Cuba III: Churches emphasize the value of dialogue and mutual listening

When protests broke out on Sunday, July 11, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, to talk with protesters about their grievances—something the presidents of Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti never did despite months of protests in their countries.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel hears from the people of San Antonio de los Baños on July 11 (Photo: Estudios Revolución). Right: Bishop Griselda Delgado of Cuba’s Episcopalian (Anglican) Church (Photo: Jim Hodgson)

In the wake of the protests, Cuba’s churches called for dialogue. The Catholic bishops warned against “a rigidity and hardening of positions” and encouraged “mutual listening.” The bishop of the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church, María Griselda Delgado, said: “There will always be divergences, diverse opinions, different thoughts; there is the richness and integrity of being a People. It is necessary to raise the value of dialogue to seek understanding.” (Several of the church statements are posted in English on a Facebook site related to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) On Aug. 6, the Cuban Council of Churches and leaders of its member churches met with President Díaz-Canel, along with the Student Christian Movement and other ecumenical groups.

Like many Canadians, I made my first visit to Cuba as a tourist. That was in 1992, at the height of the “special period” when Cubans faced hardship as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sought new ways to engage with the rest of the world. 

From 2000 to 2019, I had the privilege of visiting the country almost every year. For two decades on behalf of The United Church of Canada, I worked alongside Cuban churches and their ecumenical organizations (the Cuban Council of Churches, the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Matanzas, and the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre in Havana).

Canadians visited Cuba; Cubans came to Canada. The relationships were lively: rooted in love and mutual respect, and not immune from political and religious controversies. We learned together and taught one another in formal and informal settings—academic exchanges (faculty and students), congregational twinning, and participation together in international settings (World Social Forum, Hemispheric Social Alliance, World Council of Churches, ACT Alliance, and others). And we worked with U.S. churches to help maintain and strengthen their ties with Cuban churches in the face of official U.S. hostility to Cuba. My occasional conversations with Cuban government staff and politicians were friendly and informative.

All of those efforts are about building bridges, sharing stories, promoting dialogue. We could even find common ground with the government of Canada’s “constructive engagement” policy approach to Cuba and, for many years, collaborate in official development assistance projects.

And so, I welcome the voices of those Cuban churches that work in favour of dialogue and realistic approaches to solving problems.

Theology in Revolution

For the Cuban churches, the years following the Cuban Revolution were challenging. The new government was suspicious of churches that had aligned themselves historically with the elites or that operated as “missions” that were dependent on U.S. support.  The government restricted religious activity. Many ministers and priests left the country, though there was more enthusiasm for the revolution among lay people. Atheism became official state policy and religious believers were discriminated against in employment and education.

View of Matanzas from the Evangelical Seminary of Theology (SET); Sergio Arce in 2007. (Photos: Jim Hodgson)

Some among those who stayed—or, as in the case of Presbyterian theologian Sergio Arce Martínez, returned—developed a “theology in revolution” in the 1960s. Arce was concerned not with a God “up there,” but rather with God “down here” as experienced in human history, especially in the revolution against poverty, exclusion and imperialism. Christians from other parts of the world attended the 1966 Tricontinental Congress in Havana, and then the Cultural Congress held in Havana in January 1968. That event was attended by several Catholic priests whose declaration was read aloud by Fidel Castro at the closing.

Elsewhere, other processes were underway: the Roman Catholic Church’s II Vatican Council (1962-65) and the meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín in 1968; the growth of Christian base communities; Priests for the Third World in Argentina in 1966; the World Conference on Church and Society, held in Geneva in 1966, that identified the close relationship between peace and justice; and emergence of the National Organization for Social Integration (ONIS) in Peru in 1968, the Golcanda group in Colombia, also in 1968, and Christians for Socialism in Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1971. All of these currents—including the Cuban Revolution itself—influenced each other and played a role in the articulation of liberation theology by Gustavo Gutiérrez and others in the early 70s. The confluence of those processes, plus the Catholic Church’s articulation of the “preferential option for the poor” in the late 70s, and patient work by Christians in Cuba to overcome the revolutionary government’s early distrust of organized religion, resulted in the Communist Party’s decision in 1991 to drop its requirement that party members be atheists. More Cuban Christians began to attend worship and join churches.

Use and abuse of organized religion

The U.S. government has made no secret of its intent to use religious groups to subvert the Cuban Revolution. Most blatant in this regard was the May 2004 Report to President G.W. Bush by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. The commission promised to use religious organizations in “building a free Cuba.” It also proposed to “differentiate the leadership of the Cuban Council of Churches” from its members (p.64). 

Read now, almost two decades later, the report is as ludicrous as other Orwellian lies from the Bush era, like the ones about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Afghans would welcome foreign invaders. 

Even so, you can see the effects of the approach in the attacks today on the Cuban Council of Churches in responses to its social media posts. 

With graver consequences, networks of conservative Christians oppose gender equity, same-sex marriage and Trans rights as if they were attacks on the “traditional family.” Any criticism of the fundamentalist view draws charges from the U.S. government that Cuba is attacking religious freedom. (I’ll look at LGBTI rights in a future post.)

In facing the alignment of fundamentalist Christian religion with right-wing politics, Cuba is not alone. Across Latin America and beyond, many of these groups seek to use state power to impose their narrow moral agenda. I have written about this phenomenon previously (in the context of Colombia) here.

Next week: Unwrapping development, Cuban-style; LGBTI rights and inclusion; and something along the lines of “how to confront imperialism without losing your soul.”

Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, met Sept. 9 with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and with scientists who developed Cuba’s Covid vaccines.

Cuba II: Overcoming systemic discrimination, confronting imperialism

When considering Cuba today—and thinking beyond what you think you learned from Godfather II—it’s useful to consider what Cuba was like before Jan. 1, 1959. To do so, I went back to one of my venerable university text books, Modern Ideologies, by Max Mark (New York: St. Martin’s, 1973. p. 172):

  • U.S. interests owned 40 per cent of the sugar land, including seven of the ten largest plantations. Much of this land was acquired after the Spanish-American War. 
  • U.S. interests owned 54 per cent of the sugar mills and 90 per cent in the telephone companies, electric power supply and railways. 
  • The most depressed group was made up of people who lived in rural areas. In 1946, eight per cent of the farmers owned 71.1 per cent of the land that was owned by Cubans, while 39 per cent owned only 3.3 per cent.
  • The typical Cuban agriculturist was a landless day-labourer who worked for wages in supervised groups, employed for only a few months of the year.
  • Their lives were in sharp contrast with life in more cosmopolitan Havana, where 87 per cent of homes had electricity. In rural areas, only 7 per cent of dwellings were so equipped. 

I would add that before the 1959 revolution, 85 per cent of Cuba’s trade was with the United States.

Let’s go more deeply into the history of Cuba at the hands of the imperial powers: Spain and the United States. Despite losing most of its other Latin American and Caribbean colonies early in the 19thcentury, Spain had managed to hold onto Cuba until the Spanish-American War near the end of the century. A rebellion by African slaves in 1812 had been crushed. An independence struggle launched in 1868 failed after 10 years of fighting. Spain finally abolished slavery in Cuba in 1886. Another revolt, this one led by the writer José Martí, broke out in 1895.

The U.S. newspaper empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other with sensationalistic stories of Spanish oppression in its remaining colonies, especially Cuba. In what is widely believed to have been an “inside job” to provide a pretext for war, the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in the Havana harbour on Feb. 15, 1898. U.S. ships blockaded Cuba and land forces were deployed. By August, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were all occupied by the United States. In a treaty at the end of the year, Spain conceded Cuba’s independence. Fierce resistance continued in Philippines for years afterwards, and the other former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Guam remain in U.S. hands to this day. 

At first, the U.S. established a military government in Cuba. A new constitution in 1901 contained the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs. It also gave the U.S. a naval base at Guantánamo. 

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy, the United States abrogated the amendment in 1934, but kept Guantánamo. For almost 20 years, the United States has operated an illegal prison camp for alleged terrorists at its Guantánamo base.

The stories of the struggle in the 1950s to rid Cuba of the dictator Fulgencio Batista—Fidel Castro’s raid on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and subsequent trial (“History will absolve me”); his return from exile in Mexico aboard the Granma in 1956 in the company of his brother Raúl and Ernesto “Che” Guevara; the guerrilla war waged from the Sierra Maestra mountains; the eventual triumph—are better known and well-told elsewhere, as are the tales of clashes with the United States (the “Bay of Pigs” invasion, the missile crisis).

What’s not as well-known are the early steps toward transformation, especially those that placed previously impoverished people—especially women and people of colour—at the centre of attention, a sharp break from “the discrimination inherent in patriarchal and segregationist societies.”

Key here was creation in 1960 of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) under the leadership of Vilma Espín as a space to drive and achieve many goals of the women’s movement (“the revolution within the revolution,” as Fidel called it): participation, pay equity, universal day care, reproductive rights, and paid maternity leave. For more than 60 years, Cuba has made consistent gains in health care and education, and shared its accomplishments with people in other developing countries around the world.

Across Latin America, impoverished people saw the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, as a sign of hope. Across the region, protests against poverty and oppression grew in the 1960s, and armed rebellions began in many countries. On July 19, 1979, came the triumph of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in Nicaragua. In most places, however, military force (with training and funding from the United States) crushed the revolts.

Latin American churches, meanwhile, were changing too. The old strategy of training elites in hope that they might show mercy to the poor was an obvious failure. Building from the methods of popular education, churches encouraged lay people to come together in “base Christian communities” (comunidades eclesiales de base—CEBs).

Theologians came to describe the reflection carried out by oppressed people on their processes of social and political change as liberation theology. When you talk with people in Mexico or El Salvador or Argentina about their inspiration for involvement in struggles for social change, many say it was through participation in the CEBs—or their parents’ participation.

In my next post, I will share more about the role of churches in contemporary Cuba.

Cuba I – The U.S. blockade is a failure

A recent article The Guardian begins with the proposition: “If the U.S. really cared about freedom in Cuba, it would end its punishing sanctions.” Yes, but I would argue that the U.S. cares nothing for Cuba: only that it cease to present a model of how to set social priorities for the common good ahead of narrow economic ones that benefit a wealthy minority, and that it cease to offer a pretty good model of human and ecological development that advances largely outside the global capitalist system.

The whole point of sanctions against Cuba (usually referred to more generally as the blockade or the embargo) has been to cause sufficient dissatisfaction so as to provoke regime change. 

“The blockade was not simply, as many believe, the cutting of an umbilical cord with the United States,” Colombia’s Nobel-prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez wrote 1975. “It was a ferocious attempt at genocide promoted by a power almost without limits, whose tentacles appear in any part of the world.”

The U.S. logic for the blockade was identified in soon after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in a memorandum written by Lester Mallory, deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, to his superiors on April 6, 1960 while Dwight Eisenhower was still president: “The majority of Cubans support Castro.… The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” [Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State.]

With dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington escalated measures intended to strangle Cuba, including the Torricelli Act (1992), Helms-Burton law (1996) and a portfolio of measures announced by G.W. Bush (2004). These measures included severe restrictions on financial transfers (including those by U.S. churches to Cuban churches) along with travel and exchanges of all kinds.

The administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) allowed increased travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. This was an attempt to “change” Cuba by encouraging grassroots contact that would spread new ideas in Cuban society. But what happened was that the minds of U.S. visitors were changed: they returned and advocated for an end to the embargo and for a more profound understanding of what has gone on in Cuba since the Revolution in 1959.

Late in the Barack Obama years, some sanctions were eased, diplomatic relations restored, and the U.S. president visited Havana in March 2016. His successor, Donald Trump, instituted 243 new measures against Cuba.

The new administration of Joseph Biden (the 11th president since Eisenhower) refuses to dismantle the sanctions, including those imposed by Trump. Among other things, those measures severely restrict remittances from and travel by Cuban-Americans to their homeland and visits by Cubans to the United States. 

After more than 60 years of trying, the strategy has failed. In June, the U.S. blockade was again condemned by 184 nations in the United Nations General Assembly, this time with only Israel supporting the U.S. position. Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil abstained.

In the wake of scattered protests in Cuba on July 11, Biden’s gang added even more pointless sanctions. Much that is said and written about Cuba in the weeks since those protests is full of insight. See, for example, articles by Rick Salutin and Vijay Prashad who both compared Cuba’s situation with that of Haiti, which still suffers the consequences of the punishment France exacted after people held in slavery liberated themselves in the 1804 revolution. (Haiti was forced to pay the equivalent of about $25 billion in today’s dollars to compensate the former slave-holders, a debt that wasn’t fully paid until 1947, almost a century-and-a-half later.)

But there is also a lot of drivel emanating from the U.S. state department and the Miami exiles that shows up in mainstream media. Solutions will not come from north of the Straits of Florida, but rather from processes within Cuba. 

Every country on the planet encompasses different opinions just now about responses by governments to the pandemic. In that sense, Cuba is not different—though the government’s capacity to act efficiently is limited by that one simple fact: that the blockade continues. In effect, the United States has used the pandemic as an ally in its effort to suffocate the Cuban revolution.

Cubans struggle with income lost from the U.S. ban on remittances. The tourist industry suffers as the pandemic inhibits travel. Blackouts derive from the U.S.-induced crisis in Venezuela that has sharply reduced the supply of petroleum-based energy. There is inflation that is related to a complicated currency reform. 

On Feb. 18, 2021, U.S. and Cuban churches wrote to Biden, asking him to restore travel, remittances and trade with Cuba; to remove Cuba from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism;” to rescind Trump’s mandate to use extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton law; and to rebuild U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba. 

Meanwhile, Cuban scientists developed Covid vaccines (Soberana and Abdala, which each require three doses for maximum protection), but the blockade hampers production and slows delivery of syringes and personal protective equipment. 

Difficulties notwithstanding, by Sept. 2, Cuba had administered at least one dose to 5.7 million people among a total population of 11.3 million. Of those, 4.6 million had received their second shots and just over 4 million their third. Vaccinations of adolescents and children began Sept. 3, using the Soberana-2 vaccine.

In days and weeks ahead, I will share some thoughts about Cuban history, religious issues that impact political debate, approaches to development and participation in Cuba, gender equity and LGBTI rights, and the broader struggle to overcome imperialism.