Excerpts from:
Religion and Power Across the World
Zed Books 1986, pp. 202-210.
by Paul N. Siegel

The Castroites and Religion

Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement began as a radical petty bourgeois movement. It took its radical language seriously, however, and made an insurrection. In doing so and in fighting against the attack of American imperialism, it became a Marxist party, more genuinely Marxist than the Communist party with which it fused. Its policy toward religion, consequently, has been far more Leninist in its adherence to the principles of complete separation between Church and state and absolute freedom of religion than the avowedly Leninist Russian and Chinese Communist parties.

To be sure, Castro had fewer difficulties with regard to religion than confronted the Russians. Unlike Czarist Russia, popular support in Cuba for any religious institution was small even before the Revolution. Although most Cubans nominally belonged to the Catholic Church, comparatively few practised their religion. They were baptized and buried 'in the church', but that was as far as their Catholicism went. 'The people,' says Alice L. Hageman, a religious sympathizer of the Cuban revolution, 'identified the interests of the church with those of Imperial Spain. After the defeat of Spain in 1898, .. . many priests still came to Cuba from Spain and the Catholic Church continued to identify itself more with the aristocracy than with the poor.'

As for the Protestant churches, which had less than 507o of the population as members, they were 'dependent on U.S. dollars to finance their programmes, and on "the American way of life" to provide an identity'. As the former director of studies for the International Missionary Council said in 1942, 'The Evangelical church ... is a middle-class and expensive institution in a largely lower-class and poverty-stricken constituency.

As a consequence of the correct policy of the revolutionary leadership and of the comparative isolation of the Churches, the religious problem—which was serious the first two or three years of the revolution, when the Churches engaged in a militant confrontation with the regime—has become insignificant. This policy, which Herbert L. Matthews, the former correspondent of the New York Times, states has been faithfully observed, was described as follows in the Declaration of the National Congress on Education and Culture in 1971:

Not to make the religious problem the center of our preoccupations; absolute separation in all domains of Church and State and of Church and School; not to encourage, support or help religious groups and to expect nothing of them; we have no religious belief and practice, no cult; the Revolution respects religious beliefs and worship as an individual right; no one is persecuted for his convictions; obscurantists and counterrevolutionaries must be fought.

Matthews adds:

The objectionable [obscuranist and counterrevolutionary] sects were listed separately as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Gideon's Evangelists ... After some American pastors were expelled, it was realized that the sects were politically harmless and socially commendable. So far as I could find out, they are ignored. '

This hands-off attitude with regard to the Churches is all the more notable in that the Churches had engaged in a virulent campaign against the newly established revolutionary government. The Catholic Church issued inflammatory pastoral letters with such titles as 'Rome or Moscow', and 'With Christ or Against Christ.' It organized open-air masses at which there were chants of 'We want a Catholic Cuba' and 'Cuba yes, Russia no.' 'Many Christians,' acknowledges the liberal Argentinian priest and sociologist Aldo J. Büntig,

definitely passed to counterrevolutionary action, which increased from August of 1960 on—a prelude to the Bay of Pigs invasion... In fact, in annexes to the churches, meetings of opponents of the regime were permitted, and there was no shortage of priests who encouraged Christians to enlist in the movement against the regime, as they did against Batista. Others clearly advised the alternative of exile. The defiance thus went beyond merely verbal dimensions.

A number of priests and at least one Protestant minister participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Three priests from Spain who had served in Cuba were captured, together with a proclamation they were to have broadcast to the Cuban people. Since they did not have a chance to broadcast it, Castro, sure of popular support, read it in his speech of 1 May 1961: 'We do not come because of hatred, but because of love; we come to bring peace even if to earn it we must wage war... Catholics of Cuba: our military might is crushing awl invincible, and even greater is our moral strength and our faith in God and in His protection and His help. But the government and people of Cuba defeated the invincible military might of the invaders and showed a greater moral strength than they.

In this speech Castro announced that the permits of foreign priests to remain Cuba would be declared invalid except for those of foreign priests who had not combated the Revolution. He also announced that all private schools of which the majority were Catholic, would be nationalized, with indemnification for those schools which had not opposed the Revolution and with no tuition henceforth to be paid by the students. Following the measures, says Büntig, `a mass exodus of members of religious orders .r priests occurred. Except in cases of direct deportation--which were ; many—they seem to have suffered from a desperate escape psychosis.'

Yet even while the confrontation with the Catholic hierarchy was fresh memory, the government declared that it was genuinely committed to freed(), of religious belief and practice even though it would not permit count, revolutionary activity by religious bodies and insisted on separation of Chun, and school. Lt stated on 19 March 1962: `The Revolution has take serious measures to break up the conspiracy of the Catholic hierarchy, but it has done nothing to offend a sincere Catholic of the people. On the contra! it has guaranteed the right of the believers to their worship and to their religion.'"

The depth of feeling on this matter by governmental leaders is indicate. by the words of Castro a few days before this statement at a commemoration meeting for a student leader who had been killed by Batista's men in 1957 On discovering that in the reading of the man's testament an invocation of God had been omitted, he exclaimed indignantly that the omission was stupid and dishonest, unworthy of socialists, and showed both a lack of Marxist understanding of history and a lack of confidence in the ideas of Marxism `A revolutionary can hold a religious belief,' he added, `The revolution does, not obligate men, does not interfere with their conscience, does not discriminate against them."'

Büntig believes that `the position of Castro in the face of religion' reveals `ideological originality' and is `far from the texts of Marx, Engels and Lenin'. We have seen, however, that Engels spoke of the revolutionary spirit of the early Christians, of medieval heretics, and of Thomas Munzer and that Lenin welcomed into the revolutionary party workers with religious beliefs and was `absolutely opposed to the slightest affront to these workers' religious convictions'.

Büntig is, however, right about Castro's lack of dogmatism. Primarily a great revolutionist of action, he is not the theoretician that Lenin, also a maker of revolutions, was, but, on the other hand, he does not merely repeat consecrated formulas or cite infallible authority in the manner of the Stalinists. The spirit of Castroism makes it impossible for Castro to become an object of cult worship. Castro remains `Fidel', not the omniscient Leader or the omniscient Chairman. He himself has said:

Because there cannot be anything more anti-Marxist than dogma ... Marxism needs ... to act as a revolutionary force and not as a pseudo-revolutionary church . . . How, when we see sectors of the clergy transformed into revolutionary forces, are we going to resign ourselves to see sectors of Marxism transforming themselves into ecclesiastical forces?'

Thanks to the Castroite policy on religion and the ability of the Catholic Church to accommodate itself to reality, tension between the Church and the state subsided. So much did it do so that in 1969 the bishops issued two pastoral letters which were a far cry from the pastoral letters `Rome or Moscow' and `With Christ or Against Christ.' The first one condemned the United States' economic blockade of Cuba and asked Catholics to participate loyally in the development of the country. The second counselled Catholics to have a tolerant and understanding attitude toward atheists, to use justified criticism of religion to purify their faith, and to have a positive view of their social conditions." No one has charged or even suggested that these pastoral letters were issued as a result of any kind of pressure or manipulation by the government. The pressure came from the desire for popular support.

The Sandinistas and Religion

In his shamelessly lying campaign against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan has called Nicaragua a `totalitarian dungeon' where religion is persecuted." This campaign studiously ignores the fact that there are four Catholic priests in the government, who presumably are persecuting themselves. On the rare occasions that the priests are mentioned there is some mumbled comment that they are dupes or agents of the Sandinistas. The priests, however, are not obscure people used as window-dressing. Ernesto Cardenal, the Minister of Culture, is a poet famous in Central America and the author of The Gospel in Solentiname, which consists of a number of dialogues with the peasants of Solentiname about the Bible—dialogues through which the peasants were brought to revolutionary consciousness and which had a tremendous impact on the entire country. Miguel D'Escoto, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, gained a great following through his housing projects for the poor.

Not only do these men have great authority and hold important positions, but they represent tens of thousands of partisans of the revolution who proclaim, `Between Christianity and the revolution there is no contradiction.' Nowhere else in the world have Christians formed so integral a part of a social revolution.

On the other hand, it is true that the bishops of Nicaragua, who initially supported the revolutionary government, have increasingly come into conflict with it as polarization has grown. They have harassed priests and nuns who have remained committed to it and have received the backing of the Pope, who has demanded that the four priests leave the government. In Cuba, where the government is strong, the Church hierarchy has come to terms with it, but in Nicaragua, where the situation is unstable, the hierarchy is challenging the government.

The contras, moreover, also attack the government as anti-religious and claim to be fighting for the preservation of Catholicism. Their religious appeal to the peasantry is, however, negated by the well-documented murders and rapes by these mercenaries and ex-Somoza National Guardists. The Iatest report, that of Americas Watch, a private, non-political organization, monitors human rights in the Americas and takes no sides in the Nicaraguan conflict, says, reports the New York Times (6 March 1985), that `throughout 1984 and as recently as early 1985 . . . the anti-Government rebels have kidnapped, tortured, raped, mutilated and murdered numerous unarmed civilians, including women and children "who were fleeing".' When Reagan praises these men as `freedom fighters' for democracy and religion, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle white. To understand how this anomalous situation came about, and how the Sandinistas have responded to it, we must examine the position of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

The Latin American Church is riven with divisions. In Argentina, Guatemala, and Colombia, members of the hierarchy have attacked radical priests working with poor peasants, Indians, and slum-dwellers. In other Latin American countries, however, the `theology of liberation' has affected even the hierarchy. Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was assassinated by rightists opposing the ruling junta and American aid to it; and Archbishop Evaristo of Brazil has supported his priests in their demands for reform.

The secretariat of the Latin American bishops' conference is controlled by conservatives, headed by Bishop Lopez Trujillo, a Colombian. Alan Riding, the New York Times Latin American correspondent, was told by `church sources' that

Trujillo is closely identified with West Germany's conservative Catholic hierarchy, which last year channeled over $100 million into the Latin America church, and that he is advised by a group of conservative theologians. One a these, Roger Vekemans, a controversial Belgian Jesuit, was identified in testimony before a United States Congressional committee as having received $5 million from the United States Central Intelligence Agency to help Chile', Christian Democratic Party attempt to block Dr Allende's election in 1970.

In another dispatch Riding told of how a `worried Vatican', aided by `angry conservative bishops', had gained control of the secretariat. 51 Behind the conservative bishops of Latin America stand the Vatican, Washington, and the German Catholic Church, whose stronghold in Bavaria is the base of anti communist conservatism.

Riding has described the dynamics of the `theology of liberation'. The conservatism of the Church, `historically identified with the landed classes and ruling elites... led to empty churches and a declining priesthood'. Intent on regaining its vanishing membership, the Church formally pronounced itself to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The result was that `the church again became a significant force in the lives of the poor. Youths were attracted to the priesthood. Masses celebrated by popular priests and bishops were crowded'. The new breed of priest discovered that Jesus led a movement of the poor.

The `theology of liberation', then, can be explained by the pressure al the masses, first in staying away from services conducted by conservative priests and then by acting upon the new young priests. Lenin explained this pressure of the peasant masses as follows:

Why has the village priest—that policeman of official orthodoxy—proved to he more on the side of the peasant than the bourgeois liberal? Because the village priest has to live side by side with the peasant, to depend on him in a thousand different ways, and sometimes—as when the priests practise small-scale peasant agriculture on church land—even to be in a peasant's skin himself."

Moreover, Lenin said, writing in 1905, a pre-revolutionary atmosphere affects the lower clergy itself.

The disgusting red tape of the politically feudal autocracy has stirred up discontent, ferment and indignation even among the clergy. Cowed and ignorant as the Russian orthodox clergy is, even it has been aroused by the thundering collapse of the old medieval Russian regime. Even the clergy endorses the demand for liberty, protests against the bureaucracy and the tyranny of officials, against the police inquisition forced on the `Servants of God'. We, Socialists, must support this movement, carrying the demands of the honest and sincere people among the clergy to their logical conclusion, taking them at their word when they talk about liberty, demanding that they completely sever all connection between religion and the police.

So also, we may remember, the lower clergy of pre-revolutionary France was affected by the growing ferment, harking back, as do the adherents of the `theology of liberation', to the egalitarianism of the early Christians.

The Latin American clergy too have been aroused by the thunder before the storm that is brewing on their continent. When John Paul II came to Brazil in July 1980, 1,150 priests sent him an open letter that stated: `The Latin American people find it repulsive that their assassins invoked their "Christianity" to justify their killings, and that not a few bishops and even papal nuncios are their accomplices, at least in their passivity.''' Priests like the martyred Colombian guerrilla—priest Father Camilo Torres have been swept along into the class struggle. Other priests, working with the poor, have helped to give them a sense of dignity that has enabled them to stand up and fight.

The Sandinistas responded to this movement of the clergy in Nicaragua. They admitted priests and religious believers into their ranks, and in their historic programme of 1969, whose promises they have striven to keep despite great difficulties, they stated that the revolution `will respect the right of citizens to profess and practise any religious belief' and `will support the work of priests and other religious figures who defend the working people' .

In October 1980, more than a year after coming to power, the National Directorate of the FSLN issued a statement on the role of religion in the new Nicaragua, asserting that it was necessary to do so because reactionaries were seeking to spread the idea that the Sandinistas were using religion now but planning to suppress it later. The statement begins by paying tribute to the many Christians who served as fighters in the Sandinista Front and to the many lay Christians and clergy who were not members of the FSLN but nevertheless `professed and practised their faith in accord with our people's, need for liberation'. It states also that `on various occasions the Catholic bishops bravely denounced the crimes and abuses of the dictatorship...Because of their brave participation in the struggle, the Catholic church and Christians in general suffered persecution and death.'

The statement goes on to say that in different historical epochs religion has served to justify exploitation, citing the part that the missionaries played in the Spanish imperialist rule over the Indians of Nicaragua. But `we Sandinistas state that our experience shows that when Christians, basing themselves on their faith, are capable of responding to the needs of the people and of history, those very beliefs lead them to revolutionary activism'. This being so, `all i who agree with our objectives and proposals, and have the personal qualities demanded by our organization, have every right to participate actively in ranks, whatever their religious beliefs'.


within the framework of the FSLN, there is no place for religious proselytism. This would undermine the specific character of our vanguard and introduce factors of disunity, since the Sandinista Front includes compañeros of van, religions and none. Outside of the framework of the FSLN, Christian activists ... have the right to express their convictions publicly. This cannot be used to detract from their work in the FSLN or from the confidence that they have gained as a result of their revolutionary activity.

The statement rejects the accusation that the Sandinista Front is interfering in the internal affairs of the Catholic Church, seeking to split it. `We do not foster or provoke activities to divide the Churches. That question is tl, exclusive concern of the Christians and does not involve political organization, If divisions do exist, the Churches must look for causes within themselves, and not attribute them to supposed malicious outside influences.' Important political occurrences in the past also caused members of the Catholic Church to take opposing positions. For instance, Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish Dominican known as the `protector of the Indians', defended the rights of the natives while the missionaries `used the cross to consecrate the slave labour that had been initiated by the sword'.

Finally, the statement takes up the matter of priests and members of religious orders in the government:

In regard to this, we declare that every Nicaraguan citizen has a right to participate in carrying out political affairs in our country, whatever their civil state, and the Government of National Reconstruction guarantees this right, which is backed up by the law... It especially needs those who had the chance to receive higher education, which was denied to the majority of our people.

In the Somoza government, it comments, `there were priests who proudly paraded their military ranks and official positions—of course no one demanded that they give up their posts'.

If we examine these positions, we find that, as is true of those of the Castroites, they are not really `far from the texts of Marx, Engels and Lenin', after all, although undoubtedly they have been more shaped by the Sandinistas' experience than by their reading. Like Engels, the statement observes that ion has historically served the function of justifying exploitation but that certain occasions it can be a revolutionary force. Like Lenin, it holds that religious believers, including priests, have the right to participate in the revolutionary party if they accept its programme, but, like Lenin, it prohibits (pious proselytism within the party. Like Lenin, it calls for complete separation of Church and state. This means that the state does not in any way subsidize the Church, that it does not intervene in its internal affairs, that none, including priests, are exempted from civil duties on religious grounds, and that all, including priests, have the right to hold public office, t as representatives of religious bodies but as individuals.

To be sure, Lenin evidently did not envisage the participation of religious believers and priests in the revolutionary process to the extent it has taken ace in Nicaragua. He was aware, however, that revolutionary currents affected the lower clergy. Also, the Sandinistas, who do not hide the fact That many in their ranks and leadership are Marxists and atheists, do not publish educational material on religion, as Lenin demanded. However, Lenin qualified his statement by saying that the revolutionary party will subordinate the struggle against religion to the class struggle and `must be able to judge the concrete situation as a whole'. What is true about not dividing the workers along religious lines in a strike situation is even more true in a revolutionary situation.

Religion and the Struggle for Socialism

Revolutionary Marxists can work with religious believers for common political objectives. They have joined with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in anti-imperialist actions, with the persecuted Catholics of Northern Ireland against the dominant Protestants and British imperialism, and with liberal sections of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Europe and the United States in the struggle against nuclear weapons and war preparations.

In doing so, they have subordinated, without hiding their materialistic philosophy, the ideological struggle against religion to the concrete demands of the class struggle. This is not at all the same as the opportunist policy of reformist parties such as the Italian Communist party, which has temporized on the liberalization of divorce and of abortion, and holds back the class struggle in order to grasp the hand of the Church. There is a world of difference between `Don't let the fight be lost by enemy-fostered divisions in your ranks' and `Don't antagonize the enemy: live and let live.'

As long as religion remains a force to be reckoned with, Marxists have to know how to deal with it and be able to draw the masses under its influence into the struggle for socialism. The problem is especially acute in the underdeveloped countries and, paradoxically, in the United States, where religion is strongest. The principles of Lenin furnish a guide for Marxists to follow.

The victory of world socialism will bring the gradual demise of religion. The state, a strong prop for religion even in countries where there is an separation of Church and state, will no longer give it support. lndeed, the state itself, like religion, will come to cease existence. Humanity, while being able to control its own destiny, will not need to believe in a God of its own creation, before whom it must prostrate itself in fear and trembling. It will at last be free.

But humanity will not only be intellectually free: it will be able to experience more fully the two greatest joys of life, creative work and love contemporary society human beings are alienated from their work, which is for most people drearily monotonous, not at all a means of self-expression. Work only means regimentation and the transformation of the products of one's labour into commodities in which one takes neither pride nor satisfaction.

So too are human beings alienated from each other. Under the conditions of an economy of commodity production, people tend to regard each as things to which one is related only by the `cash nexus'. They are the members of a `lonely crowd', to borrow the title of the sociologist David Riesman's book, where it is everyone for himself: we are all alone.

Things will be far otherwise in a socialist society, toward which the various post-capitalist societies, many of them suffering from bureaucratic deformation or degeneration as a result of having been born in backward countries subjected to the pressure of world capitalism, are only struggling. `Under socialism,' says Trotsky,

solidarity will be the basis of society. All the emotions which we revolution] 1 at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming-so much have they been u thin by hypocrites and vulgarians-such as disinterested friendship, love for one's neighbor, sympathy, will be the mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry

`Love thy neighbour' will not be a hollow phrase used to justify passivity in the face of oppression, but a reality.