The Catholic Church in Cuba

Part 1 of 3: Beyond the Headlines

Catholics take part in a Marian procession in Havana in September last year.
Catholics take part in a Marian procession in Havana in September last year. (photo: CNS photo/Reuters)

HAVANA — In a run-down church, half hidden by a giant city dumpster, a lively priest sits behind an old brown desk near a faded picture of Mary. He ticked off an impressive list of pastoral activities: baptisms are up, visits to Catholics in jail are allowed, free medicine is being provided to the elderly and breakfasts to preschool children are hot.

Then he stopped abruptly. “Hmmm,” he mused, his right hand fingering a small brown crucifix hanging on a cord around his neck. “It’s probably better if you don’t reveal specifics about the things we do, okay? We don’t want to jeopardize this work, our silent work ... some of it is, technically, illegal.”

He also didn’t want his name used in this article.

Welcome to Cuba and the careful existence of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a healthy Church — functioning in a terribly unhealthy country.

Of the 11.3 million Cubans on the island, approximately 56% are Catholic, a number which was some 20% higher 50 years ago. Only about 10% attend Mass regularly, according to Church leaders. Many Cubans blend Catholicism with elements of the Yoruba religion, brought by African slaves to the Caribbean, in a belief system known as Santería.

“The Catholic Church in Cuba is absolutely the only national institution functioning independently from the regime. No other organization survived the revolution,” observed a 30-year-old seminarian in Havana.

And the two institutions — the Church and the regime — have existed in counterpose since Fidel Castro seized control of the government on Jan. 1, 1959.

In the 1960s, the regime confiscated Catholic Church property, including hospitals; closed Catholic schools — including the elite Jesuit high school, Belen College, in Havana, where Castro himself graduated; banned Catholic publications; and ran most priests off the island, either through expulsion or intimidation. Some were jailed.

Many Cuban seminarians and priests were forced to perform manual labor, including Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana since 1981, who was ordained in 1964, then spent seven months in a forced labor camp — termed a Military Unit to Aid Production — just two years later.

“Especially in the 1960s and ’70s, to be a practicing Catholic was considered synonymous with opposing the revolution,” recalled Catholic opposition leader Oswaldo Paya. “If you were a Catholic, you were sure to be harassed. Practicing faith was recorded on your labor record and had a negative impact. We were called gusanos, ‘worms.’”

Change in Attitude

Communist Cuba also promoted values diametrically opposed to the Church — abortion on demand for free, for example, was enshrined in the state health-care system in 1965.

“For a while, we really did not know which way to go as the Church community, in terms of this oppressive government,” explained a lay activist, visiting a small chapel in a Havana suburb one weekday to change the flowers on the altar. “The priests and clergy who remained were preoccupied with their problems, and most Catholics were too terrified even to go to church. Many, many, many Catholics just fled the country.”

To try to reunite clerics and believers, the Church convened a meeting in 1986 of religious and laypeople: Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano (Cuban National Ecclesial Encounter). One major question was whether to try to wield power from within the government or be faithful to the Gospel, spread it, and remain an alternative outside power, according to participants.

“In the end, the Church re-dedicated itself to being a missionary Church, a prayerful Church, recognizing God as our only master, centered on the experience of real believers,” explained the enthusiastic seminarian.

Catholicism — and religious freedom in general — gained ground in the 1990s as the laity began to overcome fear, the institutional Church refused to be marginalized, and the Communist Party made some concessions.

In 1992, the regime amended the Constitution, outlawing religious discrimination and removing the idea that atheism was the official state ideology.

Proving the durability of respect for the Church, when he returned from Rome in late 1994, having been created the second cardinal in Cuba’s history, Cardinal Ortega was met by crowds of ecstatic Catholics, flowing out of Havana’s cathedral into a city square, shouting, “Long live the Church!”

Shifts in the early 1990s coincided with a profound national economic crisis aggravated by Cuba’s loss of about $5 billion dollars in annual subsidies from the Soviet Union when the Communist state collapsed. Money and food were so scarce that most urban families raised farm animals in their bathrooms, and every scrap, like grapefruit skin and wildflowers, was fried up and eaten.

One solution to this crisis, the legalization of the dollar and dollar-denominated bank accounts, eventually created a new form of dependency: families on the island receiving remittances from family and friends abroad, especially in the U.S. and Spain.

Papal Visit

In 1996, Fidel Castro visited the Vatican, where he met Pope John Paul II and highlighted a common position against the U.S.’s Cuban trade embargo. Plans for the Pope’s 1998 visit to Cuba were formalized.

Symbolic gestures toward the Church accompanied planning for the Pope’s visit. The regime finally made Christmas a national holiday in 1997, after ignoring it for almost 30 years, and gave the archbishop time on TV for a short Christmas message.

Pope John Paul’s historic visit — the first by a pope to the nation — remains the most memorable, positive event for the Church in recent history. It didn’t provoke dramatic political change, as some had hoped, though.

It did, however, firmly establish the humble dignity of the Church in the person of the Pope. The Pope’s message underscored Christianity’s quintessential identification with suffering, which is at the center of Cuban common life. And the visit signaled the Church’s patience when it comes to waiting out politics.

Another student at the St. Carlos and St. Ambrosio Seminary in Havana remembers “the joy — not just for Catholics, but for all people. The Mass in Revolution Square was a Cuban communion: It was like the Cuban soul was singing and praying together to God. The Pope was very aware of our culture. He knew our soul. I was very surprised and thrilled.”

At the time, this seminarian had begun going to church, singing in the choir as a young adult. His grandmother practiced Santería. When his parents realized that the Church was becoming a major part of their only child’s life, they took him to a psychologist. He had finished law school, and they did not understand where the Church fit in. But he did.

“Many Cuban people,” he commented, “they have become like a knife that does not cut. They are blocked in their consciences. This is the work of the Church: to bring light.”

Back and Forth

Since 1998, the regime has alternated between allowing, even endorsing, Catholic expressions of identity and belief and brutally persecuting Christians who ask for more freedom — against the backdrop of a populace mostly concerned with financial survival.

On public television, for example, one is startled to see many classical concerts performed at the Museum of Religious Art, where a life-sized Spanish crucifix and a huge portrait of St. Christopher with the infant Jesus on his shoulders hover above the musicians.

The museum and concert hall are in a beautifully restored 18th-century Franciscan convent in the center of Old Havana. Since it’s really a church nave, the auditorium has fabulous acoustics. Asked about the significance of Christ’s centrality over the stage, a museum guide seemed puzzled, then responded, “What church can be without its crucifix?”

Not only are certain well-placed Catholic symbols tolerated — looking down upon Havana is Cristo de la Habana, a 67-foot-tall marble statue of Christ, carved in Rome and blessed by Pope Pius XII; it was inaugurated exactly a week before the revolution rolled into Havana — but Cuban officials appear at important Church celebrations.

In 2008, soon after assuming the presidency, Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, attended the first beatification on Cuban soil, Brother Jose Olallo Valdez, together with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Thousands of faithful applauded the new president to signal approval of his unexpected arrival. The Mass was even broadcast on state television.

A large banner of Brother Olallo hangs in central Havana on the outside wall of San Cristobal Cathedral, known as “Reina,” but it’s generally illegal for Catholics to advertise Church-related events outside of church bulletin boards.

Yet, to scan a bulletin board is to witness a Church in full bloom: announcements of pilgrimages and a Lenten lecture series led by the cardinal himself; blood-red posters of a fetus in vitro call people to a day of prayer for the unborn; the youth group at Reina is sponsoring a showing of Precious, the 2009 American film about an illiterate, overweight, pregnant teen in Harlem, followed by a debate.

A debate? In a country where free expression can result in jail time?

“Oh, as long as we are on Church property, we can watch whatever film — and the archbishop’s office has a great collection — and discuss it,” said a young Catholic organizer, who works for the state in his day job. “The film series attracts many, many teens, and Precious will be packed.”

The Ladies in White

At Jesus de Miramar Church in a privileged Havana neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon, a young woman arrives on a bicycle and is greeted by a dozen or so 10-year-olds eager to begin sketching the church’s vivid murals as part of a catechism class. The teacher says she’s too busy to talk to foreigners, but all over the island, one hears that religious instruction is gaining traction.

This church, like most others, maintains a Caritas program that distributes food, clothes, medicines and emergency assistance to the poor — of whom there are many. The Cuban economy, like all attempts at complete central control, is a dysfunctional patchwork of mismanagement and corruption.

To attract foreign visitors and their money, the regime has instituted a two-tier system of currency: a convertible peso for foreigners and a local peso worth little. This currency apartheid creates two economic worlds on the island — breeding a new form of economic oppression for those unable or unwilling to hustle in the international zone, plus a wide variety of vices, especially a thriving market in prostitution.

“The ‘revolution’ has really degenerated into decadence,” observed Oswaldo Paya. “Christian families have to turn inward, to parish and home-based networks where freedom exists.”

Paya considers his parish church in Havana’s Cerro neighborhood to be his rock: “My parish has been my source of strength and encouragement through every adversity,” he said, emotionally.

As founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, which started the Varela Project in the late 1980s, Paya led a daring effort to collect thousands of signatures from regular Cubans requesting the General Assembly hold a referendum on basic freedoms.

But the regime arrested the movement’s largely Catholic leadership in the “Black Spring” of 2003 and slammed them in jail. To protest the arrests and prison conditions, their wives and female relatives began gathering each week at St. Rita’s Church in Havana. After Sunday Mass, wearing white, they marched from the church to a park; they came to be known as las Damas de Blanco, the Ladies in White.

Last February, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died as a result of a hunger strike. Tension between the Ladies in White and aggressive mobs stirred up by security forces became extremely high.

When the ladies tried to march in the city on the anniversary of their husbands’ arrests, “our professors at the University of Havana canceled classes and told us, ‘Go attack the Ladies in White!’” reported a science student, who said 90% of her colleagues just went home.

In May, Cardinal Ortega negotiated an agreement with the state, allowing the Ladies in White to continue meeting and marching each Sunday.

Back and Forth

Then, in July, the cardinal and Spanish diplomats negotiated the release of 52 prisoners of conscience, all of the Varela Project prisoners still in jail. It’s evidence of what one U.S. diplomat calls “the very special space” occupied by the Catholic Church on the island — as well as Cardinal Ortega’s willingness to assert the Church’s moral authority.

Hard-line Cuban exiles complain that the cardinal took the pressure off Castro by negotiating an end to the impasse, but prisoners and their families were desperate for help.

Lady in White Yamile Velazquez Batista, whose husband, Efrem Fernandez, was secretary of the CLM, said the violence against the ladies was the worst ever in 2010.

“We thought we might be killed; it was that bad. People screaming and spitting and throwing things. But my husband has problems with his eyes, his skin, his kidneys. It all started when he went to jail. The conditions are terrible. I had to march to help bring attention to him. And the Church is with us,” she explained.

Perhaps what most drives home the relevance of the Church in Cuba today is its multiplicity. It is engaged in tense aspects of political negotiation, but it is also the vehicle through which people discover new talents and find meaning in life, as well as offer peaceful repose:

— A young seminarian who plays the organ passionately to a packed cathedral for the chrism Mass is untrained and had never even touched the instrument when he began studying for the priesthood.

— A 24-year-old Afro-Cuban who converted to Catholicism does not insult his father, who was an activist — and atheist — in the revolution: “My dad, he’s a true believer,” he said. “But so am I. He keeps a picture of Fidel on his wall, and I have my crucifix on mine. We respect each other.”

— A nun from India opening wide an ancient wooden door to welcome guests to the Bridgettine Order’s convent and hostel across from the Museum of Religious Art. Songbirds in delicate cages, a stately courtyard garden, and, of course, a splendid chapel, mark this sanctuary as the antithesis of the ever-hustling outside world.

Yet, even the pristine convent is not without a curious tie to the ubiquitous regime.

Completely renovated to accommodate nuns, novices and paying guests, the property, permission for the expensive renovation, and even some resources for the work were a gift from Fidel Castro, who was the guest of honor at its opening in March 2003 — the same month he was ordering the arrest of Christian activists in the Varela Project who dared to demand freedom of speech, freedom of association and free elections.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

Tomorrow: The Castros and the Church