!" crept back into conversations. The December 17 pilgrimages to the sanctuary of El Rincón, to fulfill promises to St. Lazarus, became more and more multitudinous.
For the very old, what was happening was like a return to their roots. For the young, the esthetic pleasure of certain ceremonies, the attraction of meeting "different" people was something new, the unknown.
All these tendencies became generalized in the 1990s. Atheism was now breaking down from below and within. Cuban society suddenly lost reference points that it had believed were stable, almost eternal. The USSR committed suicide, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union shriveled, Europe's real socialism crumbled, the Sandinistas lost power, and with the end of the allied East, Cubans watched the threatening West strut around as omnipotent as a god. It was logical to return to the hereafter if so much was falling apart in the here and now.
The crisis in their own country also led many Cuban men and women back to religion. They were becoming disconcerted by the changes the crisis was bringing to their lives, worn down by the sacrifices that resisting so many difficulties required of them, and full of new "transcendental" questions for which the system in which they had lived for so long and so confidently did not know the answers, or did not want to or could not give satisfactory replies.
* They Still Believe in God!Today the religious "awakening" is happening in all directions. The numbers of Catholics, Protestants of all denominations, spiritists and, more than any others, the religions of African origin, such as Santería, have grown. Even the handful of some 500 practicing Jews has now doubled to 1,000.
All this quantitative and qualitative growth is real. "They still believe in God!" say the non-religious with surprise as they watch what is happening. And those who never ceased being religious say the same, but with satisfaction. "They still believe in God!" People are seeking "sense" in religion. And they are seeking community, love. A communist friend who was trying to understand this interior search better once told me that "among the militants in the party nucleus, we don't love one another."
But other, less serious wanderers are also going down the same road, alongside the real seekers. They go from one church to another, one denomination to the next, sampling, seeing which one they like best, what's being given out here or what they are saying over there. There's also a folkloric Santería, sparked by what is turning out to be a very profitable tourist boom. And, of course, a whole array of political interests have hitched onto the wagon of religious effervescence. Anyone who listens to Radio Martí, which broadcasts from Miami, picks it up immediately.
Religion is the missing aspirin, the most shielded activist space for the political opposition, a world in which to express that you're different, or dissident, or at the very least that you have a distinctive "look." It's all that and more. It's a fad, it's whatever is "prohibited," it's a means of personal affirmation, it's the lasting and permanent message, it's a wall that will not come tumbling down, it's paradise lost or paradise found. It's what religion always is: one of the deepest and most complex expressions of human subjectivity. There has always been a hodge-podge in Cuba, only now it's big time, which should be no surprise. "Now it's a huge mess," a wise old babalao (baba+awo = father+secret) of the Santería religion said of the "rebirth of faith."
* "Love Always Hopes"The breadth of the economic crisis surprised Cuba. Neither its material nor its spiritual aspects had been strategically foreseen. It produced months and months of perplexity, paralysis and a stubborn but fruitless gamble on resisting without changing virtually anything, putting on patches and perhaps hoping for a miracle—maybe striking oil, discovering a vaccine against AIDS, discovering the goose that lays golden eggs. September 1993 was a tough moment; Cuba, out of almost everything, was finally ready to undertake the first important economic adjustments. That month the 11 Catholic bishops from Cuba's 7 dioceses, published an extensive Message titled "Love Always Hopes."
In the media, all of them official, numerous voices harshly criticized the text, without making its content known. The result: tremendous publicity for the document. As a Catholic friend told me, "I never stopped cranking out photocopies in the office. It would never have reached so many people through the parishes as it did with that little help that the government gave us."
The Message was the third important collective posture assumed by the Cuban Catholic hierarchy during the whole revolutionary process up to that time. The first was in 1960, with the rupture; the second was one of dialogue in 1986, on the occasion of ENEC. Now, in 1993, in direct language, the bishops took a position on the national crisis and interpreted it. They made their agenda public.
They were prudent with paragraphs such as this one: "It is not up to us to point out the course that the country's economy should take, but it is to appeal for a serene and sincere balance sheet on the economy and its direction, in which all Cubans participate. Instead of short-term emergency measures, an economic project of defined contours has become indispensable, one capable of inspiring and mobilizing the energies of all the people. We do not exclude the possibility that such a project exists, but the fact that it has not been made known does not contribute to generating the confidence to strengthen the real energies of our country's men and women."
But they were daring when they suggested that, if the dollars of the Cuban exiles had recently been de-penalized to help save the economy, the Cubans they belonged to would have to be taken into account, too: "Today it is admitted that the Cubans who can help economically are precisely those whom we made strangers. Would it not be better to recognize that, as Cubans, they also have the legitimate right and duty to contribute solutions? How can we turn to them to ask their help if we do not first create a climate of reconciliation among all children of one people?"
The most audacious part of the agenda that the bishops put forward was the "political implications" that they saw in the economic crisis (see the column note on the facing page for the text). As a way out of the crisis, the bishops proposed a dialogue involving everyone, because "we have to recognize that there are distinct criteria in Cuba about the country's situation and possible solutions and that the dialogue is taking place in a half whisper in the street, work centers and homes." They further argued for "a dialogue not so much to find out 'why?' as 'for what?' because whys always discover a culprit and for whats always bring a hope with them."
* The Hour of HumilityThe thoughtful rationality of the bishops' document is evident. Nonetheless, after years of truce, of tantalizing approximations or of tensions never made public and even prudently surmounted in private, the Message created the last important known tension between the Catholic Church and the government. It could have had an influence on new delays in the Pope's visit.
No public reaction whatever came from the government, but the negative reaction of many revolutionaries is explained by the fact that the text reopened old suspicions that had never been put to rest. Perhaps the key to official discomfort was that few revolutionaries in 1993 had yet taken on board the scope of the crisis that Cuba was already experiencing, and would have to go on experiencing.
It was not easy to assimilate. For over three decades the revolution had skillfully and successfully eluded huge pitfalls, always playing to be a small major power. Now, even though the game was ending, the realistic humility that would allow in the realization that Cuba would have to start anew, reinventing the revolution and socialism, had not yet become generalized.
There was also a lack of humble realism on the bishops' part after so many years of cautious silence. It was hard to get beyond surprise reading their message. It was as if yesterday we had known someone who moved around only with the help of a cane and now we saw the person pole vaulting.
Did the bishops want to hasten events, to speed up that imminent collapse of the revolution that the whole world began to impatiently or fearfully expect after 1990, when the USSR disappeared? "It has been a tendency in the Catholic hierarchy, since the beginning of the revolution and for many years afterward, to doubt the revolution's permanence, to doubt its capacity to survive," commented one priest. "To think it's falling, that it won't last, has been one of the many causes behind the bishops' inability to design a strategic project, to think about a pastoral with the political dimension of church life."
Were they thinking that way again, reviving that historic tendency? Together with a realistic description of the crisis, the 1993 Message contains an implicitly hopeless appraisal of the crisis, as if it were an irreversible catastrophe, as if any recuperation, any reconstruction, were already impossible. The logic of the bishops' Message is this: God was absent from the revolutionary project and for that reason, even though there was justice, love was missing; that is why we must return to love and to God. In the debates from a conference called ECO, with which ten years of ENEC was celebrated, one reads this statement: "The Church is the only voice that speaks for man in an integral way."
Many Cuban revolutionaries have now adopted more lucid humility to grasp the crisis the revolution is going through, though they still respond more to calls to resistance than to promoting participation and creativity. And the Cuban bishops? Will they still cling to the interpretation they made in 1993? Have they implicitly or explicitly transferred that perspective from their agenda to John Paul II? Will that be the vision His Holiness brings with him to Cuba?
* The Tower of BabelThat interpretation of the Cuban crisis subtly proposes to equalize four decades of revolution with the haughty and challenging construction of a tower of Babel, like the one God ended up punishing with a sudden collapse. This is what some "Cubanologists" from Miami seek to transmit when they enthusiastically speak of the Cubans' religious awakening.
This same vision is present in the ingenuousness of some religious men and women who work in Cuba. If a hundred, two hundred children now come to their previously nearly empty catechism classes, they speak emotionally of a rebirth of faith in the families. Might it also be that they give the children a glass of milk and a piece of bread with butter with the teaching of catechism? If young girls knock at the doors of the novices, asking to be nuns, these knocks are eagerly read as proof of the thirst for God among Cuban youth. Isn't it also that the novitiate is an expeditious road out of Cuba to later stay abroad with a job and no nun's habit? Isn't such an upsurge of the Catholic charismatic movement because members get paid trips to meetings and congresses? Aren't people today looking to get married in the church not so much because of the grace of the sacrament but because a freshly painted, kitch church is prettier than the now run-down "wedding palaces"?
There is authenticity and Just there is search. But there are also other things. As a Cuban refrain says, "Just because the mud turtle submerges doesn't make it a submarine."
* Ethics, Esthetics and PhotocopiersThere's realism in the Catholics' agenda, too. It was a parish priest who, with a humorous twinkle in his eye, offered me this reflection: "Why do you think so many people are now asking us to baptize them? So they can later become saints, that's why. Santería is linked to Catholicism, to our festivals, our saints. The syncretism of Santería is with Catholicism, not Protestantism. Totally pure Santeros are only a minority. Santeros value priests, they consider us sacred; they receive the sacraments, know the Catholic doctrine and respect it."
A young Catholic woman, a friend of mine, commented to me that "the people of my generation went through childhood in big, ugly, neglected high schools. We harvested potatoes at the same time that we were studying. We learned in battle. And we did it. Now there are other things, and when some youths discover another world, pretty churches, living setups where sweet nuns cook divinely and give you kisses and make you feel welcome...they get religion! Today's conversations aren't about ethics. It's also a question of esthetics!"
And a Catholic professional, who had spent her whole life bucking the tide of unjust discriminations to declare her faith, always participating in church works, spoke to me of some dark sides of this "rebirth of faith": "I don't think the churches are growing. They are renewing themselves, but they aren't growing, because they're like a revolving door. Can there be so many conversions, so much vocation? Split it in two and keep half! Since there's no capacity or any serious pastoral plan for attending to those who come in, people go back out again kind of stunned, and they stay gone. What there is now, instead of a pastoral plan that's appropriate to what's going on, is the dazzle of resources, of having a big office, the best photocopying machine, a good computer, a vehicle. With this thing of the NGOs, the diocese isn't presenting projects to them but is asking for money to set up offices."
The Protestant churches are facing a similar set of problems: the challenge of choosing between quantity and quality. They are also worried about the distance being created between the faithful and the pastors. Due to their work, now multiplied by the influx of new believers, the latter have easy access to technical resources, trips and products paid for in dollars that the population doesn't have.
* New Believers, New EducatorsThe most realistic Catholics recognize that there's a lot more heat than light among those flocking to be baptized or confirmed, who go to mass or want to learn to pray. But at the same time, they place a lot of value on the real lights they find. They feel that the Church, with all its resources, lacks the capacity to accompany the long process that will allow quality to be discerned, that road on which a human being with confused religious sentiments sets out and which should end in a solidly formed and committed faith.
A priority point on the Catholic Church agenda today is to gain space in the mass media so it can multiply its voice, so far limited to parish work, the religious service, and catechism for children, teenagers and adults. This aspiration will find an exceptional opportunity in the Pope's visit.
There is a paucity of pastoral agents. It has not been rare to hear of recently trained pastoral agents taking advantage of the first opportunity they find—a trip to attend some church event, for example—to leave Cuba on a one-way ticket. Stay or go: this watershed, which has marked all of Cuban society for so many years and is more tempting today than ever, has also influenced the life of the church and of religious workers.
The Cuban government's greater flexibility, allowing in new religious congregations and new priests as a fruit of the distension, is not yet sufficient to assure capability in accompanying the new believers' process of faith.
The Religious Affairs Office functions out of the PCC's Central Committee. During the times of conflict it was headed by José Felipe Carneado, a militant of the PSP, which was the communist party prior to the revolution. For the last four years it has been run by Caridad Diego, a woman known well by religious workers all over the island and quite capable of handling such a delicate post. Among other things she is admirable because, as a woman, she has learned to dialogue authoritatively with the religious leadership, which is no easy feat given that, in the church, authority is a "man's thing."
One of her office's current concerns is that the majority of religious men and women arriving today to attend to the people are not Cuban. Furthermore, it considers that the rigidity of the training given in the seminary and in the novitiates turns off many national vocations.
Mexican priests from the Legionnaires of Christ have come to Cuba. Known in their own country as Millionaires of Christ for the elitist mentality their schools inculcate in the children of Mexico's wealthiest families, the Legionnaires have been given responsibility for the education programs in Camagüey. Priests and lay personnel from Opus Dei have also arrived from Spain and Mexico. As in all countries, they bring a lot of material and financial resources and seek to attract youth and professionals, to train them in a sectarian and also elitist religious ideology. In Cuba they seem mainly to be targeting the very numerous and well-educated medical professionals, to offer them programs of religious formation. I heard in Havana that "those from Opus are setting up a huge bioethics hall," but I wasn't able to see it. Priests who adhere to the charismatic renovation and those linked to the neocatechumenal communities, with their particular apolitical and festive educational style, have also been present in Cuba for some years.
* "There's a lot of capability here"Groups of nuns are inserted into Cuban neighborhoods or center cities, or in rural towns, no longer living in the great convents of yesteryear but in small communities, many of them having shed their habit, like just one more family. They support the parish pastoral. Almost all of them came to Cuba in the past few years. At the beginning people only wanted medicines from them, as if they were a pharmacy, or food, as if they were a warehouse, or sometimes a ride to the beach, as if they were a transportation company. "Everything Cuba was lacking they wanted from us," reminisces one of these women.
With time, people began generously to give them some of the little they have and to seek other things from them: education, criteria, doctrine. It's that golden moment in which these religious women are discovering Cuba's comparative advantage over the rest of Latin America, even in church issues. "It's an advantage that is the ripe fruit of the revolution," said another nun who has been happily working on the island for three years. "Here you make progress rapidly, they learn a lot right away; there's a lot of capacity. What there is in Cuba is a strong sense of being subjects."
Those who come from other parts of Latin America can't help feeling disconcerted, particularly if they have lived breathing the rarified air of the continent's religious who created liberation theology. It disconcerts them, for example, that little girls in socialist Cuba want to have first communion so they can wear white muslin and lace dresses like 50 years ago, and reject any simpler alternative. It disconcerts them that the ecclesiastical authorities give them warm welcomes then quickly place them just anywhere, leaving them to quickly feel adrift without a pastoral plan with clear objectives to help them mark the course of their new work. They soon discover, however, that, if they're patient, these aspects permit them new spaces and more freedom to develop their educational work.
The nuns are patient. As everywhere else, women deal better with adversity and novelty. Some religious men get impatient. Many of them came to Cuba with the baggage of important experiences, including risky ones, in significant base work. They don't see much sense in what they are being called upon to do in Cuba. "We left difficult pastoral work in our countries and when we got here we haven't been able to get any clear idea of the role we're supposed to play," they say. "Yes, there are old people to visit and on Sunday we have to give catechism and there are always people asking and asking for things, but is that why we came? Cuba's another world, we already knew that, but what is it we're supposed to do in this world?" Some don't stay.
* The Limits of Soy MilkOne of the many things that trips some of them up is the limits of Cuba's political system. The scant autonomy that Cuban civil society still has within the revolutionary project makes it tough to move forward with the initiatives in which these religious workers are accustomed to working and have proven experience—or it cancels them. "I knew some nuns who came to Cuba in 1992, when people were falling down from hunger," a woman friend told me. "They had come from Nicaragua, where they had a very successful soy milk project in a poor Managua neighborhood. They had organized the people there to plant soybeans, harvest them and make soy milk, and to share it around. They got the neighborhood to improve its conditions; the children had food and the people participated. When they got here they immediately thought of doing something similar in the neighborhood where the bishops sent them. Such a project would let them get to know the people and their problems better, and they would be able to demonstrate in practice that Christian faith isn't just going to mass or praying, but is also a social commitment, communal labor. But they couldn't do anything. The only legal coverage for a project of that kind is what a self-employed worker has, but to produce enough soy for a whole neighborhood, a single worker and his or her family, which is all the law permits, isn't enough. For something like that to produce results, you have to organize a whole bunch of families."
I asked if they had tried to coordinate with the neighborhood's popular power. "Of course," I was told, "but popular power told them, 'Fine, you nuns fundraise for the project, for the seed, the machinery to make the soy milk with, and afterward we'll organize the people.' You get what I'm saying? No religious worker, no one from the church, even someone from liberation theology, can be at the head of anything here, nobody but the state can be responsible for any social project."
Some women, and some men, understand and are waiting. They believe that the formational work they can do is as important as the social projection work that they're not allowed to do, perhaps even more so. Others live on the edge of a displeasure that they share with a sector of the national clergy, which is seeking not only social but also political projection. It's harder for those who come from abroad to understand limits and opportunities. They came in on chapter 42 of an extremely complicated soap opera without having seen the previous 41 chapters. Perhaps the actual script would have cleared things up for them.
* Being Catholic Today: Many New ChallengesIs the Cuban Catholic Church in any shape to respond to the religious "awakening," to know how to distinguish between wheat and what just looks like it? Is it willing to accompany or does it want to protagonize? Where is this nascent religiosity headed? Will the Church grow after the bubbles of effervescence have popped or not? It's a big challenge for the religious institution and for the Cuban religious community. The Catholic agenda is replete with challenges.
When Mother Theresa of Calcutta visited Cuba at the end of the 1980s, she had a long and cordial visit with Fidel Castro. She went to ask his permission for her missionary nuns to found a home for abandoned elderly people. Fidel graciously accepted her proposal. Bring your nuns, he said, build your home, but you aren't going to find one single abandoned old person in Cuba.
Would he have said the same now, when so many elderly people, even if they don't sleep in the street or walk around begging, receive a monthly pension of barely 80 pesos, the equivalent of under $4? I spoke about these things to some Catholics, not new converts but those who have been believers all their lives. One said to me, "Until a short time ago I, as a Christian woman, didn't have to worry about whether my neighbor ate or not, because that was a problem of the state. My charity went along other more moral, more ethical lines. But now my neighbor doesn't eat and the state doesn't guarantee that she can eat. What am I supposed to do? We weren't prepared for this. They educated us for solidarity, but with a lot of paternalism. Not even the government was prepared for the special period, and the Church wasn't either. We Cuban Catholics have to learn to live our faith as a social commitment."
This discomfort surrounds the most awakened. Another woman said to me, "When I was little and they followed me to church to see how I got down on my knees and they laughed at me, I went right on. In school I learned how to win my space, and even though I was religious I got to be a correspondent. Same thing in the university. In the assembly of the exemplary they always proposed me for the Youth, forgetting that I was religious. I knew how to win my space arguing my faith, speaking to others to defend it. And now that there aren't those things any more, in such a different situation, I ask myself what my space will be."
Yet another said to me, "In the communities in my time, being Christian was simply this: being a silent witness, confessing your faith and being best in everything. My childhood was marked by providing the example: the most honest, most reliable, most sacrificing. Those who grew up after me didn't have to give that example, because they no longer 'persecuted' us like at the beginning; now you don't have to be exemplary, you can be whatever you like. And now we have to begin to live our faith as a social commitment, but with a younger generation that wasn't raised in the habit of sacrifice. How are we going to do it?"
No one spoke to me of the "political" commitment that their Christian faith could have in Cuba's current situation. That doesn't mean that this theme is absent from the agenda of the Cuban Catholics. It's very present on the agenda of a sector of the ecclesiastical institution. Faith and politics, political participation of the laity, the political role of believers: will John Paul II say something about this necessary but extremely delicate relationship in the Cuba of the 1990s, more exposed than ever before to the obfuscating policy of the United States?
* The Protestants and Their ChallengesIn Cuba you don't say "evangelicals" like they do in the rest of Latin America. Everyone speaks of Protestants, and that's what they call themselves, too. The Protestant agenda contains questions and realities very similar to those found on the Catholic agenda, just on a lesser scale. Other differences are determined by the fact that pure Protestantism is even more of a minority than pure Catholicism in Cuba and that the Catholic Church authorities have always been historically and culturally closer to both political power and popular religiosity, the latter with a marked African stamp.
The Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal denominations—the "mainline" Protestant Churches—are fuller than before for the liturgies, the social activities, for anything that gets organized. The numerous houses of worship, where many evangelical denominations have celebrated the liturgy for some years now, are also filling up.
According to a Catholic friend, many youths educated in atheism and now touched by religious restlessness are leaning toward the Protestants. As she explains, "Cuban society is very free in sexual aspects, as you know. And the Catholic Church is very rigid. Some of the Protestant Churches have more advanced ideas than the Catholics, like allowing divorce and family planning."
"You know what I like about some Protestants that we Catholics have never had?" another friend said to me. "For some of them being from a community isn't just going to church. The community sticks together in the neighborhood. They know when someone is sick and visit the person; they know each other and help each other. I also like that their churches are bright. Some Catholic churches are creepy."
As on the Catholic side, one perceives a certain simplistic triumphalism on the Protestant side in response to the cascade of "conversions," identifying the crisis with the tower of Babel. Convinced of the imminence of the end of the world—one whose clearest signals, naturally, would be the end of the socialist world in Europe—the fundamentalists add alarmism to the misfortune of Babel.
But also as among Catholics, there is lucidity, humility and self-criticism among Protestants. In opposition to those who are busy chalking up converts and harvesting quantity, others are busy sowing quality and assuring Christian commitment. Many Protestants are specifically concerned now about the fact that many of those preachers of freelance sects that abound in Latin America and all over the millenarist, globalized, end-of-century world are moving in on Cuba under cover of tourism, mixing with the avalanche of visitors.
I saw one of these blond "tourists" with broken Spanish in La Rampa, inviting anyone who stopped to listen to her to attend "Christian sessions to cleanse up from cancer." The people, curious, accepted the colored cards that she gave out. Some shrugged and walked away and others jotted down the address where the promised "night of miracles" would take place.
* Difficult Catholic-Protestant EcumenismIn moments of difficulty with the Catholic hierarchy, Fidel Castro has sought a counterweight to Catholicism in Cuban culture, by politically throwing the spotlight on the Protestants.
One very significant such occasion was in 1990, when Fidel and the Catholic bishops went through a period of strong, though little publicized tension. Processions had been authorized in those months, after nearly three years of being cloistered within the four walls of the churches. Some took advantage of a few of the processions to mix shouts of Down with Fidel! with the You Will Reign Forever! and other religious chants of the 1950s. There were also other incidents. The situation created a spiral of friction, new prohibitions and another round of friction.
Fidel Castro later traveled to Brazil, where he met with bishops and Catholics from base communities. "These are the Catholics and the bishops I wish we had in Cuba," Fidel said to the Brazilians, provocatively taking advantage of the moment. That meeting was given wide coverage in Cuba. A short time later, to send an even stronger signal, Fidel met with 74 Protestant leaders in an encounter that was televised across the country. The Protestants expressed their support for the revolution and for Fidel, although they also protested three decades of discrimination. Fidel used the meeting to announce changes that would be made regarding religion in the IV Party Congress.
That meeting had multiple effects. It created distension with some Protestant sectors, but more tension with others, particularly the most traditional ones, those distanced not only from revolutionary politics but from all "politics" in the name of their faith. It also made the Catholics tense. As one friend commented, "I think that manipulation, that Manichaeism that the government has on occasion used for some Protestant Churches and some of their leaders, has contributed to creating more barriers between the government and the Catholics."
These kinds of situations may also have helped undermine ecumenism between the Catholic and Protestant authorities, while the people tend to live ecumenism naturally—though they don't call it that—as an expression of the extended syncretist crossovers among all the beliefs. It cannot be forgotten that the weakness of the ecumenical Catholic-Protestant spirit also influenced the pre-Vatican II mentality in which Cuban Catholicism crystallized within the revolution.
Ecumenism was one of the boldest and most novel banners that the Vatican II Bishops' Assembly raised among the Catholics. "My formation," recalls one Catholic of an earlier generation, "was with them insisting that we Catholics have truth and right on our side, telling me that the Protestants were the ones who split off, that they're to blame for the division among Christians. And I'd say that that mentality has lasted whole cloth right up to today."
* Ecumenism Among the ProtestantsEcumenism does exist among the different Protestant churches. In fact the Ecumenical Movement arose in Cuba in 1941, encouraged by the mainline Protestant churches in order to join together among themselves and to unite the churches emerging within the country and the new denominations arriving from outside.
The Ecumenical Council of Cuba, which is now called the Council of Churches, is heir to that movement, and has struggled for unity among Protestants. The Council is now a local counterpart to and interlocutor for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. The most progressive sectors of Cuban Protestantism coordinate actions in the Council. Those same sectors began to gain strength and presence in the 1980s, "when we decided to shake off two fundamentalisms," one of their leaders explained to me: "Pentecostal fundamentalism and Marxist fundamentalism, because both of them claimed that religion and faith are only for the four walls of the temple and the four walls of the house."
The Council of Churches brings together 30 evangelical groups and ecumenical Protestant movements. Another 20 very conservative denominations faithful to Pentecostal fundamentalism have not joined the Council. Of these 20, only 3 are important by virtue of their history and number of faithful: the two Baptist Conventions—Eastern and Western—and the Assemblies of God. The remainder are very small sects born out of the successive divisions that often occur within Pentecostal Protestantism.
* Santería: The Belief with Deepest RootsThe Rule of Ocha, or Santería, of Yoruba origin, has a pantheon of gods but myriad syncretist links with Catholicism as well as with other cults of African origin, such as Paleros and Ñáñigos, which have been forged over the centuries. It was the largest religion in Cuba before the revolution, remained so during the years of atheist dogma and continues to be today. It was from a Catholic priest that I heard this reflection: "Many Cuban men and women, a huge number, will see in John Paul II not so much the pastor of the Catholics as Obatalá, who has come from very far, dressed in his color—white—to bless them, to bless Cuba."
Although the first Cuban Constitution guaranteed freedom for all religions, being Babalao, being Palero, or being of the Abakuá society was considered an index of social danger in the Penal Code. As always happens, that led these religious practices to surround themselves with secrecy and sort of go underground. They were considered socially as "superstitions" or "a black thing," although given how wide afield their roots had spread, even back then, they were also obviously "a white thing."
The 1940 Constitution conceded more space and freedom to the Afro-Cuban cults. The revolution indirectly dignified this religious tradition by frontally going after the discrimination against Afro-Cubans that existed in the white and racist culture. Insofar as all opportunities that the wealthy white already had were opened to the poor and the black, a great door was also opened to Santería.
Between 1959 and not so long ago, the celebration of certain Santería services still required getting a permission that the Catholic masses had never needed, even in the worst moments of the conflict. But this does not seem to have been perceived as either "persecution" or discrimination. The way María, a Santería worshipper, sees it, "The revolution has its laws and we of Santería respect them. There are no problems. It's no big deal that we have to ask permission to practice our rites. It always had to be done, whether for a saints' festival or not. That isn't something the revolution invented. It comes from much earlier. From the colony."
Today permissiveness is total. So much so that Jaime Ortega, the Cardinal of Havana, enviously said before the papal delegate at the 10th anniversary of ENEC in February 1996, "There are times in which the atheism of the state seems to have been replaced, as a kind of official creed, by Cuban Santería as a national religion."
As a result of the long past of prohibitions and low esteem--more for being black than for being a Santero--Santería believers were minimally organized before 1959. Today they are increasingly organized and appear more and more linked to believers of this tradition in other Latin American countries. They have grown a lot; they say they have fifteen thousand babalaos, who pass down the rites and beliefs, are consecrated to prophesy and interpret the destiny carved out for the living by the ancestors and forces of nature, and take the new "saints" under their wing. It is the highest dignity in Santería.
Santería also has specific challenges on its agenda at this time. It will be the task of this legion of babalaos to discern "on the mount" of their religiosity what is true and what is pure merchandise, tacky folklore and shystersism for gullible tourists.
* The Famous Marianao Shrine CaseToday's crisis is the biggest one the Cuban nation has faced in its brief but dense history. The boom of religiosity, of spirituality, of subjectivity is only one element within this crisis, but it is an important one. It raises challenges not only to Catholics, Protestants and Santeros, but also to those who, though not believers, are taking the Cuban state's new secular character seriously. These are the revolutionaries who are struggling today to maintain the gains of socialism and want to reinvent it creatively.
One perceives that the meaning of the fact that the state is and should be a secular state has not yet sunk in. Still missing is a perspective of flexibility; a tendency to replace official and intolerant atheism with official and intolerant secularism seems to be what some officials have in mind.
I was told of the famous "shrine case," a Felliniesque episode that took place in a zone of Marianao, in Havana, and left a tension that is still simmering. In the 1950s a dark-skinned man from the neighborhood asked the Virgin of Charity for a miracle. When he got his miracle, he paid his promise to put her image on a street corner near his house. Very soon neighbors made the miraculous image theirs and one built a shrine to her. They carried flowers to her, prayed to her and asked more miracles of her. The shrine became a strong religious expression and a sign of the neighborhood's identity. With handouts, the shrine's owner began to celebrate a fiesta with the neighbor children on September 8, the festival of Charity.
The shrine survived the atheism of the 1960s and continued to be a point of confluence for the beliefs of many. It became a symbol. In the 1970s, when some thieves, also devotees of the image, took off running after stealing some valuable jewelry, they tossed one of the pieces into the shrine. It was their particular homage for the success of their theft. The thieves confessed after the police grabbed them and interrogated them. When a couple of policemen tried to break the shrine to retrieve the missing piece of jewelry. the whole neighborhood rose up as one and prevented them.
One day not long afterward the authorities decided that the neighborhood's "problem" was nothing more and nothing less than that shrine, a mixture of religiosity, delinquency, symbol of a neighborhood organized outside of their control. First they ordered that the light be removed from the shrine, so the neighbors lit it from then on with candles and wicks. Finally the son of the man who had put up the image of the virgin in the first place ended up withdrawing it and the shrine began to deteriorate. For the 20 years since then the determination to reinstall the Virgin of Charity on the old corner in a new shrine has remained stubbornly alive. Today, with the new religious effervescence, the decision is uncontainable and unanimous: party militants and non-militants, believers and non-believers, all want the shrine back where it belongs.
* "What does being secular mean anyway?"There have been heated discussions. Popular Power authorities elected by the neighborhood support people's desires, but party authorities have determined that, in the name of state secularism, the shrine cannot be put back. "Secular or not, the people are going to put it back no matter what," a Popular Power delegate from a nearby municipality told me. He knows about the famous case and is concerned about it. "It's an unnecessary conflict. What sense does it make now to have a religious war in the name of the secular state? Why make putting back this silly shrine into something that's against the revolution?" He paused a minute, then said somewhat sheepishly, "Hey, chica, will you please explain to me what this thing of being secular means anyway?"
"The party," said another delegate, "is staying out of this phenomenon of the popular religiosity boom, acting like the wise monkeys: I see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing, and therefore I have no problems. They only authorize what is imposed by force: the Virgin of the Way, the festivals of the Virgin of Regla, the Abakuá organizations in Regla and Guanabacoa and even the Jehovah's Witnesses. In this case, why make the people put up the shrine by force? Isn't it better to put it up as a community project, supported by the Popular Council, by the people of culture, by all the other factors of the mass organizations?"
Perhaps the Pope's visit, with all its push and pull, will be a big school to make functionaries and non-functionaries alike understand better what secular is and what cultural and grassroots sensibility ought to be in relation to the issue of religion.
"How's the atheist ideology in Cuba going to be eliminated?" asked a Marxist-thinking revolutionary friend with truly secular desire. "As part of an anti-revolutionary social reaction, opposed to the revolution, an attitude that's on the rise today because of the difficulties we're going through every day? Or as a deepening of Cubans' socialist culture?" That's the greatest challenge on the religious agenda of all Cuban revolutionaries, whether they are believers or non-believers.