The Death of a Dictator: Fidel Castro (1926-2016)
NEWS ANALYSIS: Cuba’s strongman brutally persecuted the Church.
WASHINGTON — At least three popes prayed for his soul, but Commandante Fidel Castro, the Jesuit-educated dictator who tyrannized Cuba for almost 50 years, resisted their merciful intercessions.
His death at age 90 on Nov. 25 was announced defiantly on Cuban TV by his brother, President Raul Castro, 85.
Nine days of public mourning features mass rallies in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, but no Mass of Christian burial for this baptized Catholic, whose revolution of 1959 targeted the Catholic Church as an enemy.
In fact, churches on the island have been visited by Communist Party bureaucrats and asked to cancel Mass, Eucharistic adoration and any musical programs. (The response has been rightly uncooperative.)
Fidel’s relationship to the Catholic Church was known for its ambiguity. He saw the Church in utterly opportunistic ways, desperate to co-opt its moral authority in the 1990s, after demolishing it for more than 30 years.
To the end, he gave signs of fascination with God, religion and Christianity’s powerful attraction, but his ego seemed unable to confess sin or seek reconciliation.
Cubans directly affected by Fidel Castro’s guerilla insurgency against President Fulgencio Batista’s military dictatorship in 1959 emphasize that Castro took power deceptively, claiming he would advance freedom against oppression. Yet he deployed violence and intimidation within two years of overthrowing Batista — revealing his true identity.
In 1950s Cuba, Juan Clark was involved with Catholic Student Youth and Catholic Action, an international movement encouraging priests and laypeople to work for social justice. He and his colleagues thought Castro, like them, wanted a more democratic, uncorrupt government.
As Castro’s tactics became increasingly totalitarian — Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter in August 1960 condemning the “growing advance of communism,” describing its ideology as irreconcilable with the Catholic creed. Clark escaped to the United States in 1960, joining a group of men intent on resistance.
He returned to the island in 1961 as a paratrooper with the ill-fated, U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion — and ended up in a Cuban jail for 20 months, until the U.S. government paid Castro $53-million ransom for more than 1,000 men.
“Fidel Castro was a diabolical genius,” Clark told the Register in a 2011 interview.
“He was a unique case, probably, in the history of the world,” Clark said. “He came to power with a lot of charisma and positive publicity generated in Cuba and the United States,” especially by The New York Times.
“He came to power with one banner. In the beginning, he even had support from the Church hierarchy,” Clark remembered.
“Less than two years later, Castro switched to another banner, an unpopular one — communism,” the former professor continued. “Although, having spent my life researching this, I believe the Soviet Union was involved with Castro even when he was in the Sierra Maestra Mountains” in the late 1950s.
The relationship between Castro and the Church continued to disintegrate through 1961: In May, the vast network of Catholic schools was confiscated and seminaries closed, including the Catholic schools Fidel had attended.
In September, he forced almost 20% of the island’s remaining priests and religious (including a bishop), onto a boat and expelled them.
Among the priests Fidel evicted was a high-school teacher and mentor, Jesuit Father Amando Llorente, who disguised himself as a shepherd to reach the revolutionary while he was still in the Sierra Maestras and challenge the younger man’s behavior.
Other priests were sent to labor camps in 1965, including Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who served as Havana’s archbishop from 1981 to 2016.
Castro and his brothers and sisters might have been baptized, even raised by a prayerful mother, but his personal experience of Catholicism did not constrain him when persecuting Christ’s Bride.
“We were called gusanos (worms) — Cubans who continued to attend Mass and seek the sacraments regardless of the regime’s hatred,” Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas explained to the Register in 2010, sitting under a dramatic portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in his Havana living room.
Gusanos was the derogatory term invented by Castro against the Cuban exile community who fled the island seeking freedom abroad, including approximately 1 million expatriates in the United States.
(In his essay, “Farewell to Cuba’s Brutal Big Brother,” Yale religion professor Carlos Eire [see In Person] estimates Castro forced about 20% of the population into exile, including by unseaworthy boats, which led to countless of thousands drowning.)
The gusanos insult implied that loyalty to Christ and the Church was treasonous.
“My family did not get close to the revolution, and it was our faith that, largely, prevented that,” remembered Payá, a devout democratic activist whose opposition to Fidel and Raul Castro was rooted in the centrality of human dignity animating Christianity.
Fidel Castro demonstrated his enduring fascination with Catholicism in 1985, when he authorized publication of Fidel and Religion: Conversations With Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology, a book-length interview with a Dominican friar from Brazil who preached liberation theology, which the Church repudiates.
Although Castro reflected on the discipline and intellectual prowess he gained from his Jesuit teachers in high school and complimented the Church for its tenacity, he also made clear his distance from the faith.
By 1991, Fidel decided he needed more than a philosophical discussion with the Catholic Church.
The collapse of the Soviet Union meant Cuba’s loss of some $6 billion in annual economic aid, including subsidized oil. For 30 years, the Soviet Communist Party supplied oil, food, machinery, spare parts, chemicals and other materials to its economically bankrupt Cuban brothers.
Without its Soviet benefactor (which also paid inflated prices to buy Cuba’s sugar), people on the impoverished island approached starvation.
So the despot began searching for new allies to help keep his revolution afloat.
Engaging Pope St. John Paul II
Castro sought a lifeline from the Vatican because the Catholic Church had long opposed the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and Pope John Paul II had discreetly sent messages expressing his willingness to visit.
Accompanied by newly elevated Cardinal Ortega in November 1996, Castro traveled to Rome, where he met Pope John Paul II and gained a commitment from the Holy Father himself to make the historic visit.
Cuba was the only Latin American country John Paul II had not visited, and his pilgrimage would mark the first time a pope had ever been in Cuba.
(Meanwhile, Fidel developed a more immediate savior: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela visited Havana in 1994 and began subsidizing the Cuban economy when he became president four years later.)
Planning for the Pope’s visit began immediately and continued through 1997, according to Joaquín Navarro-Valls, John Paul II’s longtime spokesman, who recently discussed the historic event with the Italian newspaper La Stampa.
When Navarro-Valls visited Havana in October to work out final details, three months before the Pope’s arrival, Castro kept him up for six hours one night, quizzing him about the Holy Father, his worship practices and his belief.
Navarro-Valls recounted: “I said to him: ‘Mr. President, I envy you.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because the Pope prays for you every day; he prays that a man of your education may find the way of the Lord again.’ For once, the Cuban president was silent.”
It was on that memorable trip to Cuba the Pope exclaimed, with Fidel soberly looking on, “Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba!”
To this day, Cubans remember the profound impact the sainted pope had on them when he visited in January 1998. He called the island to a moral vision that superseded politics.
Seminarian Harold Cepero told the Register he personally embraced the Holy Father’s inaugural message, “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ,” after witnessing the 1998 Cuban pilgrimage.
He became active in Oswaldo Payá’s Varela Project, collecting signatures for a referendum on democratic elections, small business ownership, free speech and press, and the right to assemble — the most daring reform initiative the island had seen in 40 years.
Fidel allowed some new religious freedoms as a result of Pope John Paul’s touch. Christmas was celebrated publicly for the first time.
The Pope blessed a cornerstone, which became the first seminary built since Fidel’s revolution, 12 years later, with support from the Knights of Columbus. The Catholic Church began getting permission to repair its many crumbling structures.
And Fidel let the Christ-inspired Varela Project turn its wheels, collecting 11,020 signatures, presented to Cuba’s National Assembly in May 2002, just two days before a visit by former President Jimmy Carter, who praised the effort.
But in March 2003, he ordered the Varela Project dismembered, its leadership locked up — these 75 prisoners of conscience got up to 28-year sentences for the crime of political expression — and with a wave of his dictatorial hand, Castro had largely decapitated the most successful attempt to introduce grassroots democratic reform to Cuba.
He also ordered three men, who had tried to get to the United States on a ferry, executed.
The island had indeed become “a giant prison, surrounded by water,” as his sister Juanita, who escaped to Miami in the early 1960s, once said.
Meanwhile, Castro continued to toy with Christians.
Just a few days before launching the cruel first round of arrests of Varela Project challengers, many Catholic, he inaugurated a new convent/hotel in old Havana, run by a religious order of nuns, the Bridgettines, founded in Sweden in 1911.
The order’s superior general, Mother Tekla Famiglietti, had met Fidel Castro in Mexico, maintained a relationship with him, and managed to win his permission for a potentially lucrative renovated property, which cost more than $4 million to develop.
At the inauguration, Mother Tekla named Castro a commander of the Order of St. Bridget of Sweden. Two years ago, the order gained another property in the eastern part of the island.
Fidel invited Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to consecrate a Greek Orthodox church in Havana in 2004 — at Cuba’s expense. Two years later, the Russian Orthodox Church’s current patriarch, then Metropolitan Kirill, laid the first stone for Havana’s Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral in February 2006.
Religious diplomacy was seemingly a booming field of endeavor for Fidel Castro.
Meanwhile, he looked the other way as the Catholic Church assumed more and more charitable activities, from caring for the elderly to running kindergartens and providing medicine to the many poor.
Since Church-sponsored schools and charity were officially illegal, even virtue became part of Cuba’s ubiquitous underground economy.
Raul Steps Up
By all accounts, the Catholic Church’s status improved once Raul Castro took the reins of power — effectively in 2006 and officially in 2008 — from his brother, when Fidel required intestinal surgery and subsequently suffered fragile health.
Raul began introducing incremental economic reform — allowing small private restaurants and barbershops, for example, along with private kiosks selling fruits and vegetables in the country, as well as liberalizing the sale of home construction material — long recommended by the Church.
Cardinal Ortega stepped up as an interlocutor with Raul, charged with helping negotiate the release of political prisoners and the conditions under which the Ladies in White, wives and mothers of political prisoners protesting jail conditions every Sunday after Mass, could march.
Yet, Fidel remained, hovering in the shadows, writing an occasional opinion piece in Cuba’s only newspaper, Granma, controlled by the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party since 1965.
Proof that the murderous oppression that characterized Fidel’s reign continued under Raul came in late summer that year: Democracy pioneer Payá and his assistant, Cepero, were murdered in a fake car accident on a straight road, in full daylight and clear weather.
Despite evidence that the merciless Castro machine slayed the flower of Cuban Catholic virtue, the Vatican continued to pray for Fidel Castro’s conversion — a possibility Raul even seemed to encourage, as he left a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican last year.
“If the Pope continues talking like this, I may return to the Church and start praying again,” Raul Castro said after meeting with Francis, the pope who helped Cuba finalize a landmark deal with the U.S. government.
Once in Cuba, the Holy Father did meet with Fidel, as his predecessors did.
One of the gifts he brought was intended to remind the aged dictator of his high-school days and one of his favorite Jesuit teachers: a collection of homilies Father Amando Llorente gave in Florida.
In a telephone interview with Father Llorente in April 2010, the priest told the Register he prayed for Fidel every day and had offered to come to Cuba, anytime, to administer the sacrament of reconciliation.
“The sacrament is always available to him, whether from me or any other priest,” the fragile priest observed. “All he has to do is express sincere public sorrow for his sins.”
Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine
and the Washington Examiner.