From the Worldwide Faith News archives


Date 05 May 1996 08:09:03


                          by Alexa Smith 
HAVANA, Cuba--In the midst of its self-described "special period," with 
export income plunging and industry folding, the Cuban government says it 
expects from churches what it expects from other citizens -- that they work 
to solve the country's deep economic crisis in ways that "unite, not divide 
     But there is great ambiguity about what that means in practice.  And 
it causes disagreement, if not division, within some of Cuba's Protestant 
churches -- most noticeably between leaders and laypersons. 
     "We kept our hope the revolution would someday recognize us and ask us 
to help in what they couldn't do.  And the time has come," says retired 
Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Cuba (IPRC) pastor the Rev. Rafael 
Cepeda, who well remembers the job and educational discrimination -- and 
outright harassment -- that Cuban Christians endured. 
     Government backing for churches to mobilize medical relief and to 
absorb previously government-run counseling and health programs is the 
chance Christian socialists like Cepeda have been waiting for. It is time, 
they say, to combine the best of Christian and Marxist visions, creating a 
socialism that does not demean religious values. 
     But many laypersons feel too betrayed -- or completely duped -- by the 
revolution to hope for change now.  Pragmatism, they believe, is behind 
this new government openness toward churches.  It is merely another 
strategy, they say, to help a financially strapped party pay its bills and 
overcome a dictatorial image overseas.  And after being called irrelevant 
for more than 30 years, they do not want to aid a propaganda campaign now. 
     "It's complicated," says one laywoman who asked that her name not be 
published.  She argues that relief is not distributed equitably in Cuba, 
that less visible rural areas receive less.  "It is convenient for the 
government ... the monetary help we churches give in good faith for the 
people.  But that is taking advantage of the situation. ..." 
     So the quandary boils down to avoiding what some feel is exploitation 
but still doing ministry. 
               Accepting realities while witnessing 
     Church leaders say that if the government is taking advantage of them, 
it may cut both ways. Ministry is about making the incarnation real among 
Cuban people -- and right now that is possible. 
     "This [government openness] has opened up a whole new area of service, 
like a deacon's work," says Dr. Noemi Gorrin Castellanos, chair of Cuba's 
ecumenical commission for medical relief.  "Doors are opening ... for new 
works, for new types of movement in society," she says, adding that she is 
pulling together an alcohol rehabilitation program for the island's eastern 
provinces.  The program will be staffed by Christian doctors who are free 
to talk about faith. 
     Educational workshops on health and family problems are under way as 
     IPRC general secretary the Rev. Carlos Ham says now is not the time 
for Cuban Christians to insulate themselves from Cuba's government-run 
infrastructure.  He says it's time to interact with the government -- to 
push for more change and for more chances to teach Christian ethics in a 
society with escalating divorce and abortion rates. 
     Five years ago, Cuba's constitution jumped from being hostile toward 
religion to being neutral, Ham says -- a hurdle many thought impossible. 
But he admits it is "difficult to change people's minds" when they are 
unable to trust and when they have reached less hopeful conclusions about 
Cuba's economic and political future. 
                   A sense of betrayal exists  
     "The communists tried to install the kingdom of heaven on earth 
without God," says one skeptic who believes that once compatible Christian 
and socialist dreams for a better world have been corrupted by a government 
more interested in saving itself than in relieving the suffering of 
ordinary Cubans. 
     The kingdom of God, he says, requires love.  And that is what is 
missing in the government's response to suffering. 
     "All the money in our family goes to eat.  Our house is nearly falling 
apart," he says.  "Thanks to God nobody has been sick.  For when you go to 
hospitals, there is no medicine."  He warns that aid may be manipulated to 
finance Cuba's fundamental betrayal -- getting outsiders to pick up the 
costs of caring for Cuba's people so the government may spend its money 
     Critics say the government is more lenient with religion these days 
partly because the powers that be see little resistance left in Cuba's 
small Protestant churches. 
     Some laypersons argue for more, not less, church control of resources 
coming into Cuba through religious conduits, even though no large-scale 
distribution system currently exists apart from government-run hospitals, 
clinics and nursing homes.  It is painful, they say, when needy people come 
to churches for help and can be offered nothing but solidarity. 
     The larger Roman Catholic community runs its own parish-level health 
facilities in addition to funneling food and medicine into government 
programs monitored by Caritas, a Catholic relief agency. 
     According to Castellanos, $1.3 million in medical aid came to Cuba 
from U.S. churches last year. Distribution, she says, is carefully 
monitored by the ecumenical council, and supplies are not dispensed to the 
         International church aid is a temporary solution 
     The Cuban government, says Religious Affairs bureau chief Caridad 
Diego, is well aware humanitarian donations will not solve Cuba's economic 
crisis.  She says, "We [the government] have to see those donations as help 
in a specific moment of crisis. We can't depend on them constantly." 
     What is not perceived as goodwill, according to another official, is 
dispensing aid outside established channels in ways that are considered 
"opportunistic" or "trying to buy souls" of the needy. 
     "We can't say this process has been easy," Diego told the Presbyterian 
News Service about changing church-state relations in Cuba itself. 
"Everybody in churches had to pay the price regarding the attitude of some 
leaders against the revolution. ... 
     "We've had some difficulties.  But little by little [the church] is 
becoming incarnated in the Cuban population." 
      Responding to criticisms that Protestant Cuban churches are too 
friendly with the government, Castellanos argued that good came out of the 
revolution -- and the bad has been confronted. 
     She says, "We can say we walk side-by-side with our people and we know 
they need our help." 
                                 # # # 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
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