Letter From Cuba: The Religious Revival of a Communist State

By Antal NevilleMay 5, 2013

Letter From Cuba: The Religious Revival of a Communist State

All photographs by Antal Neville.

THIS SPRING THE COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT OF CUBA marked Good Friday a public holiday, the second consecutive year it’s done so since religious holidays were banned in the early days of the Castro revolution. The holiday was established at Pope Benedict XVI’s request during his visit to the island last year; in a country with a checkered history around the Catholic Church, both a papal visit and a new Catholic holiday mark a milestone in the evolving role of religion in Cuban society. In fact, in recent years the Catholic Church has become one of the most influential organizations in Cuba outside of the government, and that may be a sign that Cuba is opening itself up to the rest of the world.

Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba was a nominally religious country, but compared to many of its Latin American neighbors, it was relatively non-practicing. Surveys from the 1950s suggest that about 75 percent of the population claimed to be Catholic, compared with over 90 percent in other Latin American countries. Less than a quarter of the population reported attending services regularly. Religious institutions were clustered in cities, but most Cubans lived in rural areas. In a 1957 survey of rural families, 41.4 percent said they had no religion at all, and 46.5 percent had never even laid eyes on a priest.

Fidel Castro himself was brought up Catholic and educated in exclusive Jesuit schools. But the Cuban revolutionary leader grew wary of the church, describing it as a classist institution. The best schools were religious schools, but they were generally closed off to black and mulatto students, and poorer families couldn’t afford tuition. On top of that, the Catholic Church to Castro represented an institution that was profoundly tied to the history of imperialism that conquered Cuba and kept its people impoverished for centuries. Castro once said, “When Columbus arrived here with his church — the Catholic Church — he came bearing the sword and the cross. With the sword, he sanctified the right to conquer; with the cross, he blessed that right.”

After Castro’s revolution overthrew Batista’s dictatorship in 1959, some Catholic churches and schools became centers for antirevolutionary activity. Castro declared his revolution socialist in nature and forged ties with the anti-religious Soviet Union. The regime shut down Catholic schools and nationalized church property to quell the counterrevolution. One hundred thirty of Cuba’s approximately 800 priests were expelled in 1961, while others were put in forced labor camps throughout the 1960s. Most of the rest fled, and by 1965 only about one quarter of the Catholic clergy remained. Many churches were abandoned and religious dissemination virtually came to a halt.

Meanwhile the Communist Party banned religious members among its ranks. The 1976 constitution — the first drafted since the beginning of the revolution — finally codified the government’s stance, declaring material atheism the country’s official religious stance. By then only two percent of Cubans identified themselves as Christians.


Havana cathedral


I arrived in Cuba one week before Easter. The introduction of a religious holiday in a communist country baffled me. Hoping to find out more, I’d arranged for a contact to meet me in Havana to both be my guide and connect me with other sources. Her name was Liudmila, and to my luck, she also offered to be my interpreter when I interviewed other people. She herself was not hugely religious but was baptized Christian, and also believed in the spirits of the Yoruba religion, which stuck in Cuba after centuries of importing African slaves. My curiosity about religion rubbed off on her, and she began seeking out religious friends for me to interview. And she had many.

Together we spent days working our way around Havana to talk to people, soaking in the city along the way. Havana’s streets are famous for their classic buses, taxis, and cars, a consequence of the US embargo that has prohibited trade between the countries for two generations. Around the neighborhoods there were plenty of 1950s American and 1980s Russian cars on the streets, clogging the city’s arteries and puffing black smoke at the crumbling neoclassical facades. Through open windows where laundry was hung out to dry, the sounds of Cuban son, hip-hop, and reggaeton escaped from inside people’s homes.


Above and below: Streets of Havana


Below: Callejon de Hamel, an alley in Havana
that celebrates Afro-Cuban culture


A friend of Liudmila’s mother, Havana native Susana, grew up without any faith.

“I was five years old when the revolution triumphed,” she tells me. “After that I didn’t go to church for nearly 20 years.” She’s perched on the edge of her armchair, leaning to one side to rest her ankle where she recently had surgery. Her hazel eyes look tired though I can still see some youth in her broad, warm smile and blonde hair.

“Why?” she continues with a hint of bitterness. “Because my parents were communists, and good communists didn’t go to church.”

Practicing religion was never banned, but being a good revolutionary meant rejecting religion on both Marxist and anti-imperialist grounds. Catholics were ostracized. God was out, and socialism was in. Working, not praying, was the way to march forward toward progress.

Still, faith in the revolution never stuck for Susana; in her adult life she found herself spiritually starved. “I needed to go back to the church. There was something missing in my life and I needed the church to find it. I needed to be around people like me,” she says — people with faith in God.

Just as Susana was yearning for the presence of religion, the Catholic Church, too, was rebranding itself to reach out to more people in a postcolonial world.

Castro’s perception of the Catholic Church as an institution that sided with the upper classes became widespread throughout the world. In the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII famously called for the church to become “once again a church of the poor,” and the Conference of Latin American Bishops in 1968 concluded that the church should have a “preferential option for the poor.”

The latter conference sparked the widespread movement of liberation theology, an inherently left-wing interpretation of Christian teachings that calls for the liberation from unjust social and economic circumstances. It was a movement that inspired change; clergy throughout Latin America mobilized in poor neighborhoods and established thousands of worship communities in areas previously underserved by their parishes.

The old-guard, conservative church began to shift left. By the time of the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1970s, for example, the Catholic clergy in that country were divided — some priests siding with the right-wing government, others with the left-wing revolutionaries that eventually triumphed.

In 1985, Fidel Castro was interviewed by a Brazilian Dominican friar and made a striking admission:

From a strictly political point of view — and I think I know something about politics — I believe that it is possible for Christians to be Marxists as well, and to work together with Marxist Communists to transform the world. The important thing is that, in both cases, they be honest revolutionaries who want to end the exploitation of man by man and to struggle for a fair distribution of social wealth, equality, fraternity and the dignity of all human beings.

The transcribed interview was published as Fidel y la Religion and sold over one million copies in Cuba, a country of 10 million. In the book, the communist and the Catholic don’t see eye to eye on faith but find one thing to agree on: the need to bring about social equality.


Above: Havana, Plaza de la Revolucion Building

Below: Billboard at the Plaza de la Revolucion


Susana meanwhile married a neurologist and a fervent revolutionary named Salvador, and together they had a son. Like Susana’s parents, Salvador had also rejected the Catholic Church on principle. He said the church had sold itself to the corrupt Batista government before Castro’s, Susana told me. But social perception of the Catholic Church in Cuba had begun to improve, and Salvador’s rigid atheism slackened. After 12 years of marriage, Salvador and Susana were remarried in a Catholic ceremony.

Their timing was perfect.

In 1991, one year after the couple’s second marriage, the Cuban Communist Party lifted the ban on religious believers joining the party. Then in 1992, the Cuban constitution was ratified to drop the official atheist label and banned discrimination on religious grounds. But perhaps the biggest symbolic moment came when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998. To Susana it was an unmatched gesture showing that Catholic Cubans’ faith was legitimate.

It was so important to us — he was the first pope to visit Cuba. He went from Santiago [eastern tip] to Pinar del Río [western tip]. He was here for a week, did Mass every day for different people. He met with young people, old people, religious groups, and secular groups for a whole week.

Cubans, too, could be genuine Catholics.

Her teenage son was even selected among a group of altar boys to participate in the Mass. For her it was a huge point of pride to see her son involved in the Mass; the visit reaffirmed that being a believer publicly was compatible with being a good Cuban citizen.

“We live here because we’re Cubans,” she told me. “This system is what it is. The government is what it is. We’re not all Marxists, communists — everyone has his system of beliefs. But we’re all Cubans.”


Above: Orisha shrine at Liudmila's house

Below: Depictions of Cuban saints (orishas) at Liudmila's house
From left to right: Santa Barbara (Chango), Virgen de Regla (Yemaya), Virgen de la Caridad (Oshun), San Lazaro (Babalu Aye)



Since the end of religious discrimination in 1992, all former active religions in Cuba have undergone a revival. Surveys from the 1990s reveal that over 80 percent of Cubans believe in the divine — an astounding statistic for a country that promoted atheism for more than a generation. Protestant churches — including Baptist, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist — claim between 5 and 10 percent of the population. There are over 1,000 Jews in Cuba and a surviving pre-revolutionary Synagogue in Havana. About 1,000 Cubans are Muslim, though the country has no mosques. Kardecian spiritism, based on the writings of 19th-century Frenchman Alan Kardec, is big, and Cuba has been called the world’s second most spiritist country.

But more prominent than these are Afro-Cuban religions; an estimated 30 percent of Cubans are adherents. Unlike most religions in Cuba that spread top-down, Afro-Cuban religions spread bottom-up from slaves, mostly Yoruba people from West Africa.

I had initially been focused on organized religions, but Liudmila kept nudging me to pay attention to the signs of Santería, and then I began seeing them everywhere. In the streets men and women can be seen dressed head to toe in white — a yearlong requirement that follows an initiate’s ritualistic rebirth called “making saint.” Many people wear beaded bracelets and necklaces with distinct color patterns, each representing a specific saint, or orisha. Depictions of a single eye above a dagger-pierced tongue hang next to doorways or from taxi drivers’ rearview mirrors warning against indiscretion. Once, while we were turning a corner on foot, Liudmila pointed to the corner of the lot, just inside the sidewalk, where a pile of small bird carcasses lay decomposing (the juncture of four corners is one location where saints can access animals that have been offered them).

The street corner is at the end of Felix’s block, and Felix is a babalawo — “father of secrets” in the Yoruba language. His title is the highest form of priesthood in the Regla de Ifá divination system of Santería, a distinctly Cuban evolution of Yoruba religion. He lives in a special house called a casa de santos, a house of saints. It’s filled with shrines to different saints, which are not supposed to be disturbed during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter.

Santería is a syncretism of Yoruba religion and Catholicism: it observes the Catholic calendar with Holy Week; the first step to practice in Santería is to be baptized Christian; the central pantheon of Yoruba orishas have Catholic counterparts. The Catholic version of Yemaya, Liudmila’s orisha, is the patroness of Havana, the Virgin of Regla.


Above and below: Afro-Cuban religious shops



Felix, now in his 70s, has been a babalawo for 24 years. “I used to be a sailor. I was a refrigerator mechanic on ships,” he told me. During that time he had been perfecting his religious craft, and once he was finally initiated into the all-male priesthood, he quit his official job and began earning money as a babalawo, doing individual consultations and helping with ceremonies. Since then his house has become the casa de santos. He has given 7,000 hands of Orula, one of the early initiations into the religion, and consecrated 75 babalawos.

It’s easy to spot Felix’s house on the block, but not especially because of its status as a holy place. His is the only one on the block with a car parked outside, an early 1990s Japanese model, fading blue paint. It’s a rare luxury in a country where most people can’t afford cars. Cubans live within a system that rations them basic food and healthcare, and then provides them with a job that pays on average the equivalent of US$20 a month. Some Cubans have taken advantage of the government opening up tourism, an industry which gives them access to tips and Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs), a currency equated with the US dollar implemented in the 1990s to accommodate tourists. One CUC is worth 24 Cuban pesos, so earning in CUCs can be an enormous boost to an individual’s income, which applies to tourism and many peripheral industries. To give one example, many cars in Havana are taxis that shuttle tourists, and tourists pay in CUCs. Taxi drivers cash in, but so do downstream private auto mechanics, who can earn up to 400 CUCs in a month. The beat-up 1990s car is like a Mercedes.

Felix does not work in tourism, nor in a peripheral industry. Most of his business’ “clients” are from the neighborhood, earn in Cuban pesos, and have almost no disposable income to begin with. Yet his work is so important to people that they pay top dollar out of their meager disposable incomes and Felix has slowly floated into another earning bracket, one that affords him something like a car. With the superior religious status comes a superior economic status.

He says he isn’t motivated by the money. Other babalawos charge much more than he does, and when foreigners come to see him from as far as Venezuela, Mexico, Switzerland, Canada, the United States (Cuba is a hotbed for Yoruba religion), Felix charges them the same prices. Still, it’s a strange thing that religion has grown into such a large-scale industry. He talks about the rising prices for sacrificial animals. White doves cost about US$5 each, twice what they used to a few years ago. I can’t imagine very many uses for white doves, so I assume growing demand for the bird to sacrifice has driven up the price in this market. “When someone comes to me with a problem,” he says, “and I know the solution with an orisha, I’m really happy I can help them. It’s beautiful.”


Felix's patio, with a representation of Cuban saint Elegua


Scant resources are a part of everyday life in Cuba, not just for Felix and his neighborhood. Archimandrite Atenágoras from the Greek Orthodox Church in Old Havana tells me his parish gives special attention to struggling parishioners.

“Right now there are 30 families on our list that have very, very serious economic problems. Among them are young people that are studying, and the conditions of the family are not good,” Father Atenágoras says. I imagine families that can’t afford light bulbs, let alone the electricity bill, but before I can ask about the specifics he yells, “Ernesto!”

Moments later a man in his 20s who is built like a boxer hurries upstairs to the office where we’re speaking. “Ernesto is our socio-pastoral director. He’s responsible for visiting people who are unable to come to the church to ask for help,” he explains, often because of medical problems or family obligations. Ernesto shakes my hand firmly.

“Is that all, Father?” he asks.

“Yes,” the priest responds, then Ernesto turns and hurries back downstairs.

Archimandrite Atenágoras is the vicar of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cuba, and he’s developing a socio-pastoral program. “They sometimes help rebuild people’s homes, help people get a driver’s license if they’d like to learn how to drive,” he says.

The church also recently organized a painting class for teens and found a building in the neighborhood to use as a studio and gallery. People come to the church for medication when they can’t afford it; drugs are some of the most common donations from charities abroad.

“We even have a soccer team. Ernesto is on the team with about 20 other guys,” says Father Atenágoras. Few team members work at the church like Ernesto, and others don’t even belong to the church. But the team maintains the regimen of a professional organization; the church even pays a professional coach who runs daily practices. Mostly they play against other teams from Havana, and a few days earlier the team had played in the first round of a tournament and won. It’s not a charity league. These guys have purpose.

“The economic situation is very difficult, so it’s the way to help young people realize their dreams,” he says. “They’re very good players, and this is the way that their dreams can become true.”

The church’s offices are across a small courtyard from the church itself, and through a small window across from me I can see the Patriarchal cross rising from the top of the small Orthodox temple, that church with a very unlikely inception.


Above: Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Below: Plaque at Saint Nicholas


Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral became the first church built in Cuba since the 1959 Castro revolution, though there are virtually no Greeks in Cuba. There had been both a Greek community and a Greek Orthodox church before the revolution, but the former fled and the latter was abandoned and eventually taken over by the Teatro Buendía theater group that still uses it.

The new church was then founded through a peculiar combination of circumstances in the 1990s. Since the 1970s there had been a fake Orthodox church in Cuba — a church that called itself Orthodox but wasn’t consecrated by any established Orthodox archdiocese — that was seeking legitimization. A highly diplomatic archbishop from Mexico City caught wind of the situation and pressed the Cuban government to allow his archdiocese to establish a legitimate church in the country. Greek-born Queen Sofía of Spain got involved and pleaded the case directly to Fidel Castro. Finally, after the Havana City Historian had spent some time in Greece learning about building restoration, he decided what Havana was lacking was a bit of Byzantine spirit.

The church was approved and the first stone was laid in 2000. Construction was completed in 2004, and for such a small church, its consecration was a big deal. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew flew in from Istanbul, and Fidel Castro attended the event to present the church as a gift from the Cuban people to the Greek Orthodox Church. Since then the church has baptized about 1,000 people in Havana, and five more parishes have been started throughout Cuba. Construction is underway for churches at two of the five locations.

One surprising thing about the Greek Orthodox church is that most of the people hanging around in the office and courtyard were young, in their teens or 20s. And much of the social work that Archimandrite Atenágoras described was aimed at the young — the soccer team, the driver’s training, the art studio.

“Almost everybody in the world thinks of working for children because they’re small, because they can’t work, or the elderly because they’re old and need things, but very few concentrate on helping the youth,” the archimandrite explains, los jóvenes. “And the youth are those who will build our future. Children are our future, but they’re our more distant future. The youth are our immediate future.”

Indeed, focusing on the immediate future is one way religious organizations have become more integral in Cuban society. Charity has allowed religious organizations to make themselves useful when the state can’t provide.

The $20 that most people earn each month doesn't go far. Cuba produces very little, so most goods are imported and subject to the pricing of global markets. Saving up to buy a $30 pair of shoes could take months. Even simple products like soap, paper, pens, and light bulbs become enormously expensive for a regular salary. What’s more, salaries are about the same across most of the economy in all the government-run sectors. Shopkeepers and cigar factory workers make roughly the same as doctors and engineers. But taxi drivers can out-earn all of them combined. Highly trained professionals are leaving their jobs to earn more money driving taxis, stripping their industries of qualified workers and further shorting the development of the economy. The more daring try to leave the country — about 50,000 make it to the United States each year. Brain drain is rampant. Religious organizations in Cuba are facing a struggling, impoverished society, and they’re doing their best to help.

The Catholic Church has been pushing for reform. As early as 1993, when the Cuban economy was deep in recession, having shrunk almost 40 percent after losing trade with the Soviet Union, the Catholic episcopacy in Cuba released a pastoral letter titled “Love Hopes All Things,” calling for dialogue and reevaluation of highly centralized economic policies. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega has nurtured a proactive relationship with President Raul Castro and even helped the president negotiate the release of political prisoners in 2011. In the same year the Archdiocese of Havana launched a joint graduate program in business with the University of Murcia in Spain, an effort to make the most of the burgeoning private sector. And a magazine published by the Archdiocese of Havana called Espacio Laical, which French newspaper Le Monde recently called “the only publication tolerated by the state that has a real impact,” has become a major source of open dialogue in Cuba.


Above: National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, village of El Cobre



Above and below: Havana Catholic churches


Below: Neighborhood church in Havana



The growth of religious organizations’ influence in Cuban society is undeniable. But by proving they can provide certain goods and services better than the Cuban government, are they in effect challenging the centralized communist state? Can the two really exist in harmony?

Before coming to Cuba, a scholar and historian warned me not to fall into this trap: “Take a step back,” I was chided. “Religious groups in Cuba do not have a political agenda. Religions will speak out when the basic socioeconomic needs of the people are not being met.”

This may be true to some extent, but religious organizations have amassed large numbers of followers, proving their potential to wield influence over their members. As such, they’ve managed to carve out some space for themselves in Cuban civil society. And the idea of dissent from religious groups isn’t unfounded, either. In 1987, Catholic dissident Oswaldo Payá founded the Christian Liberation Movement, calling for nonviolent civil disobedience against the state’s one-party rule. Dozens of the Christian Liberation Movement’s members were arrested in 2003, and last year Payá was killed in a car accident in the eastern part of the island after being run off the road by a government vehicle.

Afro-Cuban religions are historically decentralized, but last year a group of practitioners of the Yoruba religion created the Free Yoruba Association of Cuba, “with the purpose of practicing our religious beliefs outside the state control which all believers of this African faith are subjected to in this country.”

Even the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical, an official organ of the Archdiocese of Havana, does its fair share of mild-mannered rabble-rousing. In March, the magazine published a document that was decidedly political, even if not aggressive or polemical. The document, entitled “A Dreamed of, Possible and Future Cuba,” proposed a definition of “republic” and 23 instruments to guarantee the sovereignty of the Cuban people in the immediate future. Among them were proposals to allow freedom of access to information, including mass internet access; academic and university autonomy; and direct, free, and secret elections for all public officials, from local representatives to the highest executive positions of the Republic.

This isn’t to say that we should expect a Catholic coup d’état in Cuba anytime soon — nor a Yoruba one or a Greek Orthodox one for that matter. But in the immediate future, religious organizations will have a self-acknowledged role in shaping the landscape of Cuban society, more than just helping youngsters play soccer.


Santiago de Cuba


Antal Neville has written for publications such as The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Zocalo Public Square.

LARB Contributor

Antal Neville is a freelance writer and editor. He has written for publications such as The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Zocalo Public Square, and holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from The American University of Paris.


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