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  • U. S. Protestant Missions in Cuba. From Independence to Castro
  • Jeffrey Cox
Jason M. Yaremko, U. S. Protestant Missions in Cuba. From Independence to Castro (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000)

In some parts of the world Christian missionaries arrived before the political and commercial invasions of the imperial powers. In Cuba, American missionaries conducted their ecclesiastical invasion on the heels of the military intervention known in America as the Spanish-American War. Jason Yaremko’s study of Methodist, Baptist and Quaker missionaries in eastern Cuba is a sustained unmasking of the ongoing imperial nature of this particular mission enterprise in the first half of the twentieth century.

Eastern Cuba had been neglected by Spanish imperial rulers and the closely allied Roman Catholic Church alike. In the early twentieth century it became the site of large scale economic exploitation by American agricultural corporations, who controlled more than 2/3 of Cuba’s sugar production by the early 1920s. American missionaries in this region came from diverse denominational backgrounds, ranging from the avowed segregationists of the Southern Methodist Church to the egalitarian pacifists of the orthodox branch of Quakerism. They shared, however, a mental outlook rooted in small town and small city America at a time of growing self-confidence and enthusiasm for overseas influence, especially in relationship to the Caribbean.

It is not surprising to discover from Yaremko’s work that missionaries were comfortable with both large and small scale capitalism, tolerant of racial and class stratification, prone to Anglo-American stereotypes about the work habits and moral character of the “Latin” races, sympathetic to employers and governing officials as long as they avoided outrageous brutality, and extremely hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. Yaremko documents the extent to which missionary relationships went beyond mere sympathy with exploitative corporations such as United Fruit, and extended to a client patron relationship between mission and corporation. Some missionaries even became employers and investors on their own, leading to highly publicized and embarrassing scandals within the missions.

The documentation of entanglements between the religious, economic, military and political dimensions of imperialism is always worthwhile, especially in the case of missionaries who frequently denied that they were imperialists. Something is missing from Yaremko’s analysis, however. It is clear from his story that many Cuban congregations were composed of very poor people, many of them Afro-Cuban. In the logic of Yaremko’s argument, these poor Protestants were active collaborators in their own oppression. At one point he even summarizes the motives of those missionaries who worked hard to recruit Haitian and Jamaican migrants workers as “making more reliable laborers.”

These particular missionaries were not liberation theologians committed to the interests of the poor, and they were no doubt entirely incapable of even imagining what United Fruit or Coca Cola would look like if transformed into worker-owned cooperatives. The missionary relationship to the people of Cuba, however, was a complex one that can hardly be summarized as a desire to turn them into reliable cogs in the machinery of global capitalism. Missionaries were genuinely committed to “Cubanization” of their churches, and some of them participated in experiments to promote self-government at considerable risk to their own highly-esteemed professional prerogatives. Some missionaries were people of considerable importance in the Cuban communities that they fostered, promoted, and nurtured; others showed genuine concern for the spiritual and physical well-being of their very poor neighbors.

Yaremko mentions frequently the contradictions between the missionary commitment to American cultural imperialism and their self-professed love and concern for the people of Cuba, but consistently dismisses the latter as inconsequential. After reading this book no one could doubt that there were large elements of sheer hypocrisy in the failure of missionaries to live up to their own principles, but the contradictions that he identifies deserve a more sustained treatment if we are to understand the relationship between religion and empire.

Jeffrey Cox
University of Iowa

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