Fifty years of solitude
Half a century after the revolution, is Cuba turning to new gods? Roger Davidson reports from Havana
The Cuban people were just starting out on the long road back to everyday life following the worst hurricane onslaught in their history when I flew into Havana from Montreal in September. The capital, where tens of thousands of buildings reportedly collapse every year without the aid of extreme weather, had been relatively fortunate, but farms had been devastated across the island. Those whose houses had been spared the direct blasts were already starting to feel the effects in the form of food shortages, as stores began to run low and the peso markets around the city, relied on by most Cubans for their meat, fruit and vegetables, began to close. Every few days the front page of the state newspaper, the Granma, carried wordy notices to the people, asking them not to stockpile food, to be patient and to have faith that the Revolution would bring them through as it had done during the “special period”, the spell of dire poverty and hunger in the early ’90s when the Cuban economy was at its lowest ebb following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The state had had no choice at that time but to make a series of unprecedented concessions to the people, rewriting the Marxist-Leninist Constitution of 1976 to include a markedly liberal mandate, allowing Cubans more economic autonomy in order to better sustain themselves. As the reverse domino effect swept socialism from East Berlin, Prague, Bucharest and finally Moscow, Fidel Castro’s island republic, already alone in the western hemisphere for some decades and now alone in the world, somehow mustered her resources and survived; yet the political structure of Cuba was changed irrevocably during those years, and is still undergoing those changes today, as the government implements a further series of reforms that look very much like a gradual preparation for the end of the socialist era.
With the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution approaching in January, I wanted to gauge how those reforms are playing out at the grassroots level in Cuba, and, I suspected, to get a lasting dose of the “old Cuba” before it changes forever. I rented a casa particular just off Havana’s famous Malecón Boulevard, which skirts the northern curve of the city, facing out over the Florida Straits towards Key West, just 90 miles away.
A week into my stay, I walked down through the Vedado district and paid a visit to the site where the story of the last 50 years of Cuban history began: the Necrópolis de Cristóbal de Colón (Christopher Columbus Cemetery). Here it was, paradoxically, that among the Romanesque-Byzantine monuments, Baroque mausoleums, Deco marble tombs and exquisitely sculpted angels the political birth of a leader internationally renowned for his materialist and atheist beliefs took place. In 1951, at the northwestern quarter of the cemetery, the 25-year-old Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz commandeered the funeral of Eduardo Chibás, leader of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano Ortodoxo, to make his oratorical debut.
Chibás, a Cuban senator and famous campaigner against corruption, had been subjected to a vicious smear campaign following his accusations that the President, Carlos Prío, and his minister of education, Aureliano Sánchez Arango, were embezzling government funds and using them to build lavish estates for themselves abroad. An erratic, sensitive character, Chibás was driven to despair by the allegations and, following an impassioned plea to the Cuban people to rise up and “sweep the thieves from government”, he shot himself dead during a live radio broadcast.
Seizing his opportunity to fill the gap left by Chibás, Castro leapt atop the fresh grave-mound and made his first public speech, denouncing gangsterismo and American interference, and promising radical change.
Standing at the Chibás family’s white marble tomb evokes mixed feelings. For it was here also, in July 1961, just two days before the long-anticipated Bay of Pigs invasion, that Fidel, now self-appointed Prime Minister and enthusiastic member of the Soviet camp, would declare the socialist nature of the Revolution. This inspirational, spiritual place, then, the starting point of a heroic journey to victory over the hegemony of imperial oppression, is also the site of the proclamation of a regime that would send Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals off to work camps to be made to see sense by way of hard labour; a regime that would eliminate its opponents, as well as its free-thinking allies, with ruthless efficiency; a regime that would impose upon its people the hardships and indignities of living under an intrusive, oppressive, Soviet-style government. Such, it has been the American propensity to believe, are only some of the necessary trappings of communism.
But a fact frequently neglected amidst the simplified clamour of international debate about Cuba is that the revolution that finally succeeded in 1959 was not a communist one. Rather, the essential factor in Fidel’s original revolutionary vision was a heroic brand of nationalism inspired by Cuba’s original revolutionary, José Martí, the Havana-born poet, journalist and diplomat and hero of anti-imperialism. Martí himself had taken a wary interest in certain ideas of the European social revolutionary tradition originating in Russia and France among anarchistic thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. But he belonged firmly to the romantic liberal tradition of nationalist revolutionarism, a descendent of Simón Bolívar, the great Latin American liberator who routed Spanish forces across South America in the first quarter of the 19th century. Bolívar was in essence a champion of the European Enlightenment, inspired by the rationalism and humanism of thinkers like Rousseau, Hume and Locke. His legacy to Martí, and therefore to Cuban revolutionaries all the way down to Castro, was the uncompromising insistence upon human dignity, freedom, national pride and the people’s mandate over and above ideological affectations and absolute arbitrary rule.
Regardless of what forms Castro’s revolution assumed later on, it was in this enlightened humanist spirit that he launched his war on General Fulgencio Batista, who had grabbed power in the coup of 1952, and the imperial influences that sustained him. “Castroism”, even in the years following Fidel’s alignment with Soviet communism, was the experimental fusion of the theoretically grounded Marxist philosophy with Martí’s impassioned nationalist revolutionarism. Castro’s Revolution was a fundamentally human response to a history of imperial domination, slavery, torture, corruption and war; hence the slogan that greeted his guerillas as they marched into Havana on 8 January 1959: “Neither capitalism nor socialism: Revolutionary Humanism!”
But, of course, all this was to change. Within a year the new regime reneged on its promises (most notably a free press and elections within the first year) as the spirit of totalitarianism surged in and swept so much positivity away. This shift was compounded by a combination of military pressures from without, political disagreement within and a series of logistical problems that exploded around the new administration, not least among which was a mass exodus of a large portion of the skilled workforce to the US. The necessity of defending the Revolution at all costs became foremost. Marxism-Leninism, with its prescription of unopposed central command, the ruthless suppression of freedom of expression and the militarisation of the populace, provided a framework for this, placing Castro in a position to negotiate for the military protection of the Soviet Union, ensuring the absence of democracy on the island for many decades.
Yet, despite relentless propaganda on the part of the US, there have been for some time a number of unofficial opposition parties meeting and debating within Cuba, under surveillance, but unassailed by state police as long as they are not deemed to be compromising the ideals of the Revolution itself or promoting US interests. And, despite the lack of official recognition, these groups are contributing to an increasingly democratic atmosphere in Cuban politics. This has been reinforced by the development of a decentralised electoral structure that appears to be offering a degree of democratic participation.
First implemented on a local level in the mid-’70s, this has developed since into a national voting system where the public can nominate candidates for the provincial and national assemblies. While the Communist Party has the final say regarding candidates, the results of these elections are unquestionably influenced by the campaigns of the various dissident groups and the support they garner from the public. Much of this would not be possible were it not for what has been the most concerted and telling effort thus far to bring multi-party democracy and freedom of expression to Cuba, undertaken not by a political party but by a group that has had a particularly fraught relationship with the Revolution from the very beginning – the Catholic Church.
Cuba’s religious history is as complex as its politics. Colonised in the early 16th century by the empire of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the island never quite became the Christian outpost they envisioned. This was partly because the slaves who were taken from the west coast of Africa from the early 16th century up to Cuba’s late abolition in 1886 brought a variety of animist religions with them. Even though they were forbidden to practise these faiths they were able to do so secretly by fusing their gods, idols and symbols with those of the Catholic faith to create a number of syncretistic religions, known as Santería – “way of the spirits”.
Following Cuba’s independence in 1898 Santería continued to flourish while several other religions began to establish themselves with consequent waves of immigration from North America and Europe. Yet Catholicism maintained the strongest institutional presence in the country, and still does today, even in the heart of the capital with ceremonies held throughout the week in Centro Habana’s Caridad del Cobre church and the famous San Cristóbal Cathedral in the old city.
The Church supported the Revolution in its early days but quickly turned against Castro following his adoption of the atheist materialist ideology of Marxism-Leninism. In the years that followed, many of Cuba’s priests and nuns began to voice their opposition or to flock out of the country (some estimates suggest that around 3,500 went into exile in the ’60s, leaving around 200 priests to minister to six million Cubans). In response Catholic schools were expropriated by the state, their publications banned and Christians denied Communist Party membership and university and governmental posts. A number were sent to hard labour in the UMAPS (Military Production Aid Units), though Castro abandoned this programme in the face of pressure from the respected Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists, who were outraged that intellectuals and university professors were being drafted.
There was never an overt attempt on the part of the Revolution, however, to eradicate or officially ban religion, and the Church managed to maintain its presence while Cuba’s other religions – Protestantism, Judaism, Afro-Cuban Syncretism – sustained themselves by taking less structured forms, being practised in makeshift venues, the home or simply in the mind of the individual. As historian Margaret Crahan argues, even at the highpoint of Communism Cuban culture and society was still “permeated with religious symbolism, icons, referents and popular religiosity. Belief in the divine has long been an integral part of Cubans’ self-identification or cubanidad.” Indeed, the faithful are to be seen everywhere around Havana, from the figurines of Christ on taxi dashboards to the followers of Santería, dressed all in white and wearing necklaces of coloured beads dedicated to their various gods – Obatalá, Changó and Ogún.
Castro’s revolutionary programme, properly Marxist in that it viewed religion not as a cause but as a symptom of human misery, was to allow religion to wither away once the social order that created the suffering that made religion necessary was overturned. Catholics continued to attend services, however, despite the increasing drabness and disrepair of their churches, and during the ’70s and ’80s there occurred a religious resurgence, culminating in a move by the state towards reconciliation with religious groups in 1991. In that year, as the dire economic difficulties of the “special period” began to bite, the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party decided that religious organisations could provide corporeal and spiritual succour where the struggling state was no longer able, and moved to allow them more freedom as well as decreeing that PCC membership could now be granted to Christians.
Seven years later, Cuban Catholics found themselves in the international spotlight when Pope John Paul II made a historic five-day visit to the island at the invitation of Castro. Now beginning to relax into the role of the elder statesman of Latin American socialism and Third World solidarity rather than the vehement communist crusader of old, Fidel moved to acknowledge the Catholic Church as an important presence in Cuba and a significant voice in the Cuban human rights debate.
The White House, conflating the relationship between church and state in Cuba in the late 1990s with that of Stalinist Poland in the ’70s, had expected the Pope to effect an assault on communism from behind enemy lines just as he had done in Poland, permanently destabilising the government of General Jaruzelski and emboldening Lech Walesa’s Solidarity party.
However, the Catholic Church’s endorsement of the Solidarity movement guaranteed it the support of 90 per cent of Poles. The Church had no such popularity and no such power in Cuba. To the Americans’ dismay Pope John Paul shunned an aggressively ideological stance, opting for a more conciliatory and humanitarian one. Despite passages in his sermon that criticised the totalitarian style of the Cuban government Castro was delighted by the Pope’s apparent endorsement of his anti-capitalist position. John Paul roundly denounced the US embargo and even employed the language of Marxism in warning of “the resurgence of a certain capitalist neo-liberalism, which subordinates the human person to blind market forces, and conditions the development of people on those forces”. Even more importantly for Castro’s isolated regime, the Pope’s visit allowed him to consummate the process of reconciliation between church and state that had begun seven years earlier. John Paul II remains fondly remembered here, judging by the numerous posters and images of him dotted around the city.
A key concern for the Revolution had always been that religious groups might evolve into sites of political resistance. Over the years the regime has kept key religious figures under close surveillance, arguing, with some reason, that as part of a movement for a civil society religion could act as a cover for groups who wished to forward political (particularly American) agendas. Crackdowns and arrests have been frequent but, nevertheless, the state has simply been unable to prevent certain religious groups from meeting, debating and organising resistance.
Chief among them has been the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), founded and led by Oswaldo Payá, a Catholic priest and perpetual irritant to the state. Since his imprisonment in 1968 for publicly denouncing the Soviet crushing of Dubçek’s Prague Spring, Payá has challenged Castro’s government to allow freedom of expression, multi-party democracy, freedom of enterprise and amnesty for prisoners. Payá’s international standing and the fact that he has always overtly dissociated himself from American interests have meant that Castro, famous for his ruthlessness when it comes to dealing with internal dissidents, has had to be careful not to appear heavy-handed in dealing with him.
Payá’s main method has been to confront the state on its own terms as laid out in the Constitution of 1976, which stated that in the event of 10,000 Cubans signing a petition to demand a referendum on any of the statutes it contains, the government would hold that referendum and honour the results. Having gathered over 11,000 signatures, an endeavour to which he gave the name the Varela Project (named for Felix Varela, a Catholic priest who played a key role in the 19th-century independence movement), Payá presented his petition to the National Assembly in 2002 with the request that a national referendum be held on the issues of multi-party elections, freedom of speech and association, amnesty for political prisoners and freedom of economic enterprise. Castro’s response was to insist that the people of Cuba did not wish to relinquish socialism and that the petition was therefore void, before declaring his own special referendum on the future of the socialist state, the emphatic result of which was a surprise to no one – the Revolution was declared irrevocable.
While it may not have been realistic to expect that Castro would allow a referendum that would challange his grip on power so emphatically, it may be that the Varela Project’s importance for Cuba’s future has yet to fully manifest itself. Indeed, Cuba’s own history shows that the mere suggestion of possibility can lead to meaningful change. The Varela Project does seem to have made an important contribution to the atmosphere of democratic hope currently stirring across the island, challenging the political defeatism that has prevailed in the past. This was powerfully demonstrated when the petition, following a generous dose of publicity provided by ex-US President Jimmy Carter, who visited Havana the day after it had been submitted and lauded the project live on television, went on to amass over 30,000 signatures as Cubans began to realise that an avenue for peaceful opposition had opened. It is impossible to quantify, but Payá’s efforts have almost certainly exerted some influence upon Raúl’s current reform mandate.
These have also inspired a new movement to establish an official opposition party. In the last year a social democratic party, the Arco Progresista (Progressive Arc) has been formed by an alliance of three previously opposing dissident groups, which has reportedly gathered considerable support.
Increasingly unable to muster justification for the suppression of such groups, and acknowledging that the best possible future for the republic lies somewhere between adhering to an anachronistic communist regime and simply opening the island up for business overnight, the Cuban government, it seems, is finally preparing to allow the people a real say in their future.
Cuba, of course, has a long way to go economically. Staying in the Havana suburb of Vedado, trying to sustain myself by shopping every day in the local peso markets and state bakeries, which as I write are depressingly bare when they are open at all, I am reminded that Cuba will remain firmly in the Third World category of nations for some time to come.
But living among everyday Cubans I am also perpetually reminded that they are a resourceful, creative and profoundly generous people, who find myriad ways of dealing with shortages and prohibitions (the arcane Cuban art of obstacle-navigation is known as resolver), and who, when finally given the chance, can build on their unique experience to form a new civil society. One that combines the egalitarianism and social justice of Castro’s initial revolutionary project with the pluralism and freedom of thought and faith that, despite the worst excesses of 50 years of Soviet-style Communism, have survived with the humanist spirit of cubanidad.