On Sunday, February 24, the Cuban population went to the polls to approve a new constitution, drafted by the National Assembly (the legislative house of representatives, called diputados and elected by the provinces).
I have participated the last two years, within the context of the Cuban Council of Churches, the Evangelical Theological Seminary and local congregations, in an intense discussion on the implications of this new Constitution for the churches, stressing the importance and relevancy of a more inclusive society.
For the last few months this constitutional document has been discussed all over Cuba, including the different Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church and other religious movements like Santería, a religious syncretism of Yoruba religion, Roman Catholicism and Spiritualism, brought by the slaves from western Africa.
The attempt is not only updating a document that already had many revisions, but more importantly to provide a space for an open discussion like never on issues like human sexuality, religious freedom and the challenges of economic development in a more globalized world.
And now that the process of trying to normalize United States and Cuban diplomatic, political and economic relationships is under way, it is appropriate to reflect on some of the issues that lie ahead, examining the deep spirituality so pervasive in Cuban culture and life. Touching the Cuban life necessitates traveling deep into the spiritual relationship of Cuban faith and culture and the ongoing struggle to define spiritual and cultural identity. This was within a twofold mixture of Spanish/indigenous cultures (mestizaje) and the creole/African cultures (mulatizaje). Out of this mixture came a blend of humanity we call “Cuban”.
Within this process of formation of what some anthropologists like Fernando Ortiz called “cubanía”, cubanness, lies an experience that looks to meet God in daily realities and searches for meaning in the creation of society and culture. Then, in spite of the people’s different political ideologies and faith comprehensions (or lack thereof), what helped maintain a unique communion and an open communication within this communion was Cuba, the motherland.
Cuban nationality and culture were forged out of the deep roots of the indigenous, the African, and the Spanish traditions. Santería (as religion and culture) is the première example of this, offering dances, music, and rhythm with drums to provide an occasion for religious freedom and resistance in the midst of oppression and suffering. This heritage contributes to contemporary Cuban painting, poetry and music. Hundreds of priests and thousands of believers have inherited this mixture of faith and beliefs: natural medicines, intercession to African deities (disguised in Catholic images and names), mixed African and Spanish identities, and ancestral language and customs. The African spiritual inheritance is strong and rich.
Faith is often overpowered by ideological systems in orienting values and principles. In other words, the secular world often overwhelms the sacred world. It’s a human condition. We tend to confuse gospel and culture. True, ideology is needed in any society. However, elements of faith discernment and spiritual vision can help avoid many painfully misleading conceptions and behaviors, moving societies toward equity and unity.
Many religious leaders saw an incompatibility between faith and the Communist Party, though many other believers took a more positive attitude. Cuban churches did not know how to respond and were unprepared for the ideological confrontation happening. Catholics were negative toward the Revolution because of the atheistic stance it took and the fact that the Communist Party usurped much of the Catholic influence. Protestants were caught up in the “American way of life” and a “competition” with the Catholic Church for souls. There were misconceptions about what the Revolution was doing with the youth, indoctrinating them and invading the family or not? Churches were weighted under the burden of discerning the truths within all of this, and perhaps even with the self-preservation, an oxymoron in itself? We all too easily, and readily, forget under whose protection the Church rests! The churches did respond eventually, both directly and indirectly.
Religious diversity is a fundamental aspect of Cuban life and culture, meaning a visible and genuine syncretism. There is a spirituality of resistance, based on a sense of hope for the future. Popular religion is the people’s answer to this daily experience of the divine in their midst. Cuba is grass-roots ecumenism. The religious complexities of Cuban society puzzle many people, for the country’s reality escapes a clear-cut theoretical explanation and may be quite confusing. But the topic of the religious experience and spirituality of the Cuban people surface frequently. In the Cuban reality, the faithful of different religious traditions tend to believe that society is a place in which their faith should be public and visible. Today, more than two-thirds of the Cuban population embraces some kind of religious syncretism. Forms of spiritualism are found blended with Catholicism and Santeria. And forms of charismatic and Pentecostal experiences are found in the majority of Protestant churches.
What are some of the crucial issues and challenges facing Cuba today?
-Strengthening a civil society, allowing more participation of organized private sectors, including social movements
-The economy continues to be a priority, in a socialist country challenged by a global capitalist economy
-The dialogue between the Revolution and religious groups is an ongoing, pressing issue
-Interreligious dialogue and syncretism continues to be an ecumenical challenge
-Mission of the churches in a socialist country continues to be a priority, under new circumstances
Cuba is no longer an isolated country in the Caribbean; it is well integrated both at the regional and the international levels. Despite a continuing confrontation with the U.S. government, Cuba maintains diplomatic relationships with 190 countries in the world today.
Let’s hope that the U.S. government will open an intentional and serious dialogue to restore diplomatic and normal trading exchanges with Cuba, in a globalized world. And that this new Constitution provides a space for a more participatory process in a civil and civilized society. The churches should be a spiritual and moral force in Cuban society, more than ever!
Carmelo Alvarez serves with UEPV (Venezuela) and CEPLA. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.