Religion and Revolution in Cuba

Two days before our semifinal game in los Juegos Caribe (a university-wide sports tournament that pits academic departments against each other), my futsal team concluded our practice with a prayer. Bowing our heads and closing our eyes, we listened to the coach (who we endearingly call Profe) deliver a brief sermon to prepare us for the match: “You won’t be able to win this upcoming game on your own. And the Lord won’t win it for you either. In the game, you have to find Him in yourself and work with Him. You have to have the confidence in both yourself and in God to succeed. You need to work together with Him to win this game on Thursday” (translated from Spanish). And in unison, the entire team responded with “amen.” Our team, representing the Department of Philosophy, History, and Sociology, did not end up winning our semifinal game against the Department of Psychology, as we gave up a 2-0 lead and lost in penalty kicks. But the interesting part for me was not the result of the game—it was the prayer.

Up until that point, religion had been a minimal part of my experience in Cuba. As a whole, 44 percent of Cuban society practices no religion at all, compared to just 19.6 percent of North Americans. Conversations with my Cuban friends about religion had never gone very far, as most friends simply say that neither they nor their parents grew up religious and never thought twice about actively practicing any sort of religion. My Jewish identity rarely surfaces, and the most extensive conversations I’ve had about Judaism have been with my irreverent “Cuban Cinema” professor who says he’s “basically Jewish” because he has a many Jewish friends and because of his last name (Piedra, which means “stone”) would be “Stein”—a common Jewish surname—in German. Compared to the strong Catholicism of the Puerto Rican side of my family and the influence of religious rhetoric in North American politics, I’ve noticed very little religiousness in Cuba. 

In investigating the early history of the Cuban Revolution, I realized that this secularism is in part due to the clashes between the young Cuban government and the Catholic Church on the island. In the early stages of governance, following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the government and Church had a tenuous relationship. One of the earliest laws of the new revolution, enacted on January 11, 1959, nullified all degrees granted from private and/or Catholic colleges. While the government’s reasoning made sense, as accreditation of private education was so corrupt that children of the elite were graduating with legally valid medical or law degrees just two or three years after high school, this widened the growing gap between the revolutionaries and Catholic leaders. This law was eventually amended to retain the validity of degrees from Catholic universities, but leaders found themselves at odds over the political direction of the revolution. By December 1960, the primary Catholic leaders of Cuba co-signed an open letter to Fidel Castro condemning the leftist direction of the revolution, before the government even made an official declaration of socialism. By the early 1960s, Catholic priests and other leaders were migrating from the island in droves, leaving an increasingly secular population. 

Religion, especially Catholicism, has largely recovered from this dispute with the Cuban government, but the legacy of this split lives on. After the concluding prayer of our futsal practice, I asked a few of my teammates what they thought of the profe’s words and if it would change their approach to the semifinal. Most of them said they followed along with the prayer and said “amen” out of respect for the profe, but they quietly refuted the words of the sermon. Not one of the players I asked subscribed to anything the coach said, and their mental approach to the game had nothing to do with God or spirituality. But as our best kick taker’s penalty kick sailed wide left, I couldn’t help but think that we could have used the aid of a higher power.

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