Religion in Cuba: Not What You Think
My wife and I walked into the Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church located on Infanta Street in Central Havana, Cuba just as the 6:00 p.m. Mass on Easter Sunday was beginning on March 23rd.
Unlike what some people might imagine, the atmosphere was similar to that in any other Latin American Catholic Church. The doors were open, there were no police in sight and the worshippers of mixed age were relaxed and at ease. I greeted a former news agency co-worker who was in one of the back rows.
There was one important difference, though. Instead of a packed congregation in predominantly Catholic countries, the church was no more than 75 percent full.
We took a good look around the beautifully adorned baroque church inaugurated in 1927 with its main and side altars and attractive art work including the painted tiles, mosaics, ceiling and wall murals, and the spectacularly decorated hard wood pulpit.
At the beginning of the Mass, the officiating priest, whose accent seemed to be from Spain, spoke of the festive nature of the anniversary, remembering the resurrection of Christ as, “the most important day on the Catholic calendar.” He also reminded people that their contributions would go to projects “in the hands” of Cardinal Ortega, mainly to make repairs on churches in the different parishes.
Neither my wife nor I practice a religion but it was not the first time we’ve walked into a place of worship in Cuba to observe the atmosphere. We have also gone to ceremonies of the Afro-Cuban “Santeria” religions (originating out of a blend of West African religion with Roman Catholicism so as to make it appear back then to their Catholic slave owners that they were converted to their master’s religion).
The Afro-Cuban religious influence is readily visible on the streets in dress and accoutrements. People initiating into the religion wear all white from head to toe for three months or longer. Different colored necklaces and bracelets as well as scarves, hats, umbrellas etc. also have their significance. Driving percussion music that often spills out into the streets sometimes accompanies religious ceremonies along with sensual, improvisational dance.
Our neighbors and co-workers belong to a mixed bag of religions. Others are agnostics or atheists.
A look at the 2007-8 telephone book white pages for Havana shows 129 “Churches and Places of Worship” listed. These include: Catholics, Baptists, Adventists, Methodists, Episcopalians and Pentecostals. Santeria, mostly conducted out of homes, has many followers while there are small numbers of Jews and Muslims.
We also have friends and acquaintances participating in programs of ecumenical faith based civic organizations that work along with local government institutions to confront social problems such as alcoholism, drugs and domestic violence with an emphasis on raising awareness and consciousness among the population.
In many Catholic countries, the separation of Church and State is still merely nominal. The Church still has its hand in every pot.
The Evangelical groups —often with a lifeline in the US—, also try to dictate how everybody should live based on fear of the devil and his associates.
Things are different in today’s Cuba.
While the church doors are open to anyone wanting to attend, the omnipresence of religion in all aspects of life is clearly not the case.
You don’t feel invaded by religious messages on loud speakers, on buses or on the radio and television which occurs in several Latin American countries and in parts of North America as well. Religions in Cuba do not have access to the media.
While some people —usually middle aged or above— habitually use the phrase “gracias a Dios” (Thank God) in relation to something positive that has occurred, the phrase, “Si Dios quiere” (if it’s God’s will) —very common in Central America and Mexico— is rarely heard in Cuba as a substitute for human action or as a sign of resignation.
Catholic holidays go virtually unnoticed by the majority of the population, especially by the more recent generations. Just before Easter week I conducted a quick poll among acquaintances, revealing that most had no idea when the holiday fell this year. Religious holidays don’t appear on calendars and rate only an occasional mention on the international TV news. Some people working in the tourism industry are aware of it only because the holiday week brings many planeloads of vacationers to Cuba.
NO INFLUENCE ON EDUCATION AND HEALTH MATTERS
The zero influence of religion on Cuba’s health care and educational systems as well as politics is clearly one of the most significant changes instituted by the Cuban revolution since its onset.
The Constitution does not permit religious education in public schools or the operation of private schools, except for some international schools for the children of diplomats.
With religion out of the way, reproductive health issues like birth control, or sexually transmitted diseases are treated as scientific and not moral problems. Sex education is heavily stressed in the grade schools and birth control is available on demand. Full information and treatment for STDs are also available to teenagers and adults on demand.
Condoms are touted on television as part of the ministry of health’s AIDS prevention campaign. In contrast, in countries where the Catholic Church or other conservative religions dominate political power, young people are denied information and told that abstinence is the answer.
The topic of abortion, one of the perennial political battlegrounds in the United States and other countries, is in no way taboo in Cuba. Abortions are available through the country’s public health system, and Cubans consider that the decision to carry out or terminate a pregnancy belongs to each woman. Those who believe abortion is wrong are free not to use the service.
The result is that most women prefer to finish their education and begin their careers before having kids. Further, most choose to limit their families to one or two children, rarely more.
Without the taboos propagated by religious conservatives, people in general are more open about sex and sexuality than in most other Latin American countries.
BACKGROUND ON RELIGION IN CUBA
While some researchers say Catholicism was never as rooted in Cuba as some other Latin American countries, official stats show pre-revolutionary Cuba as over 85 percent Catholic. Other studies put the percentage of “devout” Catholics at below 50 percent even before the revolution. Most analysts agree that the Catholic Church was strongest among the upper and middle classes because of Cuba’s Spanish colonial past.
The Church hierarchy, allied to the wealthy, lived hand in hand with the Batista dictatorship. So it was no surprise that shortly after Batista fled Cuba the majority of the Catholic priests —mostly foreigners— also left the country. Others were expelled for collaborating with the counterrevolution.
While not prohibited, during the 1970s and 80s religion was frowned upon. Those practicing were considered to have divided loyalties and thus could not be candidates for membership in the Communist Party or positions of any importance. Then in 1992, a constitutional amendment made Cuba a secular instead of an atheist state, thus opening the door for people who practice a religion to be members of the Party. One’s private religious beliefs were no longer seen as an obstacle to participation in the revolutionary process.
Since the 90s the Catholic Church has increased its visibility slightly, but not its influence. Today a limited amount of foreign priests and nuns are allowed residency. Christmas was restored as an official day off in 1998. However, the Church steers clear of politics and has no place in government policy.
Santeria —which many people believe rivals the Catholic Church in followers—has reached greater recognition in society under the revolution, treated by the government on a par with all other religions.
CUBA AND THE VATICAN COINCIDE ON SOME ISSUES
Relations between the Cuban government and the Vatican are cordial and frank. They actually coincide on several international issues including opposition to wars of aggression like the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the importance of fighting poverty around the globe.
Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone recently visited Cuba and stressed the Holy See’s opposition to the US blockade on the island. When Pope John Paul II visited the island 10 years earlier he met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Cardinal Bertone expressed the Catholic Church’s desire to play a greater role in education and have access to the media. To date the government has not acquiesced. The fact that it hasn’t keeps Cuba different from its Latin American neighbors.
While respecting others right to worship any or no religion, what I most appreciate about Cuba is the lack of religious fanaticism and the fact that the education and health care systems are strictly non-religious.