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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 197 | Diciembre 1997



1979: The Frontier


María López Vigil

The compass that oriented us to the history of Cuban religiosity in the first 20 years of the revolution pointed permanently to conflict, tension, lack of understanding, silence, awkwardness, routine, and quiet hope.

Things began to change in 1979. That year marked a frontier. Starting then, the compass pointed for moments in various new directions--expansion, hope, reencounters--only to return again to the harsh past on occasions. But once the frontier was crossed there was no returning to the same exact point of the past.

* The Cuban "Enigma"

"It would be an error to believe that everything happened because we became Marxists, when the truth is that we became Marxists because of everything that happened," remembers a truly Marxist Cuban, evoking the humanist nature that characterized the Cuban revolution from the very first moment. This social justice project is the basis of the consensus and massive support that has sustained the revolution for so many years and through so many difficulties, the greatest of all being the arrogance of the nearby United States, such an inhuman and anti-Christian empire.

The social achievements in Cuba, creating wealth and redistributing it more justly, expanding participation, dignity, education at all levels, work, preventive and curative health, culture, sports, social security, in short "everything that happened," made the deficits in the way the revolution treated popular religiosity much less significant. The concern for humankind, responsibility for the common good and caring for life are gifts of gold in all great religions.

Love for others is the verifying test in the Christian faith. Christian faith is either love or it doesn't exist. In the 1970s, Latin America, the only continent that is both majority impoverished and majority Christian, witnessed the birth and development of Liberation Theology and base communities. That development contributed to fruitful alliances between Christians and revolutionaries and, above all, saw the blood of believers—pastors, priests, nuns, catechists, even bishops—shed in the name of the struggle "against atheistic communism" by the US government and its allies, the Latin American dictatorships. What happened in Cuba in those years remains a painful enigma: a state concerned with social justice and sovereign dignity with respect to the United States marginalized churches, undervalued religion and promoted atheism. Some Christian churches were paralyzed, silenced, keeping their distance from this state that promoted justice and sovereignty, not knowing how to dialogue with it.

* Two Windows are Opened

Liberation Theology did not come to Cuba in its time. And today, when it still doesn't even seem to have arrived, some ecclesiastical authorities consider it dead. Baptist pastor Clara Rodes explained that many Cuban Christians distrusted Liberation Theology when they heard of it at the end of the 1970s. "They thought it was a CIA plan to stanch the advance of Communism."
When Fidel spoke in Chile in 1972 and in Jamaica in 1977 to Christians who supported the social transformation processes happening in those countries, and when he applauded the "strategic alliance" between Christians and Marxists, the religious in Cuba saw that message as a revolutionary product "for export."
It is worthwhile to include here a disturbing question that has no easy response, which I have heard from some Latin Americans when commenting on the prolongation of the revolution's discrimination against the religious, despite the historical origins of the conflict. Was the party-state that has led the Cuban process ever truly interested in the emergence of a "popular church" in Cuba—alive, active, well organized, like yeast in the dough of society? Or was it really only interested in improving relations with church authorities, while applauding the "popular church" outside of Cuba, in the rest of Latin America? History's train moved on and we never got a clear response.

Outside of hypotheses, reality demonstrated that life does not stop nor does fresh air fail to enter just because the windows are closed. Two events in 1979 began to shake up the conflict between the state and religion. This movement came maybe late and certainly slowly, as slowly as most things move in Cuba. But the hour arrived. In January of that year, the meeting of Catholic bishops in Puebla "touched" the Cuban Catholic Church and woke it up. And the July triumph of the Sandinista revolutionary triumph in Nicaragua moved Cuba, the continent and the world.

* ENEC: A Stellar Moment

Various Cuban bishops attended the Puebla meeting, but their peculiar perspective was barely noted in its final documents. In those years Latin American reality was very homogenous and overwhelming. Cuba and its Church lived such a different reality that the country's religious, such an obvious minority, did not manage either to define anything or to communicate adequately after so many years of self-absorption.

Recognizing this gap and trying to fill it, seeking responses to questions of what the Cuban Church says about itself and what it can say to the other Churches, having "a Puebla in Cuba," led in 1979 to ENEC, the National Cuban Ecclesiastical Meeting. The years preparing for this event, which took place in 1986, revitalized the Cuban Church, its hierarchy and its bases. It also contributed to the Church community finding out more about what was happening outside of the "walls" of the paralyzed Cuban Church.

"You'll laugh," a friend told me, "but at that time we didn't know, for example, what was meant by laity, one of the most important concepts in Vatican II. In the ENEC preparatory meetings I remember that we talked about the youth here and lay people there... We thought lay people were the elderly."
ENEC shook the floor of the Catholic Church, its hierarchy and its minority but united bases. It was a stellar moment. Preparing for ENEC demanded five years of surveys, studies and research, meetings, debates, retreats and get-togethers, and parish, vicarage and diocesan assemblies. It demanded a serene look at the past and a daring look at the future.

The organized reflection that led to ENEC took place in the framework of the already very expanded Cuban reality of the 1980s, times of better quality of life and a new generation; the children of the revolution, educated, fed, thinking and restless, who had not lived the initial conflicts and who were now filling up the national scene as well as the limited, but always significant, Catholic space.

Another friend told me that in those times of ENEC he was the head of a parish youth group: "It was the first time we in the Church stopped to think that we'd spent all our time fighting the world and that wasn't the way to do things. And that was what ENEC signified: we've done enough protecting ourselves from the world, being on the defensive, having the fight be the church's whole identity. We've also had enough of thinking that the world attacking us is the revolution. No, the fanatics and extremists within the revolution are the ones attacking us. And listen, life has showed us that those fanatics were never revolutionaries. Look how many of them have left, how many of them want to leave now. ENEC was a mental eye-opener."

* Catholic Mistrust: Fear of Dialogue

Even though discrimination against religious people began to lose strength in the mid-1980s—among other reasons because education, even though atheist, educated everyone—the wounds were still unhealed. One of the toughest issues for the Catholic authorities and grassroots to assimilate was that of dialogue and reconciliation with the government. It was the issue that met with the most resistance. "We were distrustful because of everything that had happened. We feared dialogue, not because we were persecuted, but because we feared being manipulated," explains one Catholic.

Although more than ten years of that resistance has passed, there is still mistrust in the church and suspicion in the government, which explains many of the organizational short-circuits that have characterized the eve of the Pope's visit.

Despite everything, ENEC fulfilled its mission of opening spaces. "All of us who experienced it took away from it the experience of having a living church, with more spaces for participation, with open debate," it was explained to me. "We lay people feel listened to. We witnessed a change of mentalities." When I hear people speak today so enthusiastically about that experience, it seems to me that ENEC was for Cuban Catholics a concentration of three events that the other Latin American Churches had lived much earlier and in stages: Vatican II, Medellín and Puebla.

ENEC produced a Final Document that gathers the reflections of Catholics during this period. The passage of years has not taken the freshness away from the texts; they are both positive and propositive. The words of that document, "the most ecclesiastical and least clerical" in the history of the Cuban Catholic church, reveals the spirit that made possible this—unrepeatable?—experience.

* Nicaragua's Gift to Cuba

What was happening, meanwhile, in the official arena? There had been a halting distension between the government and the ecclesiastical authorities: facilities for reconstructing abandoned churches or for religious personnel to acquire vehicles for their work, official support for nuns who worked in homes for the elderly or other "charity works," etc. Although there was more latitude and tolerance, however, being religious remained a sort of negative social mark and officialized discrimination continued.

The great shift in the Cuban revolution's perception of religion would come through Nicaragua's revolution. After 20 years of fruitlessly supporting guerrilla groups who fought to take power throughout the continent, the now mature Cuban revolutionary process witnessed the birth of a little sister only a two-hour flight from home.

Cubans by the thousands flocked to Nicaragua: doctors, teachers, technicians, military instructors, sports trainers... There was massive collaboration in all fields. And thousands of Nicaraguans went to Cuba on scholarships to study; others, especially those with war disabilities, went to get medical treatment; others went to politically sightsee, or just went on vacation—but always to learn. In this ongoing daily interchange that lasted over ten years, Cubans witnessed that the religiosity of a good part of the Nicaraguan people was not in contradiction with the revolution. They discovered that, apart from the political conflict between various church authorities and the Nicaraguan government, there was "something else" in Nicaraguans' culture of rebellion and in the mortar of Sandinismo.

They found priests who were both ministers of God and ministers of the people. They experienced Liberation Theology not "in opposition" and denouncing injustice, as in the rest of Latin America, but "in power" and announcing achievements. This only happened in Sandino's Nicaragua. They discovered something of the harvest that had been achieved after a long period of sowing authentic Christian values fertilized with so much blood. Cubans in Nicaragua also saw a similar and even more relevant reality in El Salvador—those were the glorious years of Monseñor Romero—and in Guatemala, with its unending martyrdom.

Feeling its way, Cuba peeked at a hidden face of the religious "phenomenon." I still remember how a Managua Christian base community recoiled at this word. A Cuban functionary, scientific atheist and "expert in religious issues," came to the community and introduced himself. He had come, he said, to observe the "religious phenomenon." An upstart, irreverent woman stood up in pure Nica fashion and faced him: "Look, we're no two-headed goat, we are not a phenomenon!"
Tripping over each other, hundreds of Communist functionaries from the Cuban government, together with thousands of Cubans who collaborated with the Sandinista revolution with exemplary generosity, gave up in the face of the evidence that it was not just a phenomenon to be studied in books or congresses, but a warm and living questioning of Cuba's frozen reality. It was perhaps the greatest contribution little Nicaragua made to its older sister in those years.

* Fidel and Religion: A Bolt of Lightning

Cubans weren't the only ones who came to see and admire the Nicaraguan "phenomenon." In the 1980s Nicaragua became the destination of all the nonconformists on the planet; an open plaza, a Mecca or door to Bethlehem that people visited, pulled by its star or obliged by their faith. Religious people from around the world flocked to Nicaragua. The last classic revolution of the 20th century received John Paul II and Desmond Tutu, Hans Kung and Mother Theresa, Protestant bishops, Buddhist monks, Catholic theologians, fundamentalist preachers... And those visitors always questioned the veracity of the slogan, "There is no contradiction between Christianity and revolution."
One such visitor, who went from Havana to Managua and from there returned to Brazil only to come back again to Cuba and Nicaragua, hit the mark in this history. The impassioned lucidity of Brazilian Dominican Frei Betto contributed significantly to the religious thaw in Cuba.

In May 1985, Betto interviewed Fidel Castro for 23 hours, focusing on an issue untouched in hundreds of previous interviews: Fidel and religion. That's what he called the book that covers that historical conversation. It came out in Cuba at the end of 1985, and its thousands of copies sold out in hours. It has been one of the greatest bestsellers in Cuban publishing history.

The title of the book alone was a novelty and a provocation after 26 years of conflicts and run-ins. More and more copies were sold. The Cuban population devoured its 379 pages. And without yet digesting those pages, people began to comment ardently on what they had read. Seen from without, nothing was exactly shocking, in either form or content, although the text did contain some totally unknown biographical information and anecdotes about Fidel. Since there were neither revelations nor exclusives, what caused such upheaval on the island? It was the respect, the civility, and above all the appreciation with which Fidel spoke—for the first time—so extensively of "religion," especially Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, which is what he knows best, since he was educated in that religion for 12 years and its authorities were at the origin of the conflict.

Although Betto's book was soon translated into various languages and went around the world in very little time, Cubans did not read that message as another "product for exportation." Fidel was speaking to Cubans in Cuba. It was obvious that his message was destined to lay the groundwork for the thawing of the now obsolete official dogmatism. This book fulfilled an important historical mission and ushered in a new stage of openness, though not one exempt from backpedaling. That is now the current stage, the one the Pope is coming to learn about.

There was no lack of reticence and distancing by some ecclesiastical authorities, but "the religious," religious people, received the book and what it announced with happiness. Among Cuban communists—especially among the fanatics, mid-level functionaries and those coldest towards religious issues—feelings sizzled. Many began to move from suspicion towards rejection. "It was like a bolt of lightning hit official ideology," remembers a friend.

In those same months, Cuba convoked Latin America to an event to discuss the continent's unpayable foreign debt and a group of us Latin American Christians had a public pulpit in Havana with a warm welcome. In those same months Fidel appeared at the pulpit of the Methodist Church in Vedado, with his hand on the bible, accompanying US minister Jesse Jackson in a religious service. "There can't be anything wrong with religion when Fidel pays so much attention to it," was the general reflection on those events.

Signs began to appear on all sides. But the positions that crystallize in times of conflict are the most difficult to modify. And Cuban "atheism" was, in large measure, the crystallization of a political crisis that, though rusty, was still present.

* The Stamp of Scientific Atheism

Now on the eve of ENEC, and given this new situation of Fidel and religion, Cuban Catholics fanned expectant rumors that the government would take audacious steps and make profound positive changes. They expected, for example, that at the III Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (October 1986) official atheism would be eliminated from papers and from daily life. Betto had spoken with Fidel about that "state confessionality."
Although some official positions were more open than in the two previous Congresses, the Third Congress of the Cuban Communists did not respond to the religious community's hopes. Reality demonstrated that a sector of the Cuban people and a still majority sector of party militants persisted in experiencing atheism as "religious dogma." As a mature militant commented to me, "A whole generation was very deeply stamped with the belief that the revolution, scientific atheism and materialism and the three dialectic movements—wet, wring out and hang dry—are all one thing. And that nonsense was believed."
There were also political reasons in the party machinery, based on defensive attitudes, that kept dogma from breaking down. Ideological resistance to expelling that dimension of subjectivity called atheism finally prevailed, because dogmatic atheism offers certainty and security just as dogmatic belief does. It guarantees a kind of peace for the spirit that frees it from struggling with mysteries or biting the bullet of doubt. It's not easy to stop believing, and it's also not easy to stop disbelieving.

It was hard for Cuban atheists to stop being dogmatic, judgmental atheists, especially in those years when the Cuban revolution continued its inexorable march and little Cuba was confidently moving forward, resources were overflowing and optimism predominated in society. But there is a Cuban saying that "when the club falls no head can resist." Perhaps the US saying, "There are no atheists in the foxhole," is even more apt here. In just a few short years the club of crisis would fall on all heads, especially those of the most closed-minded.

* Waiting for the Right Moment

"The Church appears to want to and can, the state appears to want to. Will this project be carried out?" Cardinal Jaime Ortega commented in 1987, referring to the impatience among the Catholic faithful who had just gone through ENEC and waited for the official opening in 1986 that never happened.

But if the Cuban Communist Party lost a precious opportunity in 1986 to free itself from an anachronistic past of discrimination and begin a new path, something similar happened to the Catholic Church, which often imitates the society in which it finds itself. The Church also failed to take advantage of the opportunity offered by ENEC to go further along the pastoral paths that ENEC had opened, now with less baggage.

After such a rich debate, the Cuban Catholic Church didn't have the strategy or the organization. "We have always lacked a pastoral plan, always. And when we had one after ENEC, we never began to put it into practice," lamented a priest. The final ENEC document, which was needed to accompany that plan, went to Rome for review, took a long time getting back to Cuba, and when it finally did, the world—and Cuba's place in it—was beginning to change. In the USSR Gorbachev was initiating Perestroika and the Berlin Wall was beginning to crumble together with the European socialist model.

In those final "normal" years, before the Cuban government inaugurated the "special period" at the end of 1990, there was talk on various occasions of a possible visit by John Paul II to Cuba as another sign of the opening and of new times in Church-State relations. There were ups and downs, fears and expectations between the Catholic and government authorities, still distrusting and testing each other. Finally, the crisis began to justify putting off the event year after year, sometimes for one reason and sometimes for another, waiting for the most propitious moment. Will January 1998 be sufficiently propitious? And propitious for exactly what?

* 1991: Party Doors are Opened

The Cuban Communist Party lived its stellar moment with the preparation of the IV Congress in 1990. Six hundred thousand Cuban Communists were called to debate a brave, self-critical text, "The Call." It called on everyone's creativity to respond to the new situation that the island was beginning to experience after the fall of European socialism. Among the issues to be debated for the IV Congress were the elimination from PCC statutes of the discrimination established 25 years earlier that prohibited believers from joining the party.

Although the time now seemed to be ripe, it was still not easy. The anti-religious defenses taught in school, inculcated in the party nucleus, present in official propaganda, turned out still to be quite active. "Eliminating this discrimination was the most heatedly debated motion, the one that faced most resistance and had the least consensus," a militant told me years later.

Finally, in the name of national unity, the PCC opened its doors to believers in its IV Congress (October 1991), conserving in its definition the same Marxist-Leninist identity and therefore a determined materialist philosophy. The opinion that Fidel had expressed to Frei Betto in his book—and insisted on in debates in the Congress with all the weight of his authority—was decisive.

Tolerance of religious issues opened unforeseen situations. Concerns heard in the Congress could only have come from the dogmatism in which party militants had been trained. Like this one: "It's alright that we accept religious people entering the party, but what do we do with those who are already members and joined as atheists but now call themselves religious? Do they stay in or do we kick them out?"
In November, the Catholic bishops issued a pronouncement about the historic step the party had taken. The document had more doctrinal logic than evangelical comprehension and ended up being politically inopportune. In it, the bishops called the step taken by the PCC a "positive step," questioned the existence of a "single and selective" party and concluded: "If the PCC continues to maintain its integral atheism and its explanation of the physical, personal, social and political reality based on the postulates of materialism, it is morally impossible for Catholics to belong to that party without losing their Christian identity." Perhaps when changes are not made in time, the mature fruits that were hoped for are born dried out, without fiber or substance and are no longer edible.

* Some Join and Some Leave

Was this opening measure born dried out, did it come at the wrong time? A Catholic friend responded with this reflection: "The change wasn't so big. The party continued, and continues, to have a materialist philosophy, which is not mine. Many religious people feel that the change was only a new strategy. It came late for me because I'm 30 and have my own strategy. Listen, the revolution isn't the party. I never felt before and I don't feel now that the doors to the revolution open to me depending on whether or not the party gives me a membership card. I never felt that the doors to this project were closed to me, even though they discriminated against me so much when I was a child because I was religious. I don't need that change in the party to continue working for the well-being of others, for a just society, as I've always done. I have a bunch of religious friends who think the same way. I don't know many cases of religious people who joined the party after that measure. I know more cases of people who returned their party membership card in order to join the church."
A Communist militant pointed out to me that the PCC has never made public the number of believers who joined the party after the 1991 opening. "Probably because there weren't very many," he said, then added: "More than believers joining the party, what happened is that many militants confessed their beliefs, and many of them their belief in Santería. I think the main effect of the measure was that the party became more honest with itself."
The next year, 1992, with the reforms to the 1976 Constitution, the government took a much more transcendental step, though one less publicized and barely reflected on. All explicit or implicit expressions that committed the revolutionary state to atheism were eliminated from the constitutional text. The Cuban state began finally to be a secular state. But by then the material and spiritual, the objective and subjective signs of the Cuban crisis were painfully obvious and a new space opened up for religiosity. The religious faithful also began to develop a new agenda.

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The United Nations Hits the Nail on the Head

A Still-Present Past

1979: The Frontier

The Religious Agenda For the Time of Crisis

Some Clues to Possible Scenarios

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