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Church History

Cuban ChurchThe Political Weakness of the Church in Cuba

by Carl Chambers



This paper will show that all denominations in Cuba in the 1950s spoke with an all but silent prophetic Christian voice in the political arena, and that as a result of this, their strength and success was decisively weakened after the Revolution.

Before everything, however, we consider it is appropriate to make three opening remarks, to ensure this question is considered in the correct perspective.

The research is limited

Despite a very wide bibliography, covering much literature from the relevant period, it is important to understand that information out of Cuba is difficult to read with an unbiased mind. Much has been written that is polemic – either pro or anti-Castro. Much has simply not been written, for a variety of reasons : the press is not free in Cuba.

The hypothesis is difficult to test

In the light of this, we emphasise that this is a hypothesis which in itself is impossible to prove. We will argue that it is coherent and persuasive, but acknowledge that this may just be the beginning of such thinking. In all our reading, we have yet to find anyone with such a hypothesis. We would suggest one reason is because of the very mindset which Fidel has managed to create concerning his country (we expand on this point in 7.c)

(c) Proper humility is required

We acknowledge with due humility the suffering and persecution that our Christian brothers and sisters have endured in Cuba. In the light of this, we offer such thoughts from the benefit of hindsight, and without the discomfort of direct repercussions. We are also conscious that Jesus teaches us to remove the plank from our own eyes before seeking to remove the speck from another's.


Cuba : brief history

Cuba's history is characterised by foreign domination, first by Spain then by the United States. A new constitution in the 1940s and a democratically-elected president potentially ushered in a new era. But by 1952, Fulgencio Batista had succeeded in a coup, and embarked on a repressive and often brutal dictatorship. By all accounts, there were "warm relations" between governments and church.On 31 Dec 1958, Batista leaves the country, as much because of growing political opposition as any revolutionary activity by Fidel (which was limited to the eastern regions of the country). Batista left a country riddled with corruption, with huge income inequality, massive unemployment and under-employment and 50% illiteracy.


Church in the 1950s

Relations between the Catholic and Protestant churches in Cuba have never been strong. Until recently, the number of protestants has been far outnumbered by Catholics (nominal and practising). In 1959, there were 4-6 million Catholics in Cuba (50-75% of the population), compared to less than 1 million by 1970.The Church had long been an alien (Spanish) institution – 80% of the clergy were Spanish, and often oblivious to the needs of the masses. One survey of farm workers in 1956 claimed that 93.5% of the population went to Mass "0 times per year". Similarly, for farm workers, in 1957, the relationship of family head with the parish priest showed : 53.5% had "never seen" him, and 37% could claim they "know [him] by sight". Exacerbating this was the fact that in the countryside, clergy were often paid by the sugar mill owners - the same people who employed workers only during the zafra (not even half the year), and then for a pittance.After Batista's coup in 1952, the response of the Catholic church was ambiguous. Younger priests were typically opposed to it, whilst the hierarchy and institution as a whole seem to accept it as a "fait a compli". As a whole, the Catholic church's role was not significant in the struggle in the 1950s.A number were involved in rebel forces, yet "they fought as Cubans who happened to be Catholics rather than as a result of church pressure".The Protestant community has typically been much smaller. In 1959 its numbers (for all 50-odd denominations) were estimated at some 250,000 (contrasted with the communist party then at 20,000). By 1970, the numbers had shrunk to just 50,000.Yet the social class (and alienation from the masses) of the protestants was similar to their Catholic brethren : the "majority of the Protestant community enjoyed educational levels, incomes and class status well above the average in [Cuba]".Their churches were quite active. The American Bible Agency reports sending 1.2m Bibles & tracts for the period 1948-53. The churches were then seriously affected by the drop in the Bible imports for the following 30 years, which totalled less than 100,000 Bibles for the whole of the period 1960-1989. A few protestants joined the rebels – actively or passively. Dr Mario Llerena, Protestant layman, became the first president of Castro's revolutionary 26th July Movement. In February 1956, Rev Cecilio Arrastia, Presbyterian staff member of the National Council of Evangelicals, carried US$10,000 to Fidel in Mexico. Their influence was such that as Fidel enjoyed his entry into Havana on 8th Jan 1959, 8 or 9 Protestant clergyman were seen with him on the victory stand. The seminal author Marcos Ramos, who has published what is perhaps the definitive summary of the history of Protestantism in Cuba, argues that both protestants and Catholics were actively involved in the process to overthrow Batista, despite the fact that many members of churches were also members of the government. He argues that relatively the protestant contribution was more "intense" than the Catholic one, simply because relatively the protestant church was smaller.

Ramos may be correct on the level of personal involvement, but we would argue that even so, this was not, relatively, a significant factor. The institutional churches were still silent, there was no Christian (of whatever denomination) movement for social justice, or active compassion for the poor, or the like. The fruit of the Christian involvement is all too sadly seen within a few years of the Revolution: a marginalised church, fighting on the wrong wicket.

Marimon says that in a survey of people's understanding of the church's attitude to the rich and poor, 58% considered that the church was either favourable to the rich, unconcerned with the poor or treated both alike. 26% felt that the church was more concerned for the poor. What is remarkable is that in the same survey, 78.5% considered themselves either Catholic or Protestant, with 19% claiming no religion, but 96.5% saying they believe God exists. Religious consciousness was clearly high, yet understanding of simple Christian principles clearly not so.

It was not until February 1958, that the Catholic bishops said anything against Batista in public, asking merely for "a national-union government". By now, some individual priests were speaking out from their own pulpits, against the excesses of Batista. (But these churches were small and not influential).The political activity of the whole church was therefore minimal in the 1950. In many ways it was compromised, not least through its class-bias and relative silence on so many social justice related matters.


Early Revolution

Robertson writes that "as a community, [the Protestants] threw themselves behind the new government". Several took leading positions in government.The first stage of the Revolution produced great optimism : after the last few years of increasing restrictions under Batista, many felt there was a "new era of acceptance and opportunity … for evangelicals in Cuba". Statistics on a variety of fronts (baptisms, church membership, giving) were all up.There were also close parallels between Fidel's doctrine and church teaching : "one observer has remarked that much of Fidel Castro's material in the speeches he made in early 1959 could have come from any Protestant sermon". It is undeniable that Fidel had widespread support. He was also claiming what could have been the churches' ground.The Revolution started doing what the churches had never (or barely ever) done: social welfare in the poorest areas.

So the churches began to do the same. More money came in from the US. People moved into the poorest areas. Mrs. Figueredo, a doctor's wife, commented on the poorest areas she visited : "I never knew that this kind of condition could exist in my own country". She continued : "We are just Christians trying to do our job. And the Revolution did this for us. It opened out eyes to the needs of others, and it made us realise we loved money too much". Another has said : "the Revolution had opened their eyes as the gospel had been unable to do to the needs of their own society".One sign of distance from people was that the Methodists, the largest denomination in terms of geographical spread, established a mission in the Sierra Maestra, one of the poorest parts of Cuba and the area from which Fidel had led his successful revolution. The American (Northern) Baptists of Eastern Cuba followed suit in 1960. Fidel had lived there in the late 1950s, and had noticed the lack of church presence – and if at all, then it would simply be a passing priest.

Moreover, the support for the Revolution was mixed. many pastors had relatives in the former government and armed forces. So over the next two or three years, divisions occurred within all churches, as some members supported ardently the Revolution, whilst others expressed disapproval, to the point of leaving the country.At the start, the Catholic church also welcomed the Revolution, although this quickly shifted to suspicion, then outright hostility. The first major conflict between the catholic church and the government came with the broadly popular Agrarian reform, in May 1959, as many of the church's constituents found their properties threatened or seized. Consequently, in this land of great inequality, the "whole catholic hierarchy came out against [the land reform]".The Catholic church seemed most unhappy when its assets were threatened. The educational reform challenged its many schools, yet its ideology was deemed inconsistent with revolutionary principles. In May 1961, amid great uproar from the church, but relative indifference elsewhere, all 300 Catholic schools were nationalised.There was no central co-ordinated response, as may have been possible before the Revolution. With foreign nationals (typically in positions of leadership) leaving, alongside many Cubans, the churches were being weakened before even Castro began his persecution. So what can be said of the Catholic church could equally be said of any protestant denomination : "the [Catholic] church's energies were oriented more to strengthening itself internally than to participating meaningfully in national life".The Catholic hostility to the Revolution grew. Yet at an early stage, Castro condemned the hypocrisy of the church : "I would like to see a single pastoral letter that condemned the crimes of Franco and imperialism, a letter than condemned economic aggression against Cuba"The churches' hostility to Castro continued in other ways. For instance, he was challenged over not holding democratic elections. Yet, according to one writer, no church had ever challenged the Batista regime's "systematic falsifi[cation]" of elections. Castro was rightly indignant over this apparent hypocrisy. Meanwhile, the church which "had not publicly taken a clear attitude in regard to the abominable crimes of the Batista dictatorship, adapted itself with difficulty by with-drawing into a prudent silence, broken on rare occasions by rather unimportant statements"Any public political activity or declarations of protestant denominations were minimal. Most followed the unwritten rule: avoid the subject. For those that did speak of politics, for instance the Western Baptist Convention in 1959, it was to declare themselves apolitical. Ramos links the departure of dozens of pastors to this declaration, and suggests it shows the political discontent of many within the denomination. Such declarations clearly proved of no worth, as within two years, the government had taken control over their schools, and even their four school buses, and two years later, a shipment of 2,000 Bibles were seized and pulped.5. The 1960sBy the early 1960s, "increasingly there was a sense among the Catholic faithful that it was their moral responsibility to be counter-revolutionary". The church was more interested in opposing Marxism per se than in fighting positively for Christian ideals, with the sebsequent oppression from the government. There were the tentative beginnings of rapprochement: in 1962, some (very few) priests who had left before began to return . But by then Fidel Castro was firmly established. Even so, between 1960-1965, over two thirds of the priests, and 90% of the nuns, working in Cuba had left.By 1963, "the Catholics had ceased to be a threat to the revolutionary regime. The Church of Rome had not survived two millennia by failing to trim its sails in order to ride out storms. The saintly John XXIII was no Innocent III, and the papal nuncio in Havana preferred to drink cocktails with Fidel Castro, rather than deliver unpleasant messages from the Vatican." Castro started to schedule political activity on Sundays.For the Roman Catholic church, the result of political isolation was that contacts with the outside world were also cut off. This meant that it was stuck in pre-Vatican 2 thinking for many years, further disadvantaging the church.As Crahan argues : "The Catholic Church was ill prepared to respond to the challenge of the Castro Revolution, lacking the organisational, ideological and political flexibility and commitment to substantial socio-economic change that the Second Vatican Council was soon to provide". Yet the impact of international religious trends was "limited", given the diplomatic, economic and national isolation of the Catholic Church in Cuba.The anti-Marxist fighting took a heavy toll: according to a New Zealand Catholic, it took ten years for his Cuban contemporaries to realise that "the revolution is irreversible".Even now, the silence of the church continues: even Liberation Theology has been introduced into Cuba via Castro. Castro himself believed that Cuba had seen and produced a revolution from "false Christianity" to "true Christianity", and he was convinced that he was a principle factor in bringing this about. Despite his Jesuit training in Havana's prestigious Belen College, very few would argue that Castro is in fact a believer and follower of Jesus Christ. Yet such were his claims over the success of the Revolution – to the utter indictment of the church.

More recently, there has been somewhat more of a rapprochement, but this is in the context of seriously damaged relations. In the 1960s, the church (most denominations) was violently attacked in the media; in the 1970s, it was simply ignored. By the 1980s, there was a slow start to consider things religious, perhaps helped by Fidel Castor's famous interview with the priest Frei Betto, and his book "Fidel and Religion". There was even some proactivity on the part of the government, "though not with the urgency or consistency that the church would have liked". We would argue this is for obvious reasons: the rapprochement was highly pragmatic rather than principled – Castro needed support from the West, as the Eastern Bloc began its demise.

Castro's condemnation of hypocrisy in the church was not limited to the Catholics. In 1963, he criticised a group known as "Gideonites" who were then brining in propaganda "books and lies", yet – he claimed - had never before gone to teach the illiteratesRobertson states that "many protestants held two positions and did not sense the conflict" – they waited expectantly and faithfully for the kingdom of God to come, yet "failed to define limits". He continues: "there was no concerted push, no accepted guideline, no sense of 'political community' with a platform and men in key positions to help implement it".Many just retreated into their own shells, and continued with simply trying to carry on a life in an increasingly hostile country. Corse records that the "Eastern Baptists stuck to an older Baptist emphasis of staying out of politics, sticking to their pietist roots, voicing neither support nor opposition".The decline was obvious to all. What could be classed as an 'official' church response, came from Rev. Arrastia, in April 1966: "We were simply theologically unprepared for what happened. We Protestants had no program. We just wanted Fidel to get rid of Batista. And then we went back to our regular work", evangelism in the "narrow sense". During the 1960s, Castro's power and control increased. Such was his position that he even claimed Christ's authority for his Revolution, insisting "to serve mammon is to betray Christ. To serve imperialism is to betray Christ". A review of this time must not ignore the genuine persecution that was wreaked on many religious people – not just Christians. The infamous UMAP of 1965-66 hosted many Christian pastors, who admirably showed by their lives their ability to work hard, and be unscrupulously honest. Some have even suggested that this was a good witness to government. Many emigrated after being released. Yet even here the churches were powerless to protest against what was clearly "guilt-by-association" in the extreme: a few pastors were accused of dealing in counter-revolutionary activity, so half of one denomination's pastors were rounded up.


Biblical Principles

The central criticism of the churches' activity in the 1950s is that it had the wrong view of authority, especially the Catholic church. It considered that the way to bring about a godly influence in the country was through the rulers, which meant reaching out to them, as well as educating the future leaders. It was felt that the country could be affected through people's positions and job titles. Personal evangelism continued, but was so often compromised by a lack of clarity in national issues.

Christians are called to speak the truth in love. God expects us to speak out for what is right, both in personal morality and in national institutions and society at large. Our lives then are meant to demonstrate this. This is the meaning of the traditional terms : 'orthodoxy' and 'orthopraxis'.

Those who declare God's mind must expect to be alienated, and even persecuted, as the whole of scripture testifies. We serve a Lord who was executed for what he said, and what he represented. The prophets did not shrink from such a call – despite even rejection from the very people of God. The true prophet is sadly all too often a lone voice in the church. Daniel, for instance, did not withdraw into personal pietism: rather, he engaged with society, even to the point of gaining sufficient respect to be promoted to the highest office. Yet he maintained his purity, and was never prepared to compromise, even to the point of death.

Where were the Daniel's in Cuba? No doubt there have been thousands, yet as single lone voices, they have failed to have an impact wider than those around them. Imagine what could have been done if they had been Daniels with the institutional support and encouragement of their church!



The dire state of the churches is highlighted by one broad statistic. In 1976, just 2% of the country regarded themselves as Christian. So we conclude by reviewing the facts, and by asking whether political activity could have made a difference.The churches' strength was compromised. Before the Revolution, the churches typically served the wrong constituency, ignoring the oppressed. After the Revolution, many of their constituency left or were expelled. There were some revolutionaries who were Christians – but not vice versa. The churches were still dominated by foreign influences, as "many have argued … the church in Cuba is not Cuban enough". It was the church of Spain, the church of Miami, but not the church of Cuba, which explains why the church in Cuba is often treated as matter of foreign, not domestic, policy. It was not until the emergence of Christian Democratic parties in 1980s in Latin America that the relative position of the church began to improve "for the first time in a quarter of a century"More generally, the churches were simply not prepared for the Revolution : the protestants had not thought through the issues, the Catholic had a wrong model of political economy (being heavily influenced by Spanish priests, with their model of Franco-inspired anti-communism propaganda). For both communities, it was simply the "political naivety of the educated and middle classes", as the presbyterian A.C. Forrest argues, that helped the communists on their way.Theologically, the churches simply had the wrong priorities: they were primarily "anti–communist", rather than fundamentally "pro the poor".(b) The churches' action compounded the problemsTheir silence gave moral authority to persons (Fidel) not principles (the gospel). Hence, when Fidel changed, or as some would argue "showed his true colours", the inevitable happened, and the churches lost out.In some ways, you could argue that the churches brought judgement on themselves. Leslie Dewart, Canadian Catholic professor, argues that Fidel was forced into communism not only by external pressures, but also internal, national ones, of which the Catholic church was perhaps one of the most responsible.Julien wrote in 1961 what appears like a lamentable, yet poignant, epitaph: "Today, the church is tragically absent from its hope, as it was yesterday from its misery"(c) Castro's motives cannot be ignored

With the benefit of hindsight, it is also possible to begin to make a measure of the man Fidel Castro, and his Revolution. What is clear to all but the most partial observer is that the political economy in Cuba is one of fidelism (following the dictates of Fidel Castro), rather than any more rigid form of Marxism-Leninism or any other flavour of communism (though these have clearly had an influence on him).

Castro's concerns have genuinely been shown to help the poor : few could argue with some of the major success he has achieved in health care or education, to name a few.

Yet his primary aim has been to continue his power – his grandiose ambitions from prison in the early 1950s showed such motivation. This should not be, of itself, particularly problematic for the Christian. The Bible is much more concerned with the way a ruler rules, than the way they are elected or imposed: Romans 13 makes clear that whoever is in authority only enjoys that because of God's choosing.

In the light of this, however, it is clear that any attempt to challenge Fidel Castro once he had come to power would most likely have been doomed to failure (as the CIA has found to its cost countless times).

The moment of opportunity was before the triumph of the Revolution. By 1959, it was too late. Yet we have shown that in the 1950s the churches were alienated from the masses and generally unconcerned with wider issues such as social welfare. This we argue is a clear example of how the gospel needs to be demonstrated in lives, lives which stand for the truth, for justice, and for fairness. The church was lamentably effectively silent on such matters – the one to speak of such things was Fidel, who has enjoyed power ever since.

The danger of silence remains. One of the great tragedies of the Castro revolution is that truth has been held with such disdain. Fidel shapes history, and here has clearly done so – to the extent that it is implicitly "assumed" that the church in Cuba will not be involved in national politics. If the church were to become involved, then again the tragedy is that within Cuba it would be judged as to whether it is "pro-revolutionary" or "counter-revolutionary". The voice which speaks for "faithfully Christian/biblical" or "unfaithfully Christian/biblical" has been silenced.

Cuba needs Christians who join with Cepeda in believing that "no political system is good enough to be identified with the kingdom of God and no system is so bad as to be able to obstruct the kingdom of God", and that as a result the truth of the gospel will be proclaimed faithfully: privately, locally and nationally, and without compromise.


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  28. ----------------------------
  29. Kirk, J.M., Between God and party, p.44 Leonard, E., p.225 Leonard, E., p.221 Kirk, J.M., Between God and party p.47 Janz, D.R., p.437 zafra means "sugar cane harvest" Crahan (1989), p.4 Kirk, J.M., Between God and party, p.49 Leonard, E., p.225
  30. Robertson, C.A., p.2 Kirk, J.M., Between God and party, p.60 figures from private research on data supplied by the Bible Agency of Cuba (equivalent to the Bible Society) Robertson, C.A., p.3 Robertson, C.A., p.2 Ramos, p.47 Marimon, p.401 Quirk, p.166 Robertson, C.A., p.3 Greer, p.67 Robertson, C.A., p.4 Robertson, C.A., p.7 Robertson, C.A., p.7 Robertson, part 2, p.3 Ramos, p.83-86 Ramos, p.67 Ramos, p.70 Crahan (1989) p.7 Kirk, J.M., Between God and party, p.71 Kirk, J.M., Between God and party, pp.68-70
  31. Janz, D.R., p.438 Bazdresch, p.225 Quirk, p.324 Julien, p.187 Julien, p.186 Ramos, p.82 Greer, p.68 Greer, p.68 Crahan (1985), p326 Crahan (1989), p.11 Dominguez, p.48 Quirk, p.453 Crahan (1985), p.319 Crahan (1989), p.6 Crahan (1989), p.11 Crahan (1985) p.329 Leonard, p.229 Janz, p.436 Kirk, Church State, p.34ff Quirk, p.454 Robertson, part 2, p.7 Corse, p.10 Robertson, C.A., p.5 Quirk, p.323 "Military Units for the Help of Production"
  32. Ephesians 4v15 Janz, D.R., p.440 Dominguez, p.44 Dominguez, p.53 Robertson, part 2, p.6 Robertson, part 2, p.5 Julien, p.190 Cepeda, p.303Carl M Chambers – Oak Hill College, London – SO4.5

Carl ChambersAbout the Author

Carl M. Chambers is the minister of Christ Church, Brighton, "a church for those who don't go to church", and a regular visitor to Cuba.