Cuba: Religion and Civil Society
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Religion and Civil Society


Cuba is not Poland. In short, the frequent attempts to draw comparisons between "Catholic countries" with communist systems are not well founded. Cuba's historically heterogeneous society, with its diverse identities and interests, contributes to a high degree of sectoralism in its associational sphere. This feature distinguishes the Cuban case from Eastern European cases such as Poland, which are more homogeneous in terms of social composition, religion, and culture. Poland, for example, did not have as much of a tradition of tolerating diversity, which made mobilizing via mass organizations (e.g., Solidarity, which had 11 million members at its height in the 1980s) and institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church) easier than in Cuba. Nothing comparable to Solidarity exists in Cuba, and the difficulties of mobilizing are apparent in the limited numbers involved in formally organized civil society, which suggests the utility of rethinking the uniqueness of Cuban civil society.

In addition to the heterogeneity and sectoralism of Cuban society, there are differences in state policy that further undercut attempts to compare Cuba with Eastern European cases. The Polish Communist government, for example, allowed much more space for Catholicism, permitting the religious press a certain degree of freedom, as well as religious instruction in public schools, all of which reflected the strength of the Catholic Church as an institution. In Cuba, by contrast, the Catholic press is circumscribed, and religious instruction [End Page 383] in the state educational system is prohibited. Religious media and instruction are two of the most effective mechanisms for maintaining an informed and loyal laity that is inclined to be mobilized. The historical heterogeneity of the Cuban religious scene, and traditionally low institutional loyalty, have resulted in the Cuban Catholic Church not having the same capacity to mobilize around a consensual national agenda or leadership; nor has the Catholic Church in Cuba served as an institutional base for the opposition to the government as it did in Poland and in other authoritarian countries such as Brazil and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s.

In short, such comparisons confirm that the Cuban case is unique in that the country is a nation of believers but religion is not a major factor in uniting and mobilizing civil society. Nevertheless, as political space has increased on the island, particularly since the 1990s, religions have increasingly asserted themselves, especially given the weakness of civil-society organizations.

Approximately two-thirds of Cubans have traditionally identified themselves as Catholics, and at least as many claim to practice Spiritism, highlighting the degree of syncretism that exists in Cuba. To add to the confusion, many Cuban Catholics both before and after 1959 never entered a church or had contact with a priest. Nevertheless, Cubans, including both Fidel and Raúl Castro, appear to identify religion with the institutional Catholic Church (Castro 1990). In the case of Raúl Castro, since his emergence as head of state in 2008, he has involved the Catholic Church leadership in negotiations for the release of political prisoners and with the human rights group Ladies in White,2 as well as initiated regular contact with the cardinal of Havana, to the consternation of some Catholics.

Both Castros, when considering outreach to religions, appear most comfortable with the hierarchically structured Catholic Church. Many nonpracticing Cubans identify their country as Catholic, particularly in terms of social mores and identifiers of cubanidad.3 For example, the Virgen de Caridad de Cobre (Ochún in Spiritism) is regarded as a national symbol, and in 2010–11 thousands of Cubans [End Page 384] turned out to welcome the sixteenth-century statue of the Virgin as it made its way from the eastern to the western part of the island. Catholicism and Spiritism both emphasize family and community and are frequently given expression through popular religiosity rather than institutional involvement (Crahan 2003).

Sectoralism in Cuba is encouraged by historical divisions rooted in ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic cleavages. Afro-Cubans, for example, have used Spiritist-based religions to organize resistance to exploitation and demand their rights as far back as the earliest importation of Africans as slaves. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when...