Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

fidel-on-rel

“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).

Conclusion

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.

Mike Silenced by the AIPAC: A Case Study of Zionist Control of Media and “Peace Groups”

AIPAC

Peggy and I are in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We’re here to give papers at the “Moving beyond Capitalism” conference of the Center for Global Justice (CGJ). I’m honored to be part of a panel with Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun Magazine, the Jewish left-progressive quarterly). My job will be to present the Palestinian viewpoint on the conflict with Israel.

Frankly, there’s only one reason I’ve been invited. It’s because of a crisis I created in San Miguel eight years ago when I spoke on the same topic. It nearly brought the end of the Center for Global Justice. It even threatened my job at Berea College.

The whole incident illustrates the way even small-time publications and good-willed advocates of social justice can be intimidated and silenced by champions of Zionism. The incident represents a summons to such agents to break the silence and speak the truth regardless of Zionist bullying and threats.

You see in 2006, Peggy and I were working with the CGJ directing a summer intern project for students from the U.S., Mexico and Cuba. Out of the blue, one week the program chair of the local Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) meeting asked me to speak at their Sunday gathering. I had done that in several places before and accepted without a second thought. The invitation came specifically because of my connection with the Center for Global Justice.

“Why do you want me to speak about?” I asked the organizer.

“Anything you want,” she replied.

“Well, I speak on conflicting understandings of Jesus,” I said. “As a liberation theologian, I like that topic.”

“Oh no,” came the immediate reply. “The last time someone spoke on Jesus we were all bored to tears. Can you talk about something else?”

That gave me pause. . . . But I had just returned from a three week trip to Israel sponsored by Berea College where I taught for 36 years. So I said, “How about sharing observations from my recent trip to Israel?”

“That sounds great,” the program chair said. “Let’s call your talk, ‘A Report from Israel.’”

I agreed, prepared my remarks, and delivered them the next Sunday. My thesis was clear and unambiguous. “The real terrorists in Israel, I said, “are the Jewish Zionists who run the country.” I didn’t consider my basically historical argument particularly original or shocking. Chomsky and others had been making it for years.

What I didn’t realize was that almost everyone in my audience was Jewish. (I didn’t even know about San Miguel’s large Jewish population – mostly “snowbirds” from New York City.) Nonetheless, my remarks that Sunday stimulated an engrossing extended discussion. Everyone was respectful, and the enthusiastic conversation even spilled over beyond the allotted time.

Immediately afterwards, during breakfast in the U.U. center, one of the founders of the CGJ said, “That was great, Mike. You really ought to put all of that down on paper. You can publish it as an article in San Miguel’s weekly English newspaper, Atencion. They give us column space there each week.”

“Great,” I said. (I already had the talk written out.) I sent it into Atencion and it was published about a month later. By then I was back in the states teaching at Berea.

I’ll never forget what followed: all hell broke loose:

• A barrage of angry letters flooded the Atencion pages for the next two weeks and more.
• As a result, Atencion threatened to cancel the CGJ’s weekly column.
• San Miguel’s Bibliotheca talked about ending the CGJ’s access to meeting space there.
• My article was removed from Atencion’s archives and (I think) from the archives of the Center for Global Justice.
• Someone from the AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) phoned my provost at Berea College reporting me for my inflammatory article, asking whether I really taught there and if my credentials were genuine.
• The CGJ’s leadership was forced to do some back-pedaling distancing itself from me and my remarks.
• They lit candles of reconciliation at a subsequent U.U. meeting begging forgiveness from the community and absolution for that mad man from Berea.
• The guiding assumption in all of this was that my argument was patently false.

In other words, an article that should have stimulated discussion of its thesis (with CGJ activists leading the way as a voice for the voiceless) was met instead with denial and apology.

However, the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza only confirms my original thesis. So let me repeat it here: the real terrorists in Israel are the Jewish Zionists. I’ll go even further and say that in the present phase of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, the Jews have little or no right to claim they are acting in self-defense. They are clearly the aggressors guilty of extreme war crimes.

This time I base that argument on helpful analytic distinctions concerning “violence” commonly made be liberation theologians in general and by Palestinian liberation theologians in particular. I interviewed the latter back in 2006 at the Sabeel
Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem.

I’ll explain the relevant distinctions in the second part of this posting. For now my points are these:

• Zionist defenders are afraid of open discussion of the conflict in Palestine.
• Zionist media control extends far beyond The New York Times.
• It even blacks out Palestinian viewpoints in small-time publications like San Miguel de Allende’s Atencion.
• It threatens academic integrity as well attempting to reach into classrooms like my own at Berea College.
• It even intimidates well-meaning and highly informed activists like those at the CGJ.

My conclusion for now: the media and even would-be “radicals” need to own their power in fearlessly denouncing the war crimes of Israel’s Zionists which will be discussed in the article following this one: “The Conflict in Israel: the Perspective of Palestinian Liberation Theology.”