Cuba undergoes a religious revival
Raul Castro was a Jesuit schoolboy before turning to communism, and after a lengthy meeting with Pope Francis last month, he told Vatican reporters he was so impressed he was considering a return to the church. They laughed. “I’m serious,” said Castro, 84. If so, he would not be the first Cuban in recent years to find his way back to Jesus.
The island has experienced a religious revival of sorts in the past 25 years, as the demise of Soviet totalitarianism has made room for a tropical Marxism that is less than total but still highly controlling. Cuba was never a deeply pious country in the cloth of some other Latin American nations. But the Catholic church and other denominations have come a long way from the 1960s and 70s, when Fidel Castro’s revolution sent religious believers to labour camps and enshrined atheism in the constitution. Considering a return to the church … Raúl Castro. Photograph: Desmond Boylan/AP
Today, Christmas and Good Friday are national holidays once more. Churchgoers no longer face official discrimination. For the first time in five decades, the government has given the church permission to build a cathedral. And Catholic authorities face increasing competition from fast-growing evangelical denominations, many with close ties to US churches. “There is freedom of worship now, yes,” said the Rev Roberto Betancourt, the priest at Our Lady of Regla, one of Cuba’s landmark churches. “But that’s not the same as freedom of religion.”
Indeed, no other country in the Americas is so restrictive. The Cuban government doesn’t allow the church to run its own schools, or broadcast on television or the radio. Public acts of worship or proselytising are proscribed. These limits may explain why Cuba continues to draw so much attention from the Vatican, despite a reputation for thinly attended Sunday masses. About 27% of Cubans identified as Catholic in a poll of 1,200 adults commissioned by the Univision network earlier this year. Forty-four per cent of respondents said they were “not religious”.
Still, the poll found that 70% of surveyed Cubans have a favourable opinion of the Roman Catholic church, and 80% rated Pope Francis positively, as both are viewed as powerful advocates for political and economic change. When Francis arrives here in September before his trip to the United States, it will be the third papal visit since 1998, when Pope John Paul II called on Cuba to “open to the world, and for the world to open to Cuba”. Pope Benedict XVI travelled to the island in 2012.
Francis, an Argentinian and the first pope from Latin America, has appeared even more eager to take up John Paul II’s mantle. He played a central role in the secret negotiations between US and Cuban officials that are leading to the restoration of diplomatic relations. At one point, the Vatican hosted meetings for US and Cuban negotiators, and the pope’s blessing has provided President Barack Obama with political cover ashe faces opposition to the rapprochement with Castro from Cuban-American lawmakers.
By visiting Cuba and the United States, Francis will make the countries’ incipient reconciliation a central theme of his trip. “In places where there is conflict in the world, the pope makes himself present,” Betancourt said.
Francis’s schedule shows that he will spend four days on the island, celebrating masses in Havana and the large cities of Santiago and Holguin. Raúl Castro said he plans to attend all three.
Whether Francis will openly criticise Cuba’s one-party system and urge Castro to do more to open to the world – and democratic governance – remains a key question. Opponents of the communist government here and abroad would be deeply disappointed if the pope does not use his platform to push for change. He may be more likely to nudge. Francis, like Obama, is essentially following a course charted by John Paul II that seeks to gradually change Cuba by engaging the Castro government, rather than confronting it, as the church attempted to do in the 1960s and 70s.
The benefits of the engagement approach are evident today in the rehabilitation of the Catholic church as the island’s only significant independent institution. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s highest-ranking prelate, has negotiated directly with the government for the release of political prisoners. The church publishes magazines, hosts lecture forums open to Cuban dissidents and has organised MBA courses for aspiring entrepreneurs. Such privileges are somewhat resented among other Christian denominations on the island, which cannot match the Catholic church’s institutional profile.