I recently concluded my second visit to Cuba in eighteen months. On my way out, I asked the airline official why I was given the luxury of sitting in the exit row. He smiled and replied, The Holy Book says, Do unto others what you want them to do unto you. When I asked him if he believed the Holy Book was from God, he laughed. Of course! I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. Are you?
This was the last of scores of encounters over my previous week that signaled great changes underway in Cuba, both religious and political.
My sense of change is anecdotal, as it has to be. Cuba does not permit opinion polls that could be conducted freely, and publishes little or nothing reliable on the state of religious practice or political beliefs among the population.
Yet Christianity in Cuba is almost certainly experiencing a revival. Catholic churches are filling on Sunday mornings, and Evangelical churches”mostly Baptist and Pentecostal”are growing continually. Worship is exuberant, with an intensity I have not seen even in the most enthusiastic charismatic churches of the States. Think of great Cuban music”with trumpets and saxophones and drums and heroic voices”and add Spirit-charged zeal. The result is exhilaration.
I spoke to one Evangelical pastor whose church crowds with eight hundred worshippers on Sundays. He plans to build a church that seats two thousand. Young Cubans told me excitedly of growing spiritual interest everywhere they go. They go door-to-door inviting people to join home worship groups.
Things have not always been this way. In 1962, Castros government closed four hundred Catholic schools because their dangerous beliefs were spreading. Church leaders were sent to re-education and work camps, where many died. Until 1991, Christians, especially church leaders, were overtly persecuted. Professing faith in public usually meant loss of good education or a good job.
But in the Special Period of 1992-93, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and Cuba no longer received Soviet oil subsidies, much of the agricultural system, dependent on petrocarbons, broke down. Starvation was avoided, but most were forced to eat far less, and many children became malnourished. After a 1994 protest in Havana, with hundreds shouting Libertad! (Freedom!), government leaders realized they needed to provide an escape valve. So they loosened restrictions on religion.
In 1998, select open-air religious meetings were approved. That year, Pope John Paul II celebrated an open-air Mass before hundreds of thousands in Havana; several months later Evangelicals were permitted to hold another huge open-air worship service.
Since that time Christian practice has been far more open and free”with the qualification that leaders do not talk about politics. Harassment continues for religious groups using private homes for worship”which means for huge numbers of Evangelicals. Large meetings and groups are frequently infiltrated with informers.
Many Christians suspect that some of their leaders are too cozy with the communist system. When dissidents demanded a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit earlier this year, the Archbishop of Havana criticized the dissidents. But Catholic faithful can also point to the courageous example of the Archbishop of Santiago, who during the papal visit refused to shake the hand of Raúl Castro, now the effective ruler of todays Cuba. The Ladies in White”mothers and relatives of political prisoners, most of them Catholics”are regularly jailed and sometimes beaten after attending Mass in Havana and then protesting peacefully outside their Catholic church.
Today, among a population of eleven million, unofficial estimates claim a half-million active Catholics (of perhaps 5.4 million baptized) and one million Evangelicals. Most of the rest of the population participate in West African spiritist cults such as Santeria or Yoruba. My hosts in Cuba told me that very, very few Cubans are atheists, despite mandatory atheist education at school.
Meanwhile, life is very hard for those not in the upper echelons of the party. Most work for the government, which owns every enterprise, an average of ten hours per day, for fifteen to twenty-five dollars per month. But it is impossible to feed a family on those wages, so many take on extra jobs, sometimes through the black market.
The regime is taking baby steps toward something that remotely resembles free enterprise. Several years ago, it announced it would permit citizens to open restaurants in their homes as long as they had fewer than twenty seats. I had a scrumptious fish dinner at one of these establishments in Havana.
But there are still very few of these private restaurants because it involves risk. The government requires owners to buy food from their shops, sell the food at regulated prices, and then pay taxes on all proceeds. This forces private restaurants to charge more for their meals than government restaurants, which often makes them uncompetitive.
The diet for ordinary Cubans is principally rice and beans; meat is a luxury, to be enjoyed on rare occasions. There is no fish for the average Cuban in Havana, despite living on an island surrounded by waters teeming with fish. Fishing requires boats, and the government is loathe to allow boats to people who might row them to one of the Florida Keys.
A joke going around Cuba tells of a New Yorker, a Texan, and a newly-arrived-to-Miami-Cuban sitting down to eat at a restaurant. The waiter comes over to announce, Excuse me, but there is a shortage of beef.
The New Yorker asks the waiter, What does excuse me mean?
The Texan wonders aloud, What is a shortage?
But the Cuban is the most perplexed: What is beef? This from the inhabitant of an island that before the 1959 Revolution had as many cattle as people.
Yet every Cuban I spoke with on this last visit expects Cuba to change sooner rather than later. On my most recent visit I was told by twentysomethings (probably the best sources on Cubas future) that no one believes in the system anymore.
All expect communism to fall, and I heard three theories on how they think it will happen. Some think it will be a gradual but decided evolution once Fidel dies. A second group thinks the fall will be more sudden, with a quick but nonviolent shift to some sort of post-communist system. Still others predict a bloody transition. They say this cruel regime has so stoked the fires of resentment that any opening will provoke an explosion. The saying is going around some quarters that there are not enough telephone poles in all of Cuba from which to hang all the communists who will be killed.
The testimony of Pablo, a thirty-year-old Cuban engineer, lent hope that this third scenario might be avoided. He told me his parents, who had practiced voodoo, kicked him out of their home when he became a Christian at the age of seventeen. He graduated from Cubas best school for engineering, and landed a job in a government factory making high-tech instruments. When his boss discovered he was a Christian, Pablo was harassed continuously by his older fellow workers. The boss mocked him, trying to provoke Pablo to anger. But Pablo was determined to keep his cool.
One day the boss was fired, after it was discovered he was selling factory-new computer parts on the black market. Broken by this humiliation, the former boss told Pablo he would stop fighting your God and religion. Several years later, Pablo ran into his old boss, only to discover the older man had been baptized, and apologized for his persecution of Pablo.
Cuban Christians see more and more evidence these days that what happened to Pablo and his boss might happen to all of Cuba. For the Spirit of God is at work creating a new kind of revolution.
Jonathan Newman is a pseudonym . The author travels to Cuba for work with churches there.
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