Imagining Cuba’s future
Aug 01, 2014 by Philip Jenkins
Cuba is nothing like as central to U.S. policy as it once was, but that
may change when the current regime either implodes or accelerates its
tentative steps toward liberalization.
At present, Cuba survives only on massive handouts from Venezuela,
which could be curtailed overnight. If and when Cuba leaves its bubble,
it will undergo a rapid social and political transformation. What
intrigues me is the question of how the nation’s religious landscape
will change and how much we can learn about that from the experience of
When Fidel Castro began his rule, he declared Cuba an atheist state.
Religious persecution has been commonplace ever since, though never as
bloodthirsty as in, say, North Korea, and the degree of official
intolerance has fluctuated over time. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998
significantly improved official relations with the Roman Catholic Church.
Unregistered groups, however, continue to suffer. The best statistics we
have—and estimates vary widely—suggest that half of Cubans identify as
Catholic, 40 percent are nonreligious or unaffiliated, and non-Catholic
Christians make up 7 percent. Complicating the statistics is the issue
of dual affiliation: at least 17 percent adhere to Afro-Cuban religions,
Just how matters would change in a postcommunist age depends largely on
how the new era comes about. Will the change involve violence? Should we
expect a massive return of exiles?
At the least, liberalization is likely to involve breakneck economic
development, the end of foreign embargoes, and the collapse of rigid
government controls and rationing. The immediate consequences would no
doubt be a huge influx of foreign investment, an epochal building boom,
and increased urbanization.
Cuba in five or ten years could pass through processes of development
and globalization that elsewhere in Latin America have taken half a
century. The winners and losers in this revolution would provide,
potentially, the membership of revived churches.
Catholicism still retains a cultural hegemony. Traditional practices and
pilgrimages—above all devotion to Cuba’s special version of the Blessed
Virgin, the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre—have never lost popularity.
But if cultural Catholicism still flourishes, that does not mean the
church will continue to attract worshipers. Attendance at mass and
religious vocations have fallen dramatically across Latin America, and
the Cuban church would have to struggle to avoid a similar fate.
By far the greatest mystery in Cuba’s future concerns the evangélicos,
the Protestant and Pentecostal churches that have been so dazzlingly
successful in such countries as Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala. By all
rights, Cuba should join this list, for it possesses the conditions
often cited to explain Pentecostal growth. Pentecostal congregations
flourish during times of rapid social change and economic turmoil, and
they appeal especially to excluded ethnic groups. At least half of
Cubans claim African ancestry. And recent experience in China shows how
attractive the Christian faith can be following the sudden evaporation
of communist ideology.
Churches could play a vital role if working-class people suddenly found
themselves cut off from a rationed economy and thrust into the rigors of
a market system. Through social outreach programs, Cuban evangélico
churches could well win support by supplying economic aid. Such efforts
would likely be supported by well-funded foreign groups, chiefly from
the United States, but also from Brazilian and other Latin American
Cuban evangélico churches have grown powerfully in recent years, and
some, like the Apostolic Movement, have experienced harassment from the
government. It is likely that these groups would flourish in a free
Cuba. In religious terms, then, the best analogy for a future Cuba would
be what’s happened in Brazil, where Protestant churches are thriving.
But perhaps a better model for projecting the future of Cuba is to be
found outside Latin America in a postcommunist society like the former
East Germany. Secularization advanced to such a degree there that
religious faith could not be reconstructed, and it still shows no signs
of returning. It is possible that future Cuban churches would never be
able to win back the loyalty of that sizable minority of people who
presently affirm no religion. Also pointing to a secular future is
Cuba’s extremely low fertility rate, a figure that often correlates to
the decline of institutional religion.
The question, then, for anyone trying to project Cuba’s religious
future, is whether to look to Pentecostals or secularists, to Brazil or
Source: Imagining Cuba’s future | The Christian Century –