Illusions and Realities: Castro the “Christian”, Castro the Cruel

Ernesto Cardenal, the priest admonished by the  Pope on the runway in Managua a few years ago, has written that Fidel Castro exhibits the qualities of a “Christian prophet.” Astonishingly, some North American Christians believe this.

In the Jesuit magazine America Andrew A. Reding has recently written of Castro: “Here is one of those very rare leaders who have never sought personal enrichment, who have repeatedly risked their lives for others and who have established a system that affords preferential attention to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick.”

Nor is this all. “Here is a lifelong crusader against racism who now seeks to extend his labors for social justice to unraveling the profoundly immoral political and economic structure that is squeezing the lifeblood out of third-world nations.” Admiration at last overcomes Mr. Reding: “Where in the world may we find so Christian a head of state?”

Reding believes that Castro’s new tactical alliance with “progressive and revolutionary Christians” is “less a marriage of convenience than a convergence of kindred spirits. It is not so much Castro who has changed over the past decades, but the Latin American church.” Reding sees’ glorious possibilities for “profound transformations in Latin American Marxism and theology,” such as those “currently being witnessed in Central America, most notably, in Nicaragua and El Salvador.” Reding believes that the bright future of Nicaragua and El Salvador is to become like Cuba. But hold on a moment. A few facts.

The Christian faith of the Cuban poet jailed for 27 years by Castro, Armando Valladares, was tested in the filth and deadening brutality of Castro’s prisons. About his prison experiences Valladares has written one of the most powerful books of our time: Against All Hope (Knopf).

Taken to prison, Valladares was stripped naked; all his belongings were taken by the guards. Lieutenant Paneque himself ripped off Armando’s watch and, offended by the crucifix around his naked neck, Lieutenant Paneque “stretched out toward the crucifix and grabbed it with fury. He brutally stamped and kicked the wooden cross until it was scattered in pieces across the floor.”

One of the prisoners was outraged and lunged at a guard. “Several militia men jumped on him. The prisoner fought, bit, scratched, until the guards beat him to the ground. His head was smashed and his face was covered with the blood gushing from his nose. He tried to stand up, but they booted him to the floor once more.”

Years later, Valladares and a fellow prisoner surreptitiously built a little Christmas tree out of bits of cotton balls, decorated fragments of eggshells, and empty medicine bottles, hung on a “tree” of broomstick and wire. “Some nurses couldn’t keep back their tears; seeing that Christmas tree of ours had brought back memories of the Christmases they had spent before Christmas was abolished by Castro’s Revolution.” The head of the political police came with other officials and charged them with “stealing the State’s cotton balls,” and took the tree away.

The prisoners were subjected to medical experiments, such as being denied vitamins so that pellagra would ravage them. Valladares watched the dark stains creep up his chest and across his shoulders like a necklace. The skin of his fellow prisoner, Fernandez Gamez, peeled and flaked.

The absence of protein disfigured them. “First your ankles and legs would swell up, then your thighs, testicles, and abdomen, and then your chest and face.” Doctors “performed all sorts of tests and analyses — they carefully measured the food going into the men’s bodies and the excrement and urine coming out; they did stool analyses and urinalyses; they took temperatures and blood pressure every four hours. The research lasted four or five days, at the end of which they administered doses of diuretics. You couldn’t sleep then because you’d constantly have to get up to urinate. You seem to burst, like a balloon.”

Valladares’ body became soft, like dough, and by pressing on it with the finger he could produce an in-dentation almost an inch deep. When his stomach began to swell, they took him to the hospital. Thirty pounds had been squeezed out of him in five days. “Now I was nothing but skin and bones. Still I was taken back to the blackout cells again. They had to practically drag me between two soldiers, because I couldn’t walk a straight line.”

When in the darkness he was reduced to dread, Valladares “prayed to God. Lying in a corner of the dark dungeon, I closed my eyes and prayed to Him. Then a sense of tranquillity began to take the place of the terror and fear and I felt comforted, my faith renewed.”

Even today, Valladares remembers those who suffered torment with him during those long years: “Estebita and Piri dying in blackout cells, the victims of biological experimentations; Diosdado Aquit, Chino Tan, Eddy Molina, and so many others murdered in the forced-labor fields, quarries, and camps. A legion of specters, naked, crippled, hobbling and crawling through my mind, and the hundreds of men wounded and mutilated in the horrifying searches…. Eduardo Capote’s fingers chopped off by a machete. Concentration camps, tortures, women beaten, soldiers pushing prisoners’ heads into a lake of shit, the beatings of Eloy and Izaguirre. Martin Perez with his testicles destroyed by bullets. Robertico weeping for his mother.”

He remembers his long “orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground,” and on one occasion a prison friend of his emerging, “the skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger, with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners. ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ And a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his breast.”

This is the work of Fidel Castro, that “Christian head of state,” whose like is not found anywhere else in the world. This, one supposes, is to be the future of Nicaragua and El Salvador, under Castro and his lovely Christian Marxist regimes.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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