Cuba, The Catholic Church in
CUBA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Cuba is the largest and most populated of the numerous West Indian islands that form the archipelago of the Greater Antilles. The position of Cuba just south of Florida between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea has given the island strategic and commercial advantages that have been evident throughout its history. The landscape is characterized by rolling plains in the northwest, rising to rugged mountains in the southeast. Cuba's natural resources include cobalt, nickel, iron ore, and petroleum; agriculture—primarily sugar production—accounts for 25 percent of its export. During the late 20th century the government also began to encourage tourism as a way to draw money into the socialist Cuban economy.
Subject to Spain until 1902 and a communist state since 1961, Cuba suffered the loss of Soviet economic subsidies following the demise of the USSR. The resulting economic downturn, fueled as well by the trade embargo imposed by the United States beginning in 1962, forced dictator Fidel Castro to loosen price restrictions and encourage productive labor within his centralized economy. Most Cubans are of European heritage, while a small number are of African decent, mixed race, or Asian.
Following its adoption of a communist platform, the government of Cuba tolerated religious expression only within the confines of church premises, although this policy relaxed somewhat during the late 1990s. Ecclesiastically, Cuba is divided between three archdiocese: Camagüey has suffragans Ciego de Avila, Cinefuegos, and Santa Clara; San Cristóbal de Habana has suffragans Matanzas and Pinar del Río; and Santiago de Cuba has suffragans Guantánamo-Baracoa (1997), Holguín, and Santísimo Salvador de Bayamo-Manzanillo.
Early Christianization. Cuba was originally the home of hunter-gatherer tribes from South America who were joined by Arawak Indians c. 1000 b.c. The first religious to set foot on Cuban soil was a Mercedarian friar, and in the indigenous regions of Macaca and Cueiba rustic altars erected to Our Lady were venerated by the native peoples. During the late 15th century Dominican friars from Española endeavored to give religious instruction to the natives, but the subsequent conduct of the conquistadores over the next half-century negated their achievements. Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba on Oct. 27, 1492; less than two decades later the island was conquered by a group of 300 Spaniards led by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, a wealthy settler from Santo Domingo who founded the city of Havana in 1511. Four religious came with Velázquez, one the Franciscan lay brother Juan de Tesin. The most notable missionary figure was undoubtedly Fray Bartolomé de las casas, whose apostleship of more than 50 years began in Cuba around 1514. The great example of Las Casas moved the Franciscan Provincial Pedro Mexía de Trillo to try the socalled "experiment plan" with the Cuban natives around 1526. Unfortunately, as was the case throughout much of the Americas, European-introduced disease and exploitation caused the extinction of the Arawak people by the end of the 1500s. Beginning in 1526 slaves from Africa were imported to replace the declining Arawak populations on the island's many sugar and tobacco plantations. Slavery would continue on Cuba until it was outlawed in 1886.
Religious Orders. Dominicans (1524) and Franciscans (1529) quickly established religious communities in
Cuba, and were joined several decades later by the Society of Jesus (1566) and other orders. Some communities, such as the Hospitallers of St. John of God (1603) and the Bethlehemites (1704), gave their full attention to hospitals; others, including the Jesuits, Piarists (1857), Augustinians from North America (1898), Marists (1903), and Christian Brothers (1905), founded centers of learning; while still others, Franciscans, Paulists (1862), and Barnabites (1953), specialized in journalism and editorial work. By the 18th century native vocations flourished in all the orders.
Communities of women religious arrived in Cuba much later than the male religious orders. The Poor Clares arrived in 1644, and the Catalinas in 1688, leading the way for Discalced Carmelites, Ursulines, Sisters of Charity, Religious of the Sacred Heart, Dominicans, the Company of Mary, and many others. They established and maintained schools, cared for inmates of asylums, sanitariums, jails, and reform schools, and rendered valuable assistance in catechesis and social welfare. Five communities were dedicated to the contemplative life. Five female communities were founded in Cuba: Claretians (1853), Sisters of Cardinal Sancha (1869), Apostolines (1891), Messengers of the Heart of Mary (1957), and Diocesan Cooperators (1960).
From the 16th century onward, Cuba remained for the most part under the control of Spain, despite efforts by British, and then U.S. economic interests to liberate it. During the colonial period, the Church devoted careful attention to educating Cuban citizens. The Catholic religion was the religion of the state, and the teaching of Catholic dogma was obligatory in the schools. The Royal and Pontifical University of St. Jerome, founded in Havana in 1728 by the Dominicans and secularized in 1842, was for many years the only center of higher learning in all Cuba. The Royal College of St. Charles and St. Ambrose, college ad instar of the conciliar seminaries, established for "the general utility of the country and not for that of one of its classes," became the birthplace of Cubano nationalism during the early decades of the 19th century. This desire for independence fueled the failed first War of Independence of 1868–78, a revolt encouraged
by imperialist-leaning interests within the United States.
Cuba Becomes a Republic. After Cuba's second War of Independence flared in 1895, the United States finally found justification to declare war on Spain after the U.S. battleship Maine mysteriously blew up in Havana's harbor. A result of the Spanish-American War of 1898 was the occupation of the Central American region by U.S. troops in 1899, in defense of the United States' significant investment in the Cuban sugar industry. Cuba ultimately achieved independence from Spain on May 20, 1902.
The problem of ownership of Church properties that arose following the withdrawal of Spain's colonial government was first addressed during the U.S. military occupation in favor of the claims of the Church, with the payment of a five-percent revenue on the total value of the properties. However, after the first republican government took power, it gained the preemptive right to acquire these properties. The ownership of mission properties was ultimately solved, a result of the prudent intercession of Bishop González Estrada, first Cuban bishop of Havana, at the time of the second U.S. intervention in 1907. The Church in Cuba would thereafter be supported by stipends and the alms of the faithful. While the republic adopted the policy of secularism in education, during the first half of the 20th century many accredited Catholic schools were founded and flourished.
The newly independent Cuba was wracked by a series of ineffective civilian governments, including the brutal authoritarian regime of Geraldo Machado (1925–33). Cuba again endured dictatorship when, in 1940, Colonel Fulgencio Batista came to power. Batista jockeyed for power, with U.S. support, until January 1959 when a successful revolution was led against his dictatorship by 32-year-old Fidel Castro. Under the new communist regime Catholics could take heart in the words of their new pope, John XXIII, who had reversed the position of Pius XII that all communists should be excommunicated from the Church. During his short reign, Pope John attempted a dialogue with communist leaders around the world, including Castro. Catholics struggling to follow their faith under communist dictatorships would be further supported by Vatican II.
Prior to Castro's revolution there were over 250 Church institutes devoted to social work in Cuba, 181 of
those organized within the previous 50 years. Over 300 schools enrolled 61,000 primary- and secondary-school students. In 1946 the North American Augustinian Fathers had founded the Catholic University of St. Thomas of Villanova, the first private university in the history of the republic, and by 1959 it had 1,200 students. Two useful institutions, the Catholic University Group, established in 1931 by the Jesuit Felipe Rey de Castro, and the Catholic University Home (1946), the special project of Brother Victorino of the La Salle School, rendered assistance to the Catholic students of the official University of Havana. Catholic teachers in Cuba, united in a strong association (with almost 5,000 members), played a significant role in the religious instruction in the country.
The Church under Communism. First taking power as Cuba's prime minister, Castro quickly proclaimed his Marxist-Leninist agenda through a series of laws. His law of June 6, 1961, which stated that education was to be public and free, nationalized all schools and other learning centers then in private or Church hands, as well as placing under control of the state "all properties, rights and stocks included in the assets of those centers." This law resulted in the emigration of hundreds of religious who had dedicated themselves to education and other social services within Cuba. The 53 religious communities of women in Cuba were reduced to 13, all confined to charitable works. By the mid-1990s there were only 280 priests remaining in Cuba.
After December 1976 Castro ruled Cuba as president, the office of prime minister having been abolished under the country's new constitution. His regime would face several crises in the coming decades, both economic and social in nature. Lacking was the moral and religious structure given by the Church, as religious services remained restricted, the distribution of religious literature was forbidden, and affiliation with the Church discouraged.
Of particular interest to the Church was the decline in the birth rate to.72 children per woman by 1996, a consequence of the free birth control and abortion services made available as a means to maximize the supply of full-time laborers.
In the early 1990s relations between Castro and Pope john paul ii improved, the result of an effort on the part of the Cuban dictator to rebuild international relations following the demise of Cuba's Soviet support system. In November 1994 Pope John Paul II celebrated the investiture of Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino as Archbishop of Havana during an address to the Vatican. Two years later, Castro traveled to the Vatican for an audience and extended to the pontiff a formal invitation to visit Cuba in 1997. Castro's efforts to relax restrictions on the Church were acknowledged during a conversation focusing on the role of the Church in Cuban life. In advance of the pope's historic visit, the government breached its ban on the dissemination of religious information through the media by allowing the schedule of the papal visit to be published. The Church began an international outreach, launching an internet website featuring news about its activities, including the upcoming papal visit. Although the site was not accessible to residents of Cuba, who still lacked internet access, it was hoped that it would counter the dearth of information provided by the government-controlled Cuban media. Castro also allowed Catholics from the United States entry into Cuba to witness the first papal visit to Cuba. In response to the pope's impending visit, an unprecedented number of both adults and teens requested baptism or reentry into the Church in Cuba.
From January 21 to January 25, 1998, the Pope traveled throughout Cuba, preaching a message of reconciliation. "The state, while distancing itself from all forms of fanaticism or secularism, should encourage a harmonious social climate and a suitable legislation which enables every person and every religious confession to live his
faith freely," John Paul II told millions of Cuban faithful at his final mass in Havana. His plea that the world reopen dialogue with Cuba prompted Guatemala to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba shortly after the pope's visit.
Hopes that the pope's visit might prompt a more liberal government policy with regard to the Church were further heightened by the Cuban government's approval, in November 1998, of visas for 19 foreign priests to take up residence in the country, and the subsequent decision to allow several religious-run humanitarian groups to once again operate outside the confines of church walls. A publication by the Archdiocese of Havana was permitted distribution to that city's parishes for the first time in several years. And in 1997 public religious processions celebrating the birth of Christ, and in 1998 Holy Week, traveled Cuban streets for the first time in three decades. However, by 2000 such liberal attitudes had been over-shadowed by renewed repression, as Church officials were accused of conspiring against the revolution, Church-run social services were harassed by government officials, and educated professionals entering religious communities were banned from practicing in their field. Despite assurances to the contrary during the pontiff's visit, the Cuban government remained wary of Church efforts at increased involvement in Cuban society, fearing that social unrest would cause such involvement to filter into the political sphere.
Bibliography: j. m. leiseca, Apuntes para la historia eclesiástica de Cuba (Havana 1938). g. amigÓ, La iglesia católica en Cuba (Havana 1949). f. zapata, Primer catálogo de las obras sociales católicas de Cuba (Havana 1953). a. pÉrez carreÑo, Extensián y eficacia de la educación religiosa en los colegios católicos de La Habana (Havana 1960).
[j. m. pÉrez cabrera/eds.]