A brief historical analysis from a veteran of the Cuban revolution, which parallels the analysis that Jeremy Scahill did for the Catholic Worker, over a decade ago.
WHY THREE POPES IN 20 YEARS?
By Manuel E. Yepe
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
In less than twenty years, three Popes have visited Cuba. This is
something really surprising when you consider that this archipelago is
a country geographically and demographically small, and has a
relatively small number of Catholics compared to other nations of
After four centuries of colonialism –during which the official
religion, with total exclusivity, was Catholicism– an “independent”
republic emerged in Cuba under the protection and control of the
United States. During that republican period, Cuban society, in fact,
maintained Catholicism as its main religion for the first half of the
Although the 1902 and 1940 constitutions stipulated the separation
between church and state, their texts identified Christian morality as
the ethical rule for society. This was to the detriment of any other
non-Christian morality and thus ignored the cultural, moral and
religious diversity required in such a plural community in terms of
ethnicities, religions and traditions.
The process of formation of the Cuban nationality, the struggle for
independence from Spain, and the successive stages in building an
independent national project as is the current socialist society, have
been characterized by a secular orientation… anticlerical to some
extent. This does not mean that religion was absent from the
motivations of the patriots, but the objectives have always been
formulated on secular foundations.
The first time the separation of church and state was proclaimed as a
constitutional principle in Cuba was during the Republic in Arms
[during the 19th Century war for independence] when Cubans were
fighting the colonial regimes of Spain … and Catholicism.
Relations between the Catholic Church and the Revolutionary Government
–which took power in 1959 after a bloody struggle against the
dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista– have gone through big challenges
and tense moments.
The social transformations generated by the revolution and the
development of its independent and socialist project had great impact
on the process of demystification of nature. Because of its character,
which renewed traditions, customs and culture in general, the
revolution had a secularizing effect on society.
The legislative actions and practices of the revolution, such as the
law for nationalization of education, limited the social space of the
Catholic religion in Cuba, and extended it to others, such as the
Spiritualists, those associated with African religions, and the
Pentecostals. All these managed access to public spaces to which they
had very little access previously, because of the Christian and
Catholic religious monopoly.
Just remember that before 1959, the Cuban Criminal Legislation
included as an aggravating factor the practice of brujeria
(witchcraft), the term with which the predominant Christian culture
identified those religions originated in Africa, that were widespread
in Cuba, especially among the poorest sectors.
In 1991, the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba corrected
sectarian errors committed in the heat of the initial clashes. It
modified its statutes and declared itself as a secular non-atheist
organization. It also eliminated admission barriers in the political
organization for people with religious beliefs.
As a result of this, in the midst of a situation of apparent
contraction of the social space of religion, the Cuban revolution
created the basic legal and social conditions for a genuine religious
pluralism, without confessional or institutional distinction; as well
as for something that had never existed before in the country and
which few nations can boast of having: a genuine religious freedom.
Admittedly, after some initial negative episodes promoted by the
strong influence of Pope Pius XII and the Fascist ideas of some
Spanish priests inserted in the Cuban Catholic hierarchy, the Vatican
has promoted a very constructive policy in its relations with Cuba
But the current positive practice did not start as a result of the
visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 –as some have written several
times– but after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On this, it
is fair to acknowledge as essential, the role of the then newly
appointed Apostolic Nuncio in Havana, Archbishop Cesare Zacchi, today
considered the “Architect of peace between church and state in Cuba.”
The impressive popular and official welcome offered to Pope Francis in
Havana seems to confirm forecasts that Latin America and the humble
peoples of the world can count on the moral and ethical support of
this charismatic guide of Catholicism who is willing to clean and
thoroughly renew the image of his Church, bringing it closer to the
Now that US elites want to turn back history in the Latin American
countries which are in the process of liberation from the domination
by the North, this support could be really transcendental.
September 19, 2015.