The Mysterious Faith of Fidel Castro

In this Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015 photo, Pope Francis meets Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: AP Photo/Alex Castro.)
In this Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015 photo, Pope Francis meets Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: AP Photo/Alex Castro.)

The Jesuit-educated Fidel Castro rejected the Church of his childhood following the 1959 Cuban revolution, and for two decades never met a bishop. But then came a book-long interview with a Brazilian friar, and growing closeness between Church and state in Cuba — as well as tantalizing signs that Castro was seeking reconciliation with his Catholic faith.

When the Brazilian friar Frei Betto met Fidel Castro in 1980 in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, the two had a dense conversation about religious freedom in Cuba that led to a bestselling book that helped pave the way for a church-state rapprochement, and eventually, the visit by Pope John Paul II.

That book laid bare Fidel’s complex relationship with the Catholic faith of his childhood in 1940s Cuba, where as a child he was educated by Spanish Jesuit priests at an elite private school in the island’s southern city, Santiago.

Betto, a liberationist Dominican sympathetic to the Cuban revolution, told Castro in Managua that his communist state had, in effect, three options. It could be hostile to the Catholic Church – in which case it simply made the case for the U.S. embargo –  indifferent to it, or in dialogue with it along with other churches and faiths.

Castro accepted that the third option was the right one, and admitted that he hadn’t met a Catholic bishop in 16 years. While the revolutionary government had never broken with the Holy See, it was, in effect, a confessional state – officially atheist.

In the course of the 1980s, Castro moved the revolution slowly towards recognizing the Catholic Church’s presence in Cuba, meeting with bishops, and allowing, if not religious freedom, then at least freedom of worship.

When Betto in 1985 published his Fidel y la Religión, it went on to sell 1.3m copies in Cuba alone, and helped create a new conversation about faith on the island.

It revealed that Fidel had been profoundly marked by a deeply Catholic childhood, raised by a fervent mother who prayed daily and lit candles to the saints, as well as by equally devout aunts and uncles.

At the age of five he was sent by his distant father to Santiago de Cuba, where he was educated by the De La Salle brothers, and later by Spanish Jesuits at the prestigious 1,000-pupil Colegio de Dolores, where he boarded, and which became for him a substitute family. “They were people who had a great interest in their pupils, their character and behavior,” Castro told Betto. “They were rigorous and demanding.”

He later went on to the Colegio de Belén in Havana, where he formed close relationships with many of the teachers. Fr IU

The Jesuits – “incomparably superior” people, as he described them – taught Castro fibre, discipline, and commitment, traits that would later serve him well on the Sierra Maestra, the mountain range which for years served as his guerrilla base preparing for the revolution that would eventually overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The Jesuits “influenced me with their strict organization, their discipline and their values … They influenced my sense of justice,” he told Betto.

Castro’s break with the Church, Betto’s book showed, was essentially political. He regarded the Church of the 1940s-50s as a socially reactionary institution which defended the existing social order, and which in Fidel’s eyes tolerated and justified the vast inequalities and injustices of his day.

Yet the guerrillas he led in the 1950s were not mostly atheists: they even had a chaplain, appointed by his bishop to baptize the babies born in the Sierra Maestra, and to bury the dead revolutionaries. (Pope John XXIII even authorized the chaplain, Guillermo Sardiña, to wear an olive-green cassock.)

But as the revolution turned atheist and communist, and the clergy turned against it, in Fidel’s binary politics, the Church was an enemy of the revolution. Even though, as he would later insist, the revolution was never (unlike, say, in Mexico) anti-religious, and no priest was ever killed by the communist state, his crackdown was nonetheless brutal.

In 1961, Castro had his old school shuttered and the Jesuits expelled from the country. The clergy was reduced to just 200 on the whole island, and attending Mass came to be seen as an act of subversion.

The Betto interview constantly hovers around the question of the nature of Castro’s break with Catholicism, and implicitly asks whether, if Castro had been schooled after the Second Vatican Council and Medellín, he would still have been an anticlerical revolutionary.

The question is never really answered. But Betto showed Fidel as having an essentially 1950s view of the Church, and how fascinated he was by developments since the 1960s, above all by the attempt to blend Marxist social analysis with the Gospel in some strains of liberation theology.

The publication of Fidel y la Religión helped to overcome some of the deep hostility between Catholics and Marxists, and for Cubans themselves to begin a conversation about faith and the revolution.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1992 constitution declared that Cuba was no longer officially atheist, and freedom of worship was restored. In the appalling hardships that followed the loss of $5 billion in Soviet subsidies – Cubans call this, with some irony, “the special period” – the Church became a significant presence again, its clergy numbers allowed to double.

Although Castro kept the Church, like all institutions on the island, on a short leash – seminaries and religious houses in Cuba have had their fair share of government informers – he increasingly came to see it as a partner, rather than an enemy. But he never quite shook off his suspicion of Catholicism as a rival, a socially conservative body with political ambitions that needed to be kept in check.

An important breakthrough came in the January 1998 visit by John Paul II, who urged Cuba to open to the world and vice-versa, urging democracy and human rights while strongly critiquing the U.S.-imposed embargo.

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Austen Ivereigh

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