This is the last post in our series on Religion in Cuba Today.
For most of Cuba’s history, Roman Catholicism was the country’s only legal religion. Consequently, the Catholic Church had a great deal of power.
The Cuban Church was a historic product of Spain, and it remained closely tied to the mother country until the 1959 revolution brought dramatic change. Priests were typically Spanish and their views reflected loyalty to Spain.
The Roman Catholic Church opposed the independence movements of the late 19th century and the revolutionary movement of the mid 20th century. (The Protestant churches often took a very different stance. In fact, the Presbyterian Church was quite active in Havana’s urban underground movement that played a strong role in the fight against Batista.)
Despite its power and influence among the elite in urban areas, Roman Catholicism played a less signifcant role in the life of many Cubans living in the countryside. There was a chronic shortage of priests and rural inhabitants were often without a pastor.
Over half of all Cubans are of African descent, and the African religions that gave birth to the Afro-Cuban religious culture gave spiritual sustenance to the uprooted, the subjugated, and the marginalized slave population. (Slave labor was the foundation of Cuba’s economy and was not abolished until 1886.)
Still, despite the many differences between the two belief systems, the most iconic symbol of religion in Cuba today relies on a combination of the two for its powerful message.
The Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre or The Shrine of the Virgin of Cobre — Cuba’s most famous pilgimage site — lies in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountain chain about 13 miles or so outside of the city of Santiago de Cuba.
As I discussed in a previous post on the Virgin of Cobre, the Virgin who is honored here is known as La Caridad del Cobre or the Virgin of Charity. She is known for rescuing 3 boys from a fishing boat: a European boy, an African boy, and a Taino boy.
This legend speaks to the Cuban sense of identity which centers around the mixture of races and cultures that intermixed to form an entirely new and very authentic Cuban identity.
Here’s how the story goes:
In 1606, the three fishermen were struggling in their storm-tossed boat when they found a wooden image of the Virgin floating on the Bahia de Nipe or Bay of Nipe in northeastern Cuba.
In one hand the Virgin carried a baby Jesus, in the other she held a cross. She also appeared to be holding a tablet that read Yo soy la Virgin de la Caridad – I am the Virgin of Charity.
The fishermen brought the statue to El Cobre, a copper mining town.
Importantly, the Virgin has an appeal beyond pure Catholicism. The statue is also highly revered by followers of Santería. You can read more about this and the gifts that pilgrims leave for the Virgin in our previous post.
In the years following the 1959 revolution, public processions to honor the Virgin were restricted by the government out of concern for unsanctioned gatherings. Group displays were not allowed to resume until the 1990s. More recently the Virgin has been permitted to go on a journey marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image.
The archbishop of Havana is claiming that Cuba is in a springtime of faith. And Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega is speaking of the dialogue undertaken in 2010 with President Raul Castro whereby the church played a decisive role in the release of some 130 political prisoners.
At any rate, the national pilgrimage of the Virgin has covered some 15,500 miles since it began on August 8, 2010, in Santiago de Cuba; it will end December 30 in Havana. And then the virgin will go back home to her shrine in the village of El Cobre.
We love her because she is the mother of all of us. Whenever I’m having trouble, I go to her. I have great faith in her, said one Cuban woman who describes herself as a Catholic, but “not one who goes to church every Sunday.” She goes on to say that “many young people are going to church now. It wasn’t like that 20 or 25 years ago.”
But “what about the Protestants,” you might ask. Well, the evangelicals are making news right now. The last I heard, a Pentecostal pastor and 60 members of his flock were holed up in their Assembly of God church under the watchful eye of the police.
As of September 16, 2011, they’d been inside for 3 weeks. The group has been holding a “retreat” to pray for the country:
Some newspaper headlines are referring to a “prayer crisis” but the pastor’s son says only that
God told us to pray morning, noon, and night. We want a new Cuba free of sin, but this should not be misinterpreted, we do not have anything to do with politics.
The pastor’s son went on to dispel media rumors that the church was anticipating the end of the world, predicting a catastrophic tsunami, or pressing for political change on the Communist run island. He says those who spread such rumors are “just trying to ruin this moment.”
Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, many clergy were expelled and religious schools were closed. Religious believers were fired from their jobs and sent to labor camps for re-education.
Now Cuba’s evangelical Christian population is growing. Rev. Marcial Hernandez, president of Cuba’s Council of Churches confirmed that out of a population of 11 million, there are more than 800,000 evangelicals in the country. The evangelical movement, then, seems to be the Protestant future of Cuba.