Christianity in Cuba after Normalization of Relations

by Dan Miller.

Students holding flags with fists raised in celebration

Students celebrated in Havana after news that Washington had released three Cuban spies in a prisoner exchange.

Even those of us who try to keep up on news from Latin America were surprised by the announcement on December 17 that the US and Cuba were going to resume normal diplomatic relations. Evidently, representatives of the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro had been discussing such a move for eighteen months previous, assisted, it was said, by the good offices of Pope Francis. The changes announced mean that there will be an exchange of ambassadors. (The US has not had an embassy in Havana since 1961, currently it conducts its relations with the Cuban government by way of the Swiss embassy in Havana.) President Obama also announced that some restrictions on trade and travel would be relaxed. The embargo, which was imposed by Congress in the early 1960s in reaction to the Cuban revolution, will continue to restrict trade with Cuba.

Whether these changes will lead to greater political and economic openness on the part of the Marxist government of Cuba is being hotly debated. One aspect of the situation that is of special interest to me is the impact of the new relationship on the churches in Cuba.

President Obama shaking hands with Pope Francis at the Vatican

Pope Francis and President Obama shake hands during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican, where their talks focused in large part on improving US-Cuban relations.

US policy toward Cuba (the embargo, efforts to topple or assassinate Fidel Castro) have placed Cuban churches that have a connection to US denominations, including the Christian Reformed Church in North America, in an awkward position vis-à-vis the Cuban government. Early in the communist period they lost outside funding; mail and telephone contacts with their North American co-religionists were also cut off. After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel declared himself and his revolution to be irreversibly Marxist/Leninist and government policy became openly hostile to religious activity. All Christian schools were closed and many church buildings were confiscated by the government.

Cuban Christians responded in a variety of ways to this challenging situation. Attendance at religious services dwindled as many Christians left the island while others stopped attending for fear of losing their jobs which required adherence to the atheist communist party line. Some Christians just tried to stay below the radar of the government, worshiping at home and keeping their convictions to themselves. Pastors and priests were defined by the government as “social parasites” and pressured to abandon ministry. Well over half left the island. The ones who remained recognized that they had to adapt to the new situation. Some did so by embracing a progressive theological perspective that gave great weight to issues of social justice including a vigorous critique of US imperialism, and they launched ambitious programs of social service to poor and marginalized groups as expressions of Christian caring. Their leftward turn was assisted by the fact that the National Council of Churches was one of the few organizations that was able to send resources to the island’s Christians via its “Cuba Project” which encouraged ecumenical cooperation and socially progressive programs. It is tempting for North American Christians to think of these developments as capitulations to Marxist pressure but to be fair, the cultural and political captivity of US churches, most of which give unquestioning support to every US military adventure and whose members appear very comfortable with a consumerist lifestyle, give us little reason to feel superior. In fact, Cuban pastors of a progressive bent would say that the Revolution compelled them to reexamine the fundamentalist theology they inherited from North American missionaries and when they did so, they realized that it was seriously deficient because it ignored deeply biblical themes of justice and social concern.

Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Fidel Castro at an airport surrounded by crowds of onlookers

Pope John Paul II met with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1998.

In the 1980s Cuban churches began reknitting their ties to North American denominations. Quietly at first, North American pastors and religious teachers began going to Cuba to conduct training, and after a few years Cuban pastors began traveling outside the island seeking material assistance and theological training. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to the Cuban economy, churches on the island became essential conduits for imported medical supplies and other scarce goods and dispensers of social services that the government could no longer provide. As a consequence, the government was compelled to relax its anti-religious rhetoric and policies. Christians were permitted to join the Communist Party and gained a small but significant influence over government policy. Church buildings could once again be repaired and new ones built. The number of Christians who worshiped openly on Sunday began to grow rapidly. The restoration of a broader array of international denominational links and the weakening ability/willingness of the government to suppress religious expression also led to a resurgence of theologically and socially conservative expressions of Christian faith and a corresponding decline in the influence of progressive church leaders. Currently Pentecostalism is growing rapidly in Cuba just as it is elsewhere in Latin America.

Congregation with hands raised in song.

Worshipers at a Free Evangelical Church in Havana.

In light of that history, I think that the new approach by the US government towards Cuba will probably have less impact on the churches than on some other sectors of Cuban society such as the economy and the political system. Cuban Christians are probably somewhat ambivalent about the recently announced relaxation of relations. The conservative ones in particular may view it as a concession to the Cuban government without sufficient recognition of what the island’s religious community has suffered and still suffers in terms of discrimination and persecution. On the other hand, Cuban Christians of all stripes are eager to deepen their connections to theologically congenial Christians in North America and elsewhere and so they will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to travel to conferences and meet with other Christians for mutual encouragement and worship. I’m sure that Cuban Christians also expect that greater access to the internet and new technology will facilitate their work. At the same time, their perception of North American culture is not entirely positive and so there is probably more than a little concern that Cuba could experience a flood of morally objectionable media in a culture whose isolation has limited access to such things in the past. That’s something that both progressive and conservative Cuban Christians would agree on.

A 20m tall statue of Christ on a green hill, overlooking low buildings along the bay

The Christ of Havana sculpture overlooking Havana Bay. The statue was inaugurated on December 24, 1958, just fifteen days before Fidel Castro entered Havana during the Cuban Revolution.

Looking to the future, I think that the experience of Chinese Christians may suggest some possible directions. Most of China’s churches were established by missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries like the Protestant churches in Cuba. And they too experienced an almost total cut off of foreign contacts after the Marxist revolution. The Three Self Movement churches are probably the ones most analogous to the Progressive churches and seminaries in Cuba. The House churches more resemble those Cuban denominations and churches and believers who hunkered down and passively resisted the whole Marxist discourse and which are now reemerging to a prominent place on the religious scene. In China, I believe that the two types of churches were very alienated from each other but are beginning to cooperate and learn from each other. My hope for Cuba is that the same sort of thing can happen there: that Cuban Christians can combine the best of each wing of the church—the prophetic vision and practice of the progressive Christians and the faithfulness and courage of the conservative Christians. Frankly, I think that Cuba’s Christians can teach us much more than we can teach them about what it means to be faithful followers of Christ.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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