Religion in Cuba's Socialist Transition


El presente artículo intenta un ejercicio de síntesis, realizado a partir de resultados de trabajos precedentes más o menos extensos, y de una serie de valoraciones que aguardan aún, en forma de notas, por una elaboración más minuciosa, en especial las que se refieren a la evolución de la condición laical y el concepto de laicidad.

This article attempts to synthesize the results of fairly extensive previous studies and pending assessments in order to present a more detailed look at religion in Cuba, especially in terms of the evolution of secularism. En todo caso, el esfuerzo por la brevedad impone la necesidad de omitir muchas cosas.The effort to be brief has required many omissions, both descriptive and analytic.El lector, y solo el lector, juzgará si las apreciaciones que siguen  permiten una visión del conjunto, y motivan a confrontarlas con la literatura existente en cualquier esfuerzo ulterior de profundización en el tema. The reader, and only the reader, will judge whether my assessment is sufficiently comprehensive to advance our general understanding of the subject and to stimulate further inquiry.

Preliminary Considerations

We must begin by clarifying our theoretical assumptions. First, the term religion encompasses a dual or even multifarious meaning: a spiritual communion via access to the supernatural, faith in the divine, devotion to the transcendent. Viewed on another level it refers to churches, denominations, sects, fellowships or other associative structures that have been adopted. These are not two separate realities, but rather the two dimensions of a single reality: the institutions and the faith of the believers. The interaction between the two gives substance to religion as a component of civil society and culture. I feel obliged to clarify this in order to avoid one of the most common methodological mistakes in addressing the issue of religious faith from a social science perspective.

This distinction explains why there is not always a convergence of interests between a given church and its adherents. It also explains why the forces determining the place of religious institutions in the society do not necessarily correspond to those which make the believer a believer. When we disregard this distinction and think only in terms of churches, ignoring faith, our analysis becomes mechanistic.

The second assumption I do not want to overlook is the inherent bias determined by whether the analysis comes from the point of view of a believer or a non-believer. This seems to be a truism, but it is not so simple because there is a spectrum of possible positions rather than a simple contrast. The truth of faith and scientific truth are not necessarily conflicting or incompatible. An intersection can even be found. I emphasize "can” because it is not always found. Therefore analyzing religion requires consideration of the historical context in the fullest sense. However, regardless of all precautions, we cannot ignore the fact that the religious view, and also its opposite, the atheist view, are biased in their approach and in one way or another contaminate the search for truth or, paradoxically, facilitate it, depending on the case. Approximating the truth is not a privilege of the ideologically committed.

Religious Faith in Cuba

Christianity arrived in Cuba, as it did across Latin America, in the form of Catholicism introduced by colonial domination, as an essential component of the body of ideas and the culture of the colonizer. Catholicism served as the backbone of colonial hegemony. Its arrival was contemporaneous with the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and most importantly, with the rise of capitalism, whose nascent bourgeoisie would become the Reformation’s mainstay.

Traditional beliefs were swept away on our island by colonists who annihilated the entire indigenous population. Syncretism therefore arose with the cultural patterns of enslaved Africans, rather than of enslaved native populations. The massive introduction of African slave labor linked to a plantation economy was a shared reality, spanning Cuba, the Antilles, and Brazil, but contrasting with other parts of the American continent.

Consequently, within the process of acculturation as it occurred in Cuba, the dispute over spiritual territory did not revolve around the Pacha Mama,1 but instead around defending Africanism as a source of legitimacy inherited from the religion of the enslaved. This unique complexity has been present throughout our history and class struggle. It accounts for a distinctive trait of the independence process beginning in 1868, which merged the political and social components by linking national independence with abolition, thus giving the revolution a character whose only historical precedent was the Haitian revolution.

The revolutions of the thirteen North American colonies and those across Hispanic America were inspired strictly by the ideal of independence, without immediately including substantive changes in the socioeconomic structure. The cultural identity born of this legacy in Cuba would also be framed, of course, by the dominant religion. That legacy would be disrupted in the republic, however, as the United States in the first half of the 20th century usurped its victory. One type of domination displaced another. Another form of dependence, instead of the independence that was fought for, replaced the previous one.

The second colonial domination – that of the United States – extended Christianity and diversified its impact through the introduction of Protestant missions. Throughout the republican neocolonial period, Cuban religious demography would be essentially defined by these three tendencies: Catholicism, Protestantism, and religions of African origin. These did not exactly coexist in harmony (ecumenism came much later), but rather in the context of a struggle over spiritual terrain, linked to the confrontation of social classes over economic, social and political power, of which theology was the superficial expression. Catholicism denounced Protestantism as heresy, while Catholics and Protestants each from their own perspective discriminated against Santería and all other Africa-based expressions, condemning them as witchcraft, obscurantism, or religious backwardness. This perception was openly associated with another comprehensive form of discrimination: a resurgent racism.

The search for Truth generated by our independence struggle was smothered by social re-stratification and by the redefinition of class struggle within the framework of neocolonial domination. So great was the impact of this process, that interfaith discrimination persists to this day, resulting in an exclusion from dialogue even fifty years after the 1959 revolutionary triumph. This exclusion is evident in the seemingly innocuous classification of Santería as a "cult" rather than a religion, which amounts to denying recognition of its devotional nature. Ecumenism is certainly a controversial issue within the Cuban religious spectrum today.

Not only Catholics defined Cuba as a Catholic country in the 1950s. The notion was generally accepted, despite the 1901 Constitution’s proclamations of “freedom of religion" and a secular State. The rules of recognition, however, were set by the bourgeoisie and it was inconceivable to reject the idea of God (atheism was seen as connected to communism, equally demonized). To profess Santería made one dangerous in more ways than one; non-Christian religions were reprehensible; Protestant heresy was not well regarded; and confessed atheism was the work of the devil.

During the years of the dependent republic, conservative Catholic ideology was more suited than Protestantism to serving US hegemonic interests. This became especially clear as the Church intensified its anticommunism after World War II. Pius XII had already set this course during the war, despite pressure for the Vatican to take a critical distance from Nazism. The mission of the Reich was less dangerous to him than that of the Kremlin. This position flowed directly from pre-Vatican II Catholic fundamentalism.

As of mid-century, however, the only criterion for calling Cuba a Catholic country was the portion of the population that was baptized. But this criterion gives no indication of the actual prevalence of a religion. Religious initiation through baptism during infancy may reflect community membership, but it is far from defining real adherence. This seems to me to go without saying.

Still, even though the country could not be defined as Catholic in terms of religious observance, it could be so defined in terms of the influence the Church and its affiliates had on the established powers, which the Church was committed to supporting.

African Roots

Of the religious communities present in Cuba it is not an exaggeration to say that the most influential is Santería – or to be more precise, the Yoruba religion (the source of Ocha and Ifá), which we know in its transcultural version as Santería. Not only is it the most widespread of the religions identified as Afro-Cuban but, to a certain degree, it is the center of the historical processes of syncretism with other religions from Africa and with Catholicism. The relative sophistication of the Yoruba pantheon and its legends and myths (pataquines) set the pattern in Cuba (as in the Northeast of Brazil) for the process of acculturation – a process which is usually oversimplified and even caricatured when reduced to merely pairing an orisha (Yoruba deity) with the Virgin or some Catholic saint.

Although it is the most widespread, Santería is not the only African tradition that has flowed into Cuban culture. The Conga religion – Palo Monte or Regla de Palo – and the Arará are also significant, each with distinct modalities. In addition there is the Abakuá religion. These are not mutually exclusive affiliations. Belonging to several of them is common for the more committed initiates. Nor is it unheard of for the santero to profess Catholicism and even to ask that his godchildren be baptized prior to their initiation into Santería.

Devotion to the orisha, the protective deity, takes the form of unmediated communication, which may include promises, reproaches for neglect, and even punishments. It is quite unlike worshiping the Almighty. Neither the Ifá priest (babalawo), nor the godfather or godmother (babalocha and iyalocha) interfere with communication between an initiate and an orisha. Neither is the orisha simply a mediator for the creator (Olofi). Devotion focuses on the saint. This feature also pervades Catholic practice, especially though not exclusively in its popular forms.

African religious institutions lack a vertical structure. The babalawo is the ultimate authority to godchildren and the santera family circle, whether all are believers or not. Probably the most important manifestations of doctrinal agreement are the babalawo meetings every 31st of December, at which the "Letra del año” (Ebó) - general predictions of Ifá for the new year – is drawn up. The most widely diffused Letra is composed by some 600 Ifá priests, with the backing of babalawos from a dozen countries where Santería has established itself.

As a religion of initiates, of dedicated practitioners, Santería clearly enjoys a numerical advantage over any other organized manifestation of faith. Many of its adherents are also included in Catholic statistics; more of them are not. It is difficult to provide quantitative support for this assertion, but it is easily seen in society.

Religion and Revolution

In an article I wrote years ago I explained how the triumph of the revolution in 1959 surprised the church – and indeed all institutional Christianity – which was not prepared for such a change.2 The upheaval brought about by the Revolution was so radical that it shook almost all civil society institutions, not just those in the religious sphere—but that would be another story.

I will not dwell on the dynamics of the confrontation that occurred between 1959 and 1962. The relevant literature will always reflect the position of the observer. I do not want to run the risk of bias that typifies inventories of accusations. Errors and blindspots are present in all institutional accounts: those of the churches as well as those of the revolutionary State. What cannot be ignored is that the expropriated bourgeoisie perfumed over its counterrevolutionary sweat with Catholicism, and that part of the Church hierarchy participated in this transfiguration, contributing to the religious aura that the bourgeoisie, suddenly bursting with fervor, adopted.

The Italian theologian Giulio Girardi explains the position of the Cuban church in this conflict differently:

The churches, particularly Catholic, are not mobilized primarily to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie and of the empire but to defend their own political and cultural interests, namely their intellectual and moral supremacy. They do not oppose the revolution primarily because it strikes at the interests of the bourgeoisie and the empire, but rather because it proposes a system of values, an interpretation of reality, a new conception of man and an educational program that presents an alternative to the church; and therefore appears as a new hegemonic actor and competes with the church over its own territory.3

He has a point, but the explanations are not mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the commitment of the most influential lay Catholic sectors, from 1960 on, to destabilize the Cuban revolution.

It is important to note that throughout this period political discourse strongly insisted that the State had no quarrel with religion. It made no attempt to argue against belief systems, against the dogma, against worship.4 At the end of the conflict, however, institutional Christianity was left deeply wounded – after 1961 and the Bay of Pigs victory – by various social reforms, especially the creation of a single system of free, secular, public education and the prohibition against parallel school initiatives, which meant the closure of religious schools.

For the second time in the twentieth century the Church in Cuba was stripped of power. It was unable to implement any kind of compromise (transacción)5 with the revolutionary State. But the conflict in question was above all with the Roman church. And Rome, which began to modernize itself under John XXIII and Paul VI, showed understanding and patience.

The Protestant denominations distinguished themselves by a tendency to sublimate doctrine and, correspondingly, to adapt their mission to the socio-economic transformation that had begun. Santería initially benefited from the revolutionary dismantling of discrimination. We appeared to be on a direct path to rescuing the cultural nexus that the independence struggle had bequeathed to us. Unfortunately, things did not quite turn out this way.

The conflict with ecclesiastical anti-communism (and counterrevolutionary protests within the churches) facilitated an atheist turn, in line with Soviet Marxism, which affected the entire gamut of Cuban religiosity in a discriminatory manner. Neither santeros, nor spiritualists nor Masons escaped the discriminating eye. They were perplexed by the absurdity of being discredited because of the misconduct or the stances of others – and by finding themselves repressed under the influence of a new religion, unexpected in Cuba’s spiritual climate: Atheism.

Without going into to details, I will only add that the tension arising from institutionalized atheist discrimination – tacitly formalized in the 1st Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 1975 – continued for nearly three decades (longer than the quinquenios grises or trinquenios),6 from the early '60s until the ‘90s. This atheism clashed also with a major opening to the religious sphere that arose in Latin America during the second half of the ‘60s. The question "Do you have religious beliefs?" became in Cuba a bureaucratic instrument to deny political access – a litmus test.

In 1969, when the winds of renewal from Vatican II and the Second Assembly of the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM) held in Bogota made it to the Cuban church, two of the Catholic bishops called for a mending of old grievances and showed a willingness to forge an institutional understanding. They did not receive a correspondingly fair and constructive response in political circles. It certainly was not what they expected. The authorities said "Good!" And nothing else happened. Perhaps by then we were all excessively confident in the secularizing power of Marxism. The political class was not immune to this ideological mirage, neither was academia.

Not until 1985 was it acknowledged that we had created a denominationally atheist state and that a regime of religious discrimination, incompatible with the socialist ideal, prevailed.7 But we still had to wait for the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the Fourth Congress of the PCC (1991), and the Constitutional Reform of 1992 before the Cuban state would define itself as secular (as already established in the 1901 and 1940 Constitutions) and explicitly outlaw religious discrimination alongside race and gender discrimination. However, making a law is one thing and implementing it is another. And the idea of a secular state means one thing in political circles and another for the churches. Still, upholding secularism is crucial to what we euphemistically call "normality" in church-state relations, and it is a decisive value.

Cuban Religiosity Today

In examining the dynamics of religiosity, we need to consider other factors. Today it is impossible to ignore a marked revival of religious practice in Cuba. This raises two questions: Where does it originate? What impact will it have on the totality of social relations? Some attribute it to the visit of John Paul II in 1998, others to the changes within Cuban socialism during the early 90s. I believe that internal processes preceding these events should not be overlooked.

It is important to recall here the studies conducted on religiosity in the late ‘80s by the Department of Socio-Religious Studies at the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research, directed by Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla.8 This research broke new ground in that it sought to measure the scale of religiosity not by the presence of religious systems, but rather on the basis of a typology of "three fundamental levels of design, organization and structure of concepts regarding the supernatural: one highly spontaneous, with little or no systematization; another intermediate, which includes the personification of figures considered miraculous, but without belonging to complex religious systems; and a third, the most elaborate, corresponding to systems of specific concepts of organized religious expressions or influenced by them."

At the end of that decade, from a national sample of 5,000, research showed that about 85% of Cubans admitted some form of belief in, reliance on, or contact with the supernatural, while no more than 16% belonged to organized religions. At the other end of the spectrum, only 15% of the sample were confirmed atheists. So 69% of the sample fell into the first and second categories of religiosity. Although the research team did not do a follow-up study, their results have been confirmed by much subsequent research.

Barring the unlikely possibility of technical errors in the study, we can draw several basic conclusions. 1) The years of atheistic dogma and discrimination against religious and pastoral work did not impede widespread religiosity in the Cuban population. 2) This religiosity is not (was not in the late 80s) mainly institutional or engaged on an ecclesiastical level, but is more in the nature of a popular disposition. 3) The demographic dynamics of spiritual resurgence had already produced the generational shift that occurred between the 60s and 80s. 4) The ratio between believers and nonbelievers may be indicative of a relatively stable pattern; it is likely that in the two ensuing decades the degree of religiosity found in previous studies has remained consistent.  5) It is clear at a glance that there is no connection between the proportions of believers among the population and among the political leadership; we seem still to live in a country of believers led by atheists.

Toward the end of the 90’s, including before the Pope’s visit to Cuba, studies carried out by the Catholic church based on parish-level surveys found that nation-wide Sunday mass attendance could be estimated at no more than 100,000 individuals, representing less than one percent of the island’s population.

Over the last twenty years socio-religious studies have gained momentum, comprising today a much more comprehensive array that I can present here. Many of these studies are from a believer’s perspective. The Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations have developed areas of social and theological studies, both inside and outside the seminaries. African religions have also been studied, thus adding rigor. Thus, not only have Cuba’s major religions been revived, but the publication of books and magazines with religious content has increased in number and quality after a long editorial silence that outlasted the pastoral silence.

One should not treat the predominance of a religiosity characterized by direct worship or by less defined beliefs (as shown in the research of the late 80s) as a fixed phenomenon. Evaluating religion based on statistics has always been a very risky endeavor. There is good reason to assert that with the expanded public presence of religion, and with the decline of anti-religious prejudice on the part of social and political institutions, there has been an increase over the last two decades in religious commitment and a diversification of the denominational spectrum. If this hypothesis is valid, not only can we no longer speak of typical Cubans as non-believers, but we must admit that the dynamics of religious revival has strengthened their sense of belonging.

We should also note that the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party not only assumed a change in policy towards believers, but also included religious faith among socially legitimated values. Ramírez Calzadilla notes that "reflection on this situation by the actors involved – the state, society, believers and their institutions – entails reconfiguring social space, accepting and showing respect for the other..., thereby initiating a process of lifting the social stigma from the religious believer."9

Cuba’s deep popular religiosity, preeminently grounded in African traditions, showed its strength with the decision of the Fourth PCC Congress (1991) to allow believers into the Party and with the 1992 Constitutional provision condemning religious discrimination – thereby signaling a new turn for a social project that had been explicitly atheist for several decades of socialism. Since that time the broad reach of the African faith was quickly manifested by the public wearing of the orisha necklace (iñale). The number of Cubans who today wear beaded bracelets in the colors of Orula (yellow and green) on their left wrist is incalculable. Whether for religious or aesthetic reasons, the use of the bracelet and iñale is more common than the crucifix, even among believers who claim to be Catholic. Religious faith began to shake off its inhibitions and emerge unfettered into community life.

A Closer Look

We are often victims of inertia. We are all familiar with the questionable concept of religious "indifference" (indiferentismo) as a supposed Cuban trait. I say questionable because it is hard to identify indifference as an actual way of thinking. Usually such characterizations reflect conjunctural situations more than they do lasting cultural traits. One should not forget the vulnerability of the religious dimension in situations of crisis. And if surveys taken during the "special period" showed that religiosity had remained latent even in the face of discrimination, what dynamics might we expect to find now, when that crisis has ravaged the country for nearly two decades?

Since there is no updated information from later field research, we are forced to make estimates by combining data from official statistics, information from the Register of Associations at the Ministry of Justice, and data offered by churches, with other sources including the important testimony of babalawos, which is clearly becoming more relevant. According to information gathered from these sources, the total population practicing Christianity (Catholic and conventional or unconventional Protestant) has grown to over 400,000 in the course of this decade, nearing 4% of the total population. This figure does not include initiates and regular practitioners of Santería and other religions with African roots, nor does it include spiritualists or non-institutional believers.

Those of us who have been involved in these studies have used these calculations with great caution, and only to get an idea of proportions. In this respect, other partial estimates may be significant. For example, in 1995 within a 36-hour period, more than 94,000 devotees made the pilgrimage to San Lázaro in the sanctuary of El Rincón in Havana. This was the maximum ever observed as the number has dropped to an average total of 80,000 in subsequent years, with more of the pilgrims making their visits over the preceding week. In 2007 estimates were slightly higher than 53,000 in the 24-hour period starting at 6:00 PM on December 16, which is the peak period. Devotees of La Milagrosa in the Colón cemetery in Havana rose from about 12,100 visitors in 1987 to 75,300 in 1996 and then stabilized well below that figure later. In both cases, we find a sharp peak in the mid-90s when the economic and social crisis was most severe.

Also notable, if the data are valid, is the increased percentage of Catholic baptisms at birth, from 12.3% in 1982 to 47.6% in 1995. Subsequently, it has remained over 60%. In Colón Cemetery in 1996, 62.6% of funerals included prayers for the dead, while ten years ago the figure was only 38.9%.10 In the following decade the figure fluctuated little. Considering the importance to the popular imagination of protecting the newly born and the souls of the deceased, it appears that baptism and Extreme Unction have transcended their specifically Christian roots to become popular religious expressions.

Before concluding I should briefly mention the dynamics of a religious revival that is mainly external to Cuba but that undoubtedly influences it. Secularizing trends that predominated in the so-called western world (the developed capitalist countries of America and Europe) until the mid-20th century, alarming the churches, began to come up against an unconventional revival of religious spirituality. This revival today reaches across the entire western Christian world and far beyond. It is perceptible in Latin America with the growth of Pentecostalism and other evangelical missions, mainly from the United States, since the 1960s. With the implementation of the neoliberal model, the revival has accelerated, diversifying into a denominational gamut that cannot be described here.11

The boom of the "new religious movements" does not supplant the secular movement, but rather intersects with it, generating changes in the religious demography of the continent. To put it succinctly, on this continent where figures indicate that the future of Catholicism rests, studies from the late '90s estimated that less than 42% of the population are considered Catholic and only 20% can be defined as practicing. This has been confirmed in more recent years despite efforts by the Vatican to recover its losses. Among believers, judging by church data (baptisms, membership registries) about 70% are Catholics and 20% Protestants, the latter being mainly of non-conventional religions.12

Cuba has not been so exposed to what has been called the “onslaught of the sects” (a term that does not convey the diversity of all it encompasses). Most notable in Cuba is the growth of Pentecostalism, which has now become its main Protestant tendency, encompassing various denominations. Charismaticism, so vitally present in the Pentecostal tradition, has spread beyond these communities and today has been adopted in the liturgy even of conventional churches such as the Methodist. Similarly, it has been taken up by Catholic communities in Cuba, as in other countries.

Cuba thus shares some of the global dynamics, but to a lesser degree. The most common hypotheses are: 1) that Cuban society has not been exposed to neoliberal impoverishment or to the unmitigated penetration of missionaries from mother churches, and 2) in conjunction with the above, that the entrenched beliefs of African origin represent a barrier in this battle for religious territoriality.

Finally, the Cuban socio-economic context is that of a sustained and overwhelming endeavor of resistance to the most intense tide of imperialist pressure, under which the population has suffered and is suffering material and spiritual stress. In thousands of ways and at every moment, by means that would be impossible to describe, these tensions have influenced the fluctuations in Cuban religiosity over the past half century. This influence is very likely to continue in the years to come, although it will be within the framework of an understanding that ensures a more mature, flexible and fluid normality than prevailed prior to the 1980s.


1. Ed. Note: Pacha Mama, often translated as Mother Earth, is a goddess of Andean indigenous people.]

2. See Aurelio Alonso, “Fe católica y Revolución en Cuba: contradicciones y entendimiento,” Cuadernos de nuestra América, no. 15, Havana, 1990.

3. See Giulio Girardi, Cuba después del derrumbe del comunismo. ¿Residuo del pasado o germen de un futuro nuevo? Madrid, editorial Nueva Utopía, 1994, p. 109.

4. This can be seen in the speeches by Fidel Castro on August 10, October 10, and November 27, 1960, in which he based the defense of his position on the example of the first Christians under the Roman empire; in Fidel Castro, Revolución y religión. Encuentros, discursos y entrevistas, MINFAR, Havana, 1997.

5. I use the term transacción in the sense given it by François Houtart in “La transacción en sociología de la religión,” Casa de las Américas, No. 248, Havana, 2007. I do not refer here to symbolic transactions about the content of beliefs, on which Houtart concentrates, but rather to the question of reconciling religion with the project of socialist transformation, which is global but not exclusive.

6. [Ed. Note: This refers to periods of heightened discrimination (and, in some cases, detention) imposed against people who were considered politically, culturally, or sexually deviant.]

7. According to Fidel Castro’s interview with Frei Betto published as Fidel y la Religión.

8. For Ramírez Calzadilla’s synthesis, see his article “Religión y cultura: las investigaciones sociorreligiosas,” Temas, no. 1, January-March, 1995.

9. Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla, “El incremento del campo religioso: reactivamiento y significación social,” unpublished materials in the archive of the Centro de Investigaciones Psicológicas y sociológicas (CIPS), Havana, 1999. Emphasis in the original.

10. All data regarding religious revival in Cuba are taken from Religión y cambio social: El campo religioso cubano en la década de 90 (a collective work coordinated by Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla), Editorial Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 2006.

11. See Aurelio Alonso: “Hegemonía y religión: el tiempo del fundamentalismo,” Temas, No. 39-40, October-December 2004.

12. See Aurelio Alonso (ed.), América Latina y el Caribe: territorios religiosos y desafíos para el diálogo, CLACSO, Buenos Aires, 2008. Especially relevant are the essays by Aurelio Alonso, Rita Laura Segato, Jorge Ramírez Calzadilla, Cristian Parker Gumucio and Pablo Mella, which focus on Latin American religiosity in a global context.