Cuba turns from word of Castro to word of God

Thirty five years after the imposition of atheism, churches are more crowded than ever, writes Phil Davison in Havana

Some are calling it the Spiritual Revolution. Three and a half decades after Fidel Castro imposed atheism with Communist rule, Cuba's churches, chapels and synagogues are packed to capacity. Young people, who have Mr Castro's revolution rammed down their throats at school but have lived only through its slow death, make up a large proportion of the new worshippers.

Described by one diplomat here as "the battle for the streets", the trend has Mr Castro worried. Noting that some Protestant churches, notably the Pentecostalists, are growing even faster than the traditional Catholic Church, the Cuban leader has eased the screws on Catholicism. Some suspect him of cutting a deal with the island's Cardinal Jaime Ortega merely to string out his survival.

The President recently closed scores of so-called casas culto (literally "cult houses" but really meaning "home-worship places"), where thousands had been worshipping in the absence of church buildings.

Orson Vila, a Pentecostal minister, was arrested at his home in the city of Camaguey while preaching to 2,000 people crammed into his patio. He was tried by one of Mr Castro's no-point-in-wasting-any-time courts the same day and sentenced to 23 months for holding an illegal gathering. The sentence was later reduced to five months, possibly because Pastor Vila was converting large numbers of prisoners in Camaguey provincial prison.

"The doors of my house are open. If you want them shut, do it yourselves," he was reported to have told state security agents who came to get him. His arrest caused an outcry among evangelical churchmen in the US, but they were not echoed by many clergymen in Cuba.

"It's a kind of political thing. They want to change the government," said Pastor Estela Hernandez of the William Carey Baptist Church in Havana. "They don't preach the word of the Lord. They preach politics. They shout 'Hallelujah' and sing in apartment buildings and annoy the neighbours. Pastor Vila showed a lack of respect for the authorities. He didn't listen to them."

Evangelical ministers denied the accusation of politicking. Mr Castro, however, paranoid with some justification after several CIA plots to kill him, is said to have been concerned by the number of American ministers visiting the casas culto.

I suggested to Pastor Hernandez that it was Cuba's economic crisis that was driving people to religion. Even the two greatest successes of the revolution, public health and education, have faltered due to the emigration of doctors and teachers and a lack of medicines, school books and even pencils as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the three- decade US embargo. She disagreed.

"The history of humanity is like that. After a certain experience, people turn towards God. The youth feel the need to have something greater than themselves. I think it's the same vacuum other people find throughout the world."

Pastor Hernandez's Baptist Church, whose ministry she shares with her husband, Pastor Francisco Naranjo, has seen its congregation triple from 100 to 300 members recently and now holds four services a week to fit them in.

Thirty-three years after Mr Castro's regime encouraged bible-burning, they are back in demand, Cardinal Ortega said last week, adding that "the grandmothers kept the faith alive" after the 1959 revolution.

The Cardinal received a warm welcome when he recently visited Miami, but strongly anti-Castro Cuban exiles suggested Mr Castro was using him for his own ends. The Cardinal avoided direct criticism of the regime at that time but last week, during a visit to Rome, he was more outspoken, saying: "The government has made great mistakes. It must make amends." The hardline exiles say the Church is simply jumping on the bandwagon as Mr Castro's political future looks increasingly insecure.

In another hint at "the battle for the streets", against the backdrop of the Communist Party's declining influence, Cardinal Ortega said the Catholic Church would play a greater hands-on role in social development. He cited projects to build irrigation aqueducts in farm co-operatives and to set up specialist wards in hospitals with donations from Catholics abroad.

The rise in church-going, meanwhile, has not pushed aside the traditional santeria, the voodoo-like black magic brought by African slaves. It has survived in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, Catholicism, although it has tended to be rejected by Protestants. "Many people who apply for visas to the United States first go to see a babalu (santeria priest) to get his blessing," said a diplomat. "And in the poorer areas of Havana, babalus still do good business in love potions."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before