As ideology fades in Cuba, spirituality and popes intervene
As ideology fades in Cuba, spirituality and popes intervene
By Nick Miroff June 1 at 2:30 PM
On Easter morning, April 5, members of Victory Outreach International
held mass on The Malecon. It is a Pentecostal order founded on the
streets of Los Angeles that is known for evangelizing among addicts,
inmates and the homeless. In Cuba, the group has no church, but Cuban
authorities allow them to congregate Sunday mornings for worship along
Havana’s iconic Malecon seawall. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
HAVANA — Raúl 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, 83.
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 labor camps and enshrined atheism in the
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 U.S.
“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 K-12 schools, or
broadcast on television or the radio. Public acts of worship or
proselytizing 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 percent of Cubans identified as Catholic in a poll of
1,200 adults commissioned by the Univision network earlier this year.
Forty-four percent of respondents said they were “not religious.”
People pray during mass on Easter morning. The Methodist Church of
Marianao in Havana had fewer than than 400 members in the late 1990s,
and more than 3,200 today. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Still, the poll found that 70 percent of surveyed Cubans have a
favorable opinion of the Roman Catholic Church, and 80 percent 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 traveled to the island in 2012.
Francis, an Argentine 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 U.S. and Cuban officials
that are leading to the restoration of diplomatic relations. At one
point, the Vatican hosted meetings for U.S. and Cuban negotiators, and
the pope’s blessing has provided President Obama with political cover as
he faces opposition to the rapprochement with Castro from Cuban-American
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 criticize 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 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 organized MBA courses for
Such privileges are somewhat resented among other Christian
denominations on the island, which cannot match the Catholic Church’s
Religious leaders and communist officials seem to share a sense of alarm
over what both groups perceive as a “crisis of values” among Cuban
youth, even if they differ on the root causes. Ideological differences
notwithstanding, both see a generation of Cuban young people eager to
obtain material goods, with loose sexual mores and even looser
commitments to the social objectives of Fidel Castro’s revolution.
But while Catholic leaders are trying to win them back with an
institutional resurgence, evangelical Christians are going into the
streets to do it.
“We are living in a society that has lost its values,” said Yoel
Guevara, a 32-year-old evangelical pastor. “Christ gives them back.”
Cuban authorities and the Catholic Church both look warily on the rapid
spread of evangelical denominations across the island, as hundreds if
not thousands of tiny churches have popped up in Cubans’ living rooms.
There is often no hierarchical structure for the Cuban government to
relate to, and many smaller Christian groups have resisted the
government’s attempt to organize them. (The island also has small Jewish
and Muslim communities.)
Guevara’s group is affiliated with Victory Outreach International, a
Pentecostal order founded on the streets of Los Angeles that is known
for evangelizing among addicts, inmates and the homeless. In Cuba, the
group has no church, but Cuban authorities allow them to congregate
Sunday mornings for worship along Havana’s Malecon seawall. They bring
their own generator to power the microphone and the speakers, attracting
“The presence of Christ is strong where sin is abundant,” said Daniel
Delis, wearing long dreadlocks, after a small church weeknight service
in a fellow member’s home. He said his faith helped him overcome an
addiction to marijuana.
Like Catholic leaders, Cuba’s evangelicals oppose abortion, which is
legal in Cuba, as well as the highly publicized efforts of Mariela
Castro, Raúl Castro’s daughter, to win same-sex marriage rights and
other protections for gay Cubans. The Pentecostal group says it goes out
on weekend nights to walk among the revelers along Havana’s seawall,
attempting to convert gays and occasionally facing police harassment.
The issue is a reminder that while the Cuban government holds the reins,
its social policies are sometimes calibrated to balance among different
Evangelical Christianity has made inroads especially in poorer eastern
Cuba, and among migrants from rural Cuba who arrive in Havana and find
community through the church’s open doors and animated style of worship.
The Rev. Ricardo Pereira, the bishop at the Methodist Church of Marianao
in Havana, said his church has gone from fewer than 400 members in the
late 1990s to more than 3,200 today. There are three worship services on
Sundays to accommodate them. His services draw everyone from dissidents
to military officials to the families of U.S. diplomats.
Like other “charismatic” forms of worship, Pereira’s sermons are
rollicking, hallelujah affairs, featuring electric guitars and drumming.
“The great majority of Cubans have African blood,” he said. “We show our
devotion with drums and a lot of shouting.”
In some ways, he and others have won followers by making Christian
devotion more like Santeria, a form of spirit worship that blends
African deities with Catholic saints. It is perhaps more pervasive in
Cuba than ever, and even as Christian leaders of nearly every
denomination label it “idolatry,” they have incorporated more music and
dance into their services.
“Other denominations want Cubans to stop being Cuban when they enter the
church, and sit there like Europeans or Americans,” Pereira said. “We
want to dance and be Cuban.”
Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from
the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has
been a staff writer since 2006.
Source: As ideology fades in Cuba, spirituality and popes intervene –
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