Institute on Religion and Democracy
July 7, 1999
With Fidel Castro listening attentively, the general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches apologized for U.S. policies towards Cuba before an applauding crowd of 100,000 in the Plaza of the Revolution in Cuba.
"We ask you to forgive the suffering that has come to you by the actions of the United States," the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell implored on June 20. "It is on behalf of Jesus the liberator that we work against this embargo."
During Campbell's speech and the ensuing rally, Castro and several of his cabinet ministers sat in the front row. "He didn't ask to speak and didn't consider it proper," Campbell reported. "His respect was very apparent."
A banner across the stage read "Love, Peace, Unity." The event was intended to crown a month of government-sanctioned celebrations by Protestants in Cuba, where about 50 denominations are represented. The event, of largest of its kind for Cuban Protestants, showcased the dilemmas that face religious believers in Cuba. It included churches both within and without the pro-government Cuban Council of Churches (CCC).
But some crowd members confessed to the Associated Press that they had no specific religious belief but were pressured to attend by their communist neighborhood watch group. Ever shrewd, Castro might be tolerating more open religious expression while endeavoring to contain and manipulate it.
In many ways Cuban churches have more freedom now than ever before under Castro's regime, which is now officially "secular" as opposed to atheist. Church members are allowed to join the nation's only legal political entity, the Communist Party. And churches are allowed more openly to engage in humanitarian work outside their church walls.
Last year, Castro welcomed Pope John Paul II for the first papal visit to Cuba. The Pope celebrated Mass before several hundred thousand in the same plaza where Campbell spoke. His visit was broadcast on Cuban television.
Yet Cuban Christians still endure obstacles to free worship. According to Open Doors International, an advocate for persecuted Christians, the Cuban government routinely denies permits for new church construction and restricts repairs to existing churches. Church property remains vulnerable to government seizure. Public proselytization is illegal. And church leaders are still monitored, interrogated and threatened with arrest.
Bibles are imported to Cuba in limited numbers, and their distribution within the Protestant community is limited to the CCC, to which 25 denominations belong. According to Open Doors, Cuba's 10,000 "houses churches" face the most persistent harassment. Unauthorized assemblies of more than three persons, even in a private home, can be punished by up to three months in prison. No organization, religious or otherwise, is legally permitted to challenge the "objectives of the socialist state." Parochial schools are still forbidden.
Mainline church leaders from the U.S. like Campbell rarely acknowledge the totalitarian nature of Castro's regime. Instead, they fault U.S. trade sanctions for Cuba's ills and to praise Cuba's universal health care and literacy programs. A National Council of Churches fact-finding trip earlier this year discussed "political prisoners" in the United States, while their news release ignored Castro's imprisoned political opponents. In contrast, the Pope, although criticizing trade sanctions against Cuba during his visit, devoted more time to calling for full human rights in Cuba.
Whether from conviction or perceived necessity, many leaders of CCC denominations publicly profess support for the government. Castro's regime is consequently more partial to them as opposed to less pliant Catholic Church prelates or independent evangelical congregations.
Despite their more politicized leadership, members of CCC congregations tend to be evangelical, and their congregations have grown dramatically. From three hundred thousand to 500,000 Cubans attend Protestant churches. The Methodist Church has tripled its membership in the last five years, and the Presbyterian Church in Cuba is one of the world's fastest growing.
Over four million Cubans have been baptized in the Catholic Church, and about 280,000 Catholics regularly attend Mass. Many Cubans have participated in traditional Afro-Caribbean religions, such as Santeria, which mixes African spiritism with Catholicism. Some Catholics suspect that the Castro government tacitly encourages Santeria so as to undermine loyalties to the Catholic Church.
Despite his relaxation of some restrictions against churches, Castro undoubtedly will continue to exploit divisions among Cuba's religious believers. His special target will be Catholics and Evangelicals most adamant about their ultimate loyalty to a transcendent moral authority that supercedes the worldly power of the Cuban Communist Party.
When back in the U.S., Joan Campbell enthused that ending U.S. trade sanctions was especially urgent now that Cuba has shown "it does allow people to express their faith freely." Meanwhile, the CCC stressed that their rally in the Plaza of the Revolution was not for "proselytism" but to foster "Love, Peace, and Unity" among evangelicals and the Cuban people.
Unlike some leaders of either the U.S. or Cuban church councils, most evangelicals and Catholics believe their churches have a higher calling than opposing U.S. trade sanctions or propping up Castro's collapsing social order. His manipulation of religion will gain short-term benefits, but Castro may ultimately unleash forces that finally sweep aside his four decades of tyranny.