HAVANA TIMES, March 28 — “Following the authorization of religious believers to join the Communist Party (PCC), Fidel Castro wanted to know how many of our faithful had signed up. We explained that actually the very opposite had happened: Lots of members of the party began to openly live their religious beliefs.”
This story was told to us by a Baptist, Joel Suarez, an activist with the Martin Luther King Center in Havana. Through this, he showed that the measure not only returned some rights to religious believers, but it also benefited many PCC members.
Since the early 1990’s, when the government called for the ceasing of any religious discrimination, the nation became much more authentic and reflected the syncretism that allowed some Cubans to worship Fidel, Jesus and Chango at the same time without feeling the slightest bit of conflict.
The response was immediate. Crucifixes and Santeria necklaces appeared together on peoples necks, confirming the judgment of the Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz, who in 1910 claimed that “simulation” is part of Cuba’s national character.
Praying in the bathroom
Singer-songwriter Amaury Perez, a member of the Nueva Trova movement, was raised by his great-aunt. She made sure that he was given a Catholic education, which he in turn he concealed even from his own mother. “To join any organization they would ask you if you had some belief, so you had to lie,” he explained.
He recalled this all as being very conflictive: “Youth would look at Catholics somewhat mockingly, with a degree of derision, thinking that we were sanctimonious conservative types, so you would have to lie and later ask the Lord for forgiveness in your bedtime prayers.”
“I lost girlfriends because of my being Catholic. The first time I made love with my wife, I thought that if she saw me praying then she would dump me – so I prayed in the bathroom. The whole image was kind of weird: me naked, on my knees, leaning against the toilet, praying to the Lord and hoping she wouldn’t walk through door.”
But the biggest conflict for Amaury resided in the fact that besides his being a Catholic, he was a supporter of the revolution. He recognized that: “the Cuban church was very conservative and very close to the Cuba’s former aristocracy. Actually it was a church that was quite distant from the people.”
Thus “the conflict began with the Cuban authorities, but there was extremism of both sides. The church provoked everything that it wanted to and the Cuba government provoked the church. I’ve always believed that it came from both sides, intolerance was displayed by both of them.”
Assisting the needy
Carmen Luisa Castillo is a member of the PCC and was the head of party cadre at the Cuban Book Institute until she retired. Laughing, she says that her “relationship [with the Catholic Church] began as a contradiction with a priest who would offer breakfast to the children, causing them to get to school late.”
“But the problem was corrected and we both continue in the community, finding ways to help our neighbors – the father from his church and me from the mass organizations,” said Carmen. She added that one day the priest asked her to work as a social activities volunteer within the church.
“I came from the labor movement and was also selected to join the PCC in 1968 as an exemplary worker. At that time I told them that I believed in the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre” (Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba). They verified this but accepted me anyway. It seems that at that time, things weren’t so strict,” she explained.
“Then things changed. In 1978 they wanted to sanction me for going to the church funeral service for the daughter of a co-worker. During the investigation, they asked me if I would ever do anything like that again, and told them that I would. I would never leave a mother alone in her pain like that.”
For the past decade, Carmen has been the right hand of a missionary. She is the hand through which pass all types of assistance (medicine, clothes and food) that the church provides to the neediest people in the neighborhood, the majority of whom are elderly who can’t live off of their meager retirement incomes.
She told us that she carries out duties for the Party and for the church, and that she sees no contradiction because in both cases the efforts are to serve the poor. “I always tell the father that he is on the same track as Fidel, helping those who are the neediest, and he’ll give me a smile.”
(*) Published with the authorization of BBC Mundo.