The March 2012 visit to Cuba of Pope Benedict XVI focused attention on the emergence of the Catholic Church as an influential actor in the island nation. While the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II was heralded as a watershed in church-state relations in Cuba, the more recent visit reflected the increasing influence of the church at a crucial time in the country’s history.
A nominally Catholic country, Cuba has historically been religiously diverse with low levels of practice and high levels of syncretism. From the 15th century up until the 1959 revolution, the Catholic Church in Cuba was predominantly staffed by Spaniards. Priests and religious were concentrated in educational institutions in urban areas. Wide swaths of the island were relatively un-churched. A 1957 survey of 400 rural families by Agrupación Católica revealed that only 52.10 percent identified themselves as Catholic and 53.51 percent had never laid eyes on a priest. A very high percentage (41.41 percent) claimed to have no religion, while 3.26 percent identified themselves as Protestants. Both Catholics and Protestants traditionally had low levels of practice ranging from 3 to 4 percent for the former and 5 to 6 percent for the latter, ratios that still hold true today. However, surveys in the 1990s revealed that over 80 percent of Cubans believed in the divine, not necessarily in Jesus, Yahweh or Shango. In short, Cuba is a nation of believers, if not of churchgoers.
Cuba emerged early in the Spanish colonial period as a commercial entrep?t that saw a continual flow of individuals not only from Europe and Africa, but also from the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. While commercially important as a rendezvous point for the Spanish fleets, it never developed as a colony to the same extent as the Viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru. Indeed, it was not until the emergence of Cuba as a major sugar producer in the 19th century that Spain paid much attention to the island. As a consequence, Cuba enjoyed more autonomy than many of the other colonies. In the early 19th century as the Spanish crown and church attempted to exercise more control over the somewhat unruly island, political, economic and ecclesial conflicts heightened. These were reflected in the writings of Father Felix Varela, who called for independence, democracy and human rights. The inflow of Spanish clerics from newly independent mainland colonies, as well as Haiti, deepened tensions and strengthened the anti-independence image of the institutional church. The upsurge in the importation of slaves from Africa from the late 18th through the mid-19th century fed not only the independence armies of 1868-78 and 1895-98, but disseminated African religious beliefs widely. These became merged with Catholic beliefs, as well as Cardecianism  from Europe. The result was widespread syncretism, together with flexibility and adaptability of religious beliefs and practices, and limited denominational and institutional loyalty.A Diversity of Faiths
The onslaught of Protestant missionaries in the early 20th century helped reinforce religious diversity. This was also a period of heavy immigration from Spain, Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, which spread secularism, Protestantism and Judaism. By the 1950s Cuba, an ostensibly “Catholic” country, was religiously diverse and selective in terms of practice. Popular religiosity focused on devotion to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba, who was also identified with the African spirit Oshun. Today surveys suggest that well over one half of Cubans engage in informal religious practices, while only a handful attend services regularly. It is not surprising that when the Castro revolution triumphed in 1959, institutional religions did not serve as a major impediment to the consolidation of a communist state. Nevertheless, in 1959-1960 the Catholic Church, still heavily Spanish in terms of its personnel, initially served as an institutional base for some anti-Castro movements, which quickly petered out as more and more of the laity, clergy and religious left the country.
Approximately 85 percent of Catholic personnel departed, while all of the Episcopalian clergy left. The Methodists and Presbyterians lost virtually all of their ministers. Only the Baptists in the Eastern part of the island retained a good portion of their clergy, which helped them survive and grow. The bulk of the Jewish community left (90 percent). Since the 1980s, however, virtually all of the historical religions in Cuba have experienced a resurgence. In recent years new groups have emerged including pentecostals and neo-pentecostals. Seminarians frequently come from non-religious families. Interviews with these individuals reveal that for many there is a hunger for a belief system other than materialist atheism. In the early 1990s the Cuban constitution was changed to eliminate the latter as the official position. Today the Cuban state is described as secular and the Communist Party admits believers to its ranks.
The exodus of religious personnel in the first half of the 1960s and official discrimination against individuals “who made religion a way of life” stripped the institutional churches of much of their capacity to maintain their activities. Some church people, including the current Cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega Alamino, were interned in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). Many congregations became refuges for the disaffected. Protestant and Catholic schools, where many of the revolutionary elite were educated, including the Castros, were shuttered for lack of personnel and education secularized. Most Catholic publications ceased and religions tended to retreat to the margins of Cuban society. In 1968 and 1969 the Catholic Church began a process of rapprochement with the state issuing pastoral letters criticizing the United States’ embargo of Cuba and urging the faithful to cooperate with government programs conducive to the common good, particularly those related to education and health care. Some Catholics, including youth activists, were alienated, feeling that the church should take a more critical stance.
In the early 1970s Fidel Castro issued a number of statements to the effect that there were no major impediments to church-state cooperation. Influenced somewhat by the spread of progressive elements within the Catholic and Protestant churches in other Latin American countries, as well as pragmatism, the Cuban government slowly began to reduce the anti-religious orientation of the revolution. The process was slow, but it gained speed as the government, which based its legitimacy upon meeting the basic needs of all Cubans, was increasingly unable to do so, particularly in the aftermath of the end of Soviet economic aid in 1990-91.
In the 1980s the Catholic Church engaged in a nationwide series of reflections at the parish and diocesan levels, which culminated in the National Cuban Church Encounter (Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano-ENEC) in 1986. The process was stimulated by an increasing sense that the church had to speak out about moral decay and the abandonment of traditional values, as well as socioeconomic problems. Among the meeting’s conclusions was that there had been a failure on the part of the church to identify strongly with the struggle for social justice in the pre-1959 period and too great an identification with counterrevolutionary stances post-1959. ENEC urged Catholics to promote peace, disarmament, sustainable development, a new international economic and social order and increased East-West understanding. The objective was to make clear to Cubans the relevance of the Scriptures to global and Cuban realities. In the aftermath of the cold war and the Cuban economic crisis of the early 1990s, when the national GDP declined by over a third, the Catholic Church became even more assertive in its statements and more active in occupying political and social space as the state has receded.A Call for Reconciliation
In 1993 in the depths of the economic crisis, the Catholic episcopacy issued a pastoral letter “Love Hopes All Things,” an urgent call for dialogue, reconciliation and moral reform. It argued that the time had come for a review of government economic programs undercut by excessive centralization and ideology. This is a theme that has been repeated in subsequent statements and that has found increasing receptivity under Raul Castro, who assumed power in July 2006 and became chief of state in 2008.
The church’s call for dialogue and reform has been facilitated by the expansion of ecclesial publications such as Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical and the 2011 establishment of the Felix Varela Center in a former Catholic seminary. The latter has become a center of discussion of current societal problems and raised the visibility of the Catholic Church. It has sponsored seminars and lectures incorporating Cuban American scholars and entrepreneurs. The Archdiocese of Havana has also established a graduate program in business together with the Spanish University of Murcia. The program attempts to meet the needs of individuals involved in the process of implementing the economic changes proposed at the 2011 VI Congress of the Communist Party, particularly the expansion of the non-state sector. Demand for the course, which began in September 2011 with slightly over 30 students, was high, as have been requests on the part of families, Catholic and non-Catholic, for after-school programs at local parishes for primary and secondary students. This reflects the degree to which parents are increasingly seeking technical and supplementary courses for their children outside the state school system.
The Catholic Church has also increased its welfare activities, particularly in the areas of health and elder care. Caritas-Cuba is a major provider of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment in cooperation with the Cuban government. Nuns from both Cuba and abroad are heavily involved in staffing facilities for the elderly. Throughout Cuba there has been a proliferation of church supported programs and publications. The diocese of Pinar del Rio had at one time the most controversial religious publication in Cuba, Vitral. Begun in 1994 it aimed at creating links within civil society that would encourage greater participation in solving societal problems. It encountered increasing difficulties not only with government officials, but also with some in the church for its criticisms of the state. By 1997 some of the editorial staff left to establish an independent journal. Other church publications such as Imago have emphasized evangelization, while Vida Joven promotes engagement within Cuban society through the arts. In addition, the church is placing emphasis on the formation of youths and professionals who may someday assume leadership roles in Cuban society.The Papal Visits
The 1998 papal visit brought together two of the world’s most charismatic figures—John Paul II and Fidel Castro. It came at a time when the Catholic Church had not yet assumed a substantial a role in domestic affairs. Indeed, church leaders expressed disappointment in the aftermath of John Paul’s visit that an expanded role had not been achieved. Few in the late 1990s apparently imagined that the Catholic Church would become as much of a political and social actor as it is today. The 2010-2011 involvement of the Cuban episcopacy in the release of political prisoners and the ongoing dialogue between the Cardinal of Havana and Raul Castro reflect the increasing space that the Catholic Church in Cuba is occupying. Such developments have not been without controversy both in Cuba and abroad.
Some opponents of the Castro government have sharply criticized the increasing contacts between church and state and especially the role of Cardinal Ortega as an interlocutor. Indeed, some 300 Cuban Catholics wrote the Vatican prior to Benedict’s visit alleging that Ortega was letting himself be used by the government. In June of 2012 the U.S.-funded Radio/TV Martí published an editorial that called Cardinal Ortega a lackey of the Castro government. These and other attacks have caused several Cuban bishops and leading laypeople to come to Ortega’s defense. They point to the progress that has been made in church-state relations, as well as the commitment of the Catholic Church to work for the common good in Cuba and reconciliation between Cubans on the island and abroad.
The church in Cuba still faces significant challenges, notably the weakness of Cuban civil society, which is relatively unorganized and fragmented. There is a diffuse desire within Cuba and the church for better socioeconomic conditions and more effective political participation. Yet this desire has not been shaped into a broadly supported societal agenda. It is notable that the church hierarchy does not appear to be in favor of regime change, which is supported by the U.S. government and some Cuban Americans. Instead it supports gradual evolutionary change.
In the absence of an organized and proactive civil society with recognized national leadership, the church has assumed a critical role as an intermediary between the state and society. While the Catholic Church in Cuba may be somewhat weak institutionally, it has become a leading protagonist in the country’s affairs. What will happen once civil society strengthens and secular options increase is unclear. What is apparent is that the Catholic Church has abandoned the margins and become a key player in Cuba’s evolution.