On Nov. 25, when I heard the news of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death, I did not feel any sense of sadness, relief or joy. Instead, as a daughter of Cuban exiles, I experienced a mix of all those emotions.
Children of Cuban exiles – the diaspora community of Cubans that left the island after Castro’s 1959 revolution – have lived in a constant state of alienation, loss, anger, pity and love for those Cubans that remained on the island.
Today, I am a scholar of religion. I study how the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the formation of the Cuban Republic and the 1959 Cuban Revolution have shaped the history of the island. In all of these moments, religion has played a key role in the construction of Cuban identity. I also see how Castro’s beliefs shaped the identities of those who left the island, but also of those Cubans who were left behind.
So, how can we look at Castro’s legacy today, particularly from the way he shaped the religious identity of Cuba?
History of religion in Cuba
To tell the story of Cuba’s transformation, let us first look at the arrival of Catholicism and African religions as result of the Spanish colonization in the 15th century and trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began in the 16th century.
Over a period of time these religions were transformed: For the majority of Cuba’s history, the Catholic Church remained closely tied to Spanish colonialism. After Cuban independence in 1898, this allegiance is what made the Church suspect in the eyes of many Cubans, as it was seen to be a relic of the Spanish colonial past.
Afro-Cuban religions also suffered during colonization and in the early years of the republic. African diaspora religions were often caricatured as demonic.
Under Castro’s rule, Cuba was for decades a self-declared atheist state where Christians were persecuted and marginalized. Nonetheless, the Church played a significant political role: Until its dismantling, it exercised considerable influence through the educational system.
Castro himself was educated by Jesuits, citing their teachings as a source for his sense of discipline and justice.
But in 1961 he dismantled the Catholic school system, arguably where Catholicism held its greatest influence on Cubans since many nonpracticing Catholics send their children to Catholic schools. Castro seized Church properties and exiled priests and nuns.
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