By Louis E.V. Nevaer
New America Media
HAVANA Catholic churches are full to capacity during mass, and the neighborhood Communist offices are empty.
One decade after Pope John Paul II traveled to Cuba and negotiated an accommodation with Fidel Castro the Vatican now speaks with the moral authority that few anticipated. That the Cuban people continue to move away from the Communist ideology has concerned Fidel Castro’s inner circle for more than five years, and it was instructive that Raul Castro, who has replaced his older brother Fidel as head of state, held his first meeting with a foreign dignitary with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state.
“He knows that the people have always believed in Christ, and never in Marx or Lenin or Fidel,” says a woman stepping out of the Church of the Sacred Heart along Father Felix Varela Avenue. “Raul wishes he had one one-hundredth of the authority of the pope.”
In the meeting between Raul Castro and Cardinal Bertone, it was the state that was deferential: Cuba’s state-run press, which rarely covers anything but official state institutions or Cuba’s Communist Party, printed a message from Cuba’s Catholic bishops. “In these moments our prayer is to God and the Virgin of Charity, our mother, patron of Cuba, for this newly renovated and inaugurated assembly council of state and new president to have the light from God to take decisive transcendental measures that we know should be progressive, but can begin to at once satisfy the anxieties and worries expressed by Cubans,” the bishops wrote.
The resurgence of the Catholic Church in this officially atheist state has reverberated throughout Cuba: Cubans are proud to display images of the Virgin of Charity, Santa Barbara, Saint Lazarus, and the Virgin of Guadalupe in their homes. Young men openly sport tattoos of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Masses offered at mid-morning on weekdays are standing-room only. A young man in his early twenties simply shrugs his shoulders when asked why he is at mass, and not at work, on a Monday morning. “Everyone needs hope and inner peace; coming to church gives me that,” he says. “Going to work is an empty gesture. After 49 years of failures, is my going to work going to make Fidel’s revolution succeed? Only a s--t-eater would believe that.”
Fidel Castro never outlawed religion, but he made life impossible for those who practiced their faith: priests were expelled, religious schools were banned, believers of any faith were not permitted to join the Communist party, and Cuba’s constitution extolled the virtues of atheism. Churches were closed throughout the country; Havana’s Sephardic Jews survived by renting their synagogue as a dance hall; Muslims were forced to leave (Cuba’s sole mosque is now a museum); and practitioners of “Santeria,” an Afro-Cuban faith with roots in West Africa were driven underground.
These draconian measures only intensified criticism of Fidel Castro’s regime, but he didn’t care that is, of course, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba desperately needed to court the goodwill and foreign aid of the European community. As former Soviet-sponsored regimes collapsed from Poland to Slovakia, Hungary to Lithuania Cuba quietly removed references to atheism from its Constitution, allowed religious orders of nuns to pursue “social assistance” endeavors, and lifted the ban on believers entering the Communist party.
These changes culminated in 1998, when John Paul II visited the island, and held mass in the Plaza de la Revolución, which was broadcast to the entire nation. There was no turning back. More and more churches were opened, priests trickled in, and Jews were allowed to receive sufficient assistance from Mexico’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, to reopen their synagogue. (Of the 50 remaining Sephardic Jewish families remaining in Havana, this past Sabbath was attended by fewer than a dozen people, not one younger than 60.) Fidel Castro also delighted in the Vatican’s position that the U.S. embargo was “immoral.”
This is not to say it has been a happy meeting of minds. No practicing believer holds a high position in government; an acute shortage of priests and nuns makes it impossible for millions of Cuban Catholics to practice their faith; Communist officials have resisted opening long-closed churches; teachers ridicule their students who admit attending church.
Despite these obstacles, churches have filled up while Communist offices have emptied out.
After the revolution, every neighborhood included a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, known as CDRs, usually comprised of “little old ladies” who snitched on the goings-on to the authorities. This month, however, one third of the CDRs in the Vedado and Habana Centro neighborhoods are empty. One woman in her 70s nonchalantly explains that at her age, “getting right with God is more important than being right with Fidel.” She explains that she simply reported that there was nothing suspicious on her block, and preferred to spend time praying at church.
In this manner, social power has drifted from the state to the church, and this has not been lost on Communist authorities. Catholic churches increasingly provide social services, from offering space for Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to conducting parenting classes for new mothers. Some are even doubling up as health centers, making sure children and the elderly get sufficient calories.
As one woman explains, “In theory healthcare is free,” but “only if you pay bribes.” The reality of medical care in Cuba is that “at the clinic, you show up and they can’t see you for months, unless you pay off the person who makes the appointments. Then the tests the doctor orders won’t be ready, unless you pay a bribe to the technician. And if x-rays are involved, that’s another bribe. Then the pharmacy won’t give you your prescription unless another bribe is paid, so the ‘free’ medical care ends up costing two or three months’ salary paid out in bribes.”
The Catholic Church has offered frustrated and disillusioned Cubans a way out. “The Church does not impose, but proposes,” Cardinal Bertone told Italian reporters covering his recent meeting with Raul Castro. “We do hope for some openness, because nothing is impossible.”
And curiously enough, the first person Raul Castro invited for a state visit was Pope Benedict.