Seeing Things: When the Master’s Away…

A little over a year ago, along with thousands of other foreigners, I was in Havana for John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Cuba (See “Our Man in Havana,” Crisis, April 1998). A lot has happened since. The Lewinsky scandal, which broke at the same time to the great annoyance of Cuban officials who were hoping for undivided global attention, continues. Initiatives the papal visit set in motion have opened up a modicum of space for the churches to operate more freely. The Castro regime allowed Cubans to celebrate Christmas again this year. But there are many other signs that, basically, nothing has changed in Cuba.

Twelve months ago, change seemed possible. As a Baptist pastor in a Havana suburb told me, the frank papal homilies and enormous crowds at events carried on Cuban television seemed to suggest something was happening. When one saw the painting of the Sacred Heart on the side of the Interior Ministry in the Plaza of the Revolution, one said to oneself, “If that can happen, then anything can happen.” Before that, the only other figure given similar honors was Che Guevara.

My friend was no mere optimist. Like Jaime Cardinal Ortega of Havana, he had been imprisoned during the 1960s. A whole, now mature generation of religious leaders from various denominations came of age in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs), essentially labor camps. Even after their release, they had their hands tied by a regime that was shrewd enough not to create martyrs. “We don’t want to make martyrs, we want apostates,” was the rule of thumb.

The regime used various pressures to achieve that end. Some believers were put in jail as counter-revolutionaries; far more merely lost jobs or were denied promotions. Parents of promising students were warned that church attendance made admission to the elite schools of Cuba’s higher education system impossible. Naive visitors, seeing churches open and people worshiping, thought rumors of repression were either exaggerations or U.S. propaganda.

But that repression was, and is, real. In the past decade, the Baptists have not received a single building permit, even though Catholic and Protestant congregations have been growing. Cardinal Ortega, too, has been denied permits and building materials but has typically just gone ahead with projects without worrying about the authorities.

One reason he can brave official wrath is that since the end of Soviet subsidies and the beginning of the special period within socialism, the regime has needed every bit of outside help it can get. In a bid to improve its image, the Cuban Communist Party has allowed believers to become members. The constitution has been changed so that Cuba is now officially a secular—rather than an atheist—state. (Cubans are still warned that none of their rights may be used contrary to “the people’s decision to build socialism and communism.”)

In Cuba’s current, desperate situation, Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, has been allowed greater access to the nation in exchange for slightly improved relations with the churches. But there have been incidents in the past year that call into question even those modest gains.

In April, Fr. Patrick Sullivan, the only resident American priest on the island, was pressured out of his parishes in the central city of Santa Clara and forced to leave Cuba. Fr. Sullivan had criticized the lack of political pluralism in Cuba and was distributing copies of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his parishes. In his view, the expulsion was meant as a message to others who might have thought the papal visit was a license for open speech. Around the same time, a Baptist church in the same city was closed—another message, according to people close to the human rights situation who say there is little change on the ground. Ironically, Santa Clara was the site of the first papal mass ever in Cuba.

Much energy has been wasted trying to determine whether the Castro regime is interested in change. Judging from its own record over the past twelve months, it is not. Even in the slight opening that has occurred in Cuba, there has been an enormous increase in baptisms, confirmations, religious weddings, and funerals in all denominations. People have hope. But as a matter of official policy, such people scarcely exist. All of us who care about human rights have an obligation not to misread this situation or to abandon the Cuban people, who continue to suffer under the world’s longest-standing dictatorship.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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