Religion in Cuba ahead of visit by Pope Francis: Think politics, politics, politics

My fascination with Cuba began in my late teens when I discovered traditional Cuban dance music, which I much preferred to the bubble-gum rock that had supplanted the doo-wop sound, my first musical love. My friends and I -- middle class Jewish guys from New York City's outer boroughs -- referred to the music as "Latin;" today it's know as "salsa," a catch-all term that fails miserably, as did Latin, to do justice to the many musical forms that comprise the rhythmic complexity of the Cuban musical palate.

By the early 1960s, we were regulars on the New York Latin dance scene. One of our wider circle actually become one of salsa's biggest stars. That would be Larry Harlow, nicknamed El Judeo Maravilloso (the Marvelous Jew), who began life as Lawrence Ira Kahn. Go figure.

Our access to the music was greatly, if inadvertently, facilitated by Fidel Castro, who's revolutionary success in 1959 prompted many of Cuba's greatest musicians to flee to the U.S. for the artistic freedom that trumped any revolutionary zeal they harbored. 

I got to Cuba in 1998 to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II and I hope to return there later this year or next with three high school-era friends for a bucket-list musical tour of the island nation. In the meantime, I read all I can about contemporary Cuba, including this recent Washington Post piece that touted what was called a Cuban religious resurgence.

Here's a few graphs that convey the news feature's central point:

The island has experienced a religious revival of sorts in the past 25 years, as the demise of Soviet totalitarianism has made room for a tropical Marxism that is less than total but still highly controlling.
Cuba was never a deeply pious country in the cloth of some other Latin American nations. But the Catholic Church and other denominations have come a long way from the 1960s and ’70s, when Fidel Castro’s revolution sent religious believers to labor camps and enshrined atheism in the constitution.
Today, Christmas and Good Friday are national holidays once more. Churchgoers no longer face official discrimination. For the first time in five decades, the government has given the church permission to build a cathedral. And Catholic authorities face increasing competition from fast-growing evangelical denominations, many with close ties to U.S. churches.

Presumably, it's last year's news of the Roman Catholic hierarchy receiving permission to construct a new Havana cathedral that's referenced above; more precise writing would have negated the need for guess work. Or perhaps, though I doubt it, the piece was harking back more than a decade to the government's approval for a new Orthodox Christian cathedral in Havana?

However, my intent here is not to pick apart this particular Post story. Besides, it sufficiently makes its point: Things are better but Cuba's still no believers' paradise. Of course the story's a quarter-century old, by the writer's admission, but whatever.

Rather, my point is that as Cuba and the U.S. complete their current process of diplomatic reconciliation, and the scheduled September visit of Pope Francis draws closer, journalists will surely churn out hundreds of pieces similar to this Post effort.

And as they do so, I hope they'll resist the simplistic narrative of Godless communism suddenly succumbing, inevitably, to the the unstoppable power of faith -- not when there's a lot more political nuance to the story that's easy to ignore but is key to understanding Cuba's recent religious history.

Let me be clear: I am not defending the Castro brothers' more than a half century-long record of repressive control of Cuban believers and non-believers alike. I saw enough hints of it myself during my 1998 visit to get the picture -- and that was a week comparative free of government heavy handedness, given the junta's desire to put its best foot forward for the swarm of visiting foreign press. So hold your comments on this score.

But the Cuba of the 1960s is gone. Long gone. It's demise accelerated with the collapse of its economic enabler, the Soviet Union, followed by that of Venezuela, which to a lesser degree replaced Moscow.   

By the time Pope John Paul II got to Cuba, the die had been cast. The Castro brothers, first Fidel and now Raul, were and are fully aware of the emotions that papal visits stir. Cuba is desperately poor and the various papal visits (Pope Benedict XVI also visited) may be seen as Cuba's way of opening to foreign commerce and investment, much of it thwarted to now by the American economic embargo. 

Additionally, it's inaccurate to claim that both Castros -- educated in Catholic schools in their youth -- are as constitutionally anti-religion as they once appeared. Rather, I'd say, they were strongly anti-Catholic because of the church's close relationship with the corrupt Batista regime that Fidel's revolution capsized. Similarly, Fidel's lesser but still considerable persecution of Cuba's Protestant Christians during the revolution's earlier years was connected to fears that Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, were an American fifth column because of their connections to U.S. Church groups.

In short, the knee-jerk dictatorial destruction of alternative political voices had much to do with the revolution's historical disdain toward institutional religion. I wrote about this in 1998 for Religion News Service, where I then worked. Two background pieces I did at the time are Castro on religion: Christians can also be good Marxists and Cuba's other Christians: Island's Protestant population climbing.

Note in the first of those two pieces the reference to Fidel's comment that "it is possible for Christians to be Marxists as well, and to work together with Marxist communists to transform the world." Note as well his remark that religious and political heroes are "made of the same stuff," and, of course, his 1997 book, "Fidel and Religion," in which he sympathizes with Latin American-style liberation theology, a left-wing politicalization of Catholicism's often stated concern for the poor and powerless. 

Again, I'm simply arguing for bringing necessary context to the journalistic task.

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