“I don’t understand why Fidel doesn’t allow free elections in Cuba. After all, he’d win hands down every time.”
I remember how astonished I was when the young spokesperson at the U.S. Intersection in Havana pronounced those words about 20 years ago. But I had heard her correctly. Despite being a U.S. diplomat, she was admitting that Fidel Castro was extremely popular with Cubans. Her concession contradicted the official U.S. position repeated incessantly since 1959 – and regurgitated mindlessly by U.S. commentators last weekend on the announcement of the comandante’s passing.
The young diplomat’s recognition of Fidel’s popularity was confirmed for me again and again as I visited Cuba repeatedly since 1997. That was the year of my first trip there with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a colleague led a group of Berea College students to the island for a month-long January Short Term study of the African Diaspora in Cuba. Subsequently, while teaching in a Latin American Studies program sponsored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, I visited the island perhaps eight times as the term-abroad program for U.S. students brought them there each fall and spring. Then three years ago, I returned to Cuba to teach a Berea College summer term there. I’ll return with a similar program next May.
All that experience has given me a love for Cuba and Cubans – and a deep appreciation for the Fidel Castro as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Few (outside the United States) would disagree with that evaluation.
But there’s another dimension of Fidel’s person that strikes me as important in these days of widespread religious fundamentalism. As a theologian, I have come to see him as the era’s most theologically sensitive political leader. (My evaluation includes people like Jimmy Carter. Of the two, Fidel was far better informed.) As such he calls friends of revolution everywhere to take theology seriously as an instrument of human liberation from narrow Christian supremacist understandings of faith.
That particular observation is based on a close reading of Dominican Friar, Frei Betto’s book Fidel and Religion (F&R) published in 1987. The volume was a product of interviews between Betto and Fidel carried on over a period of 23 hours in the 1980s. On its publication, F&R sold more copies in Cuba than any previous publication.
In Betto’s work, Fidel highlights the convergence of communism and Christian doctrine. He also expresses his appreciation of liberation theology, and explains the superiority of Cuban democracy to that practiced in the United States. His observations give the lie to our young diplomat’s claim that Cuba lacks free and democratic elections.
Fidel on Communism & Christianity
Read for yourself what the comandante says about coincidences between communism and Christianity. (All page references are to Frei Betto’s F&R. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc. 1987).
- “There are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism” (33).
- “I believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” (271).
- “. . . (F)rom the political point of view, religion is not, in itself, an opiate or a miraculous remedy. It may become an opiate or a wonderful cure if it is used or applied to defend oppressors and exploiters or the oppressed and the exploited, depending on the approach adopted toward the political, social or material problems of the human beings who, aside from theology or religious belief, are born and must live in this world” (276).
- “. . . (I)f (the Catholic bishops) organized a state in accord with Christian precepts, they’d create one similar to ours. . . All those things we’ve fought against, all those problems we’ve solved, are the same ones the Church would try to solve if it were to organize a civil state in keeping with its Christian precepts” (225).
- (Referring to Catholic nuns) “The things they do are the things we want Communists to do. When they take care of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want Communists to do. . . In fact, I’ve said it quite publicly. . . that the nuns were model Communists. . . I think they have all the qualities we’d like our Party members to have” (227-8).
Fidel on Liberation Theology
- “I now have almost all of Boff’s and Gutierrez’s works” (214).
- “I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history.” (245)
- “It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time” (245).
- “We can describe it as such because it can deprive the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the interventionists, the plunderers of our peoples, and those who keep us in ignorance, illness, and poverty of the most important tool they have for confusing, deceiving and alienating the masses and continuing to exploit them” (245).
- “He who betrays the poor betrays Christ” (274).
Fidel on Cuban Democracy
- (Referring to the U.S. system) “I think that all that alleged democracy is nothing but a fraud, and I mean this literally” (289).
- “It cannot be said of the so highly praised Western governments that they are generally backed by the majority of the people. . . Let’s take Reagan, for example. In his first election, only about fifty percent of the voters cast their votes. There were three candidates, and with the votes of less than 30 percent of the total number of U.S. voters, Reagan won the election. Half the people didn’t even vote. They don’t believe in it” (289).
- “An election every four years! The people who elected Reagan . . . had no other say in U.S. policy . . . He could cause a world war without consulting with the people who voted for him, just by making one-man decisions” (290).
- “In this country . . . the delegates who are elected at the grass-roots level are practically slaves of the people, because they have to work long, hard hours without receiving any pay except the wages they get from their regular jobs” (290).
- “Every six months they have to report back to their voters on what they’ve done during that period. Any official in the country may be removed from office at any time by the people who elected him” (291).
- “All this implies having the backing of most of the people. If the Revolution didn’t have the support of most of the people, revolutionary power couldn’t endure” (291).
- “In other words, I believe – I’m being perfectly frank with you – that our system is a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist, imperialist system of the developed capitalist countries. . . really much fairer . . .” (292).
- “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but you force me to speak clearly and sincerely” (292).
But what about Fidel’s nearly 50-year reign as President of Cuba? And what about the puzzle of my diplomat-friend? If he’s so popular, why didn’t Castro run for president the way U.S. candidates do?
I asked my friend Dr. Cliff Durand about that when he recently visited our home. Cliff is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University, and the founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He has been leading trips to Cuba every year for the last twenty years, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. He’s the most informed USian I know about things Cuban.
Here’s what Cliff said:
- The diplomat was correct: Castro was extremely popular with the majority of Cubans. He was regarded as the father of his country – like George Washington.
- More accurately, he’s like Franklin Roosevelt who was elected four times here in the U.S.
- Who can say how many times Roosevelt would have been re-elected had he not died, but had come to power as Castro did at 33 years of age?
- Moreover, (as noted above) the U.S. electoral system doesn’t work so well. Most people don’t even vote. Campaigns are interminable and extremely costly and wasteful. And (as indicated by the recent U.S. election) their results often don’t even reflect the will of the majority of voters.
- Cuba’s conclusion: there’s got to be a better way.
- Cuba’s way (like that of Great Britain – and of the U.S. for that matter) is not to elect the head of state directly, but to have electors make the choice.
- So elected members of parliament appoint Cuba’s president.
- And (as my diplomat-friend indicated), they (election cycle after election cycle) chose their equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt.
My own conclusion is that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. He was an insightful (atheist) theologian of liberation. As a true Communist, he was more Christian than many popes. He was more democratic than most USians can begin to understand.