Largely ignored and undervalued by the Roman Catholic church for more than five centuries, Cuba is now receiving its second papal visit in 14 years. Yet Pope Benedict XVI’s visit this week takes place in rather different circumstances than that of Pope John Paul II in 1998. In those days, the charismatic Polish pope was on a wave of popularity, and an uncritical media suggested that perhaps he might sound the trumpet and the walls of communism in Cuba would tumble as they had done earlier in eastern Europe.
Today the uncharismatic German pope, struggling to restore the stained reputation of a global institution suffering from internal malpractices and external apathy, is perceived to have lesser ambitions.
Cuba too, has changed. In 1998, Fidel Castro was still in complete control, and the country was only just beginning to emerge from a disastrous economic decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its financial friend and political patron.
Today it is Fidel’s brother, Raúl, as uncharismatic as his papal visitor, who runs the show, presiding over a country that has got over the worst of its economic difficulties and has been gingerly putting its toes into the uncertain waters of contemporary capitalism. Reform rather than upheaval is on the agenda.
Yet some things do not change. Cuba remains an island where the Roman Catholic church has a weak and insubstantial hold. Afro-Cuban religions – Santería, Palo Monte and Abakuá – come top of the popularity contest among the great mass of the people, followed almost certainly by a variety of Protestants sects imported from the United States over a century ago.
The Roman Catholic church, an almost exclusively urban phenomenon run by Spanish priests over most of its existence, comes a poor third, although the pope will certainly be welcomed by large crowds, always happy to witness a great state-spectacle. He will visit the ugly shrine at El Cobre, outside Santiago de Cuba, of the Virgin of Charity, a saintly national heroine variously endorsed over time by Indians, blacks and whites, and celebrated by both Catholics and Afro-Cuban enthusiasts.
The real challenge facing the Roman Catholic church, both in Cuba and in the rest of Latin America, is the tremendous growth in recent decades of evangelical Protestantism. In Cuba, the various denominations popular in the United States in the 19th century arrived with the US invasion of 1898, and spread rapidly all over in the country, bringing their unique blend of education and self-help. They divided up the country between them: Northern Baptists in Oriente, Southern Baptists in Pinar del Rio, Quakers and Methodists in eastern Cuba, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the west, and Episcopalians in Matanzas.
They were a vital element in the North Americanisation of Cuba in the 20th century, against which Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 was in part a rebellion, but the Protestant missionaries, unlike the Catholics, had been quick to move into the rural areas, to enrol Cuban pastors and to teach black children. In the more promiscuous era of the 21st century, where Cuba officially tolerates a wide variety of religions, the Protestant sects have been quick to build on this legacy.
The Roman Catholic Church, many of whose Franco-era Spanish priests were expelled in the early 1960s, has had more difficulty in re-establishing itself in the hearts and minds of the people. The experience of centuries in negotiating relations between Church and state has somehow passed it by.
For most of the past half century, the Cuban Roman Catholic Church has been content just to survive, without playing any significant role. Only in the past few years has it begun to negotiate a possible position as an intermediary between the state and the embryonic emergence of a civil society.
By happenstance, the two most popular figures in Latin America will be present in Havana during the pope’s visit: Fidel Castro, now old and retired but still sprightly, and Hugo Chávez, the youthful but ailing president of Venezuela, in town for a radiotherapy session to treat his cancer.
Will Pope Benedict participate in a photo opportunity, in the hope that some of their charisma will rub off on him and on his church?
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