Bryan S. Bendall and Dr. Jeffrey M. Shumway, History
On January 1, 1959, armored tanks of Fidel Castro’s rebel army paraded down the streets of Havana, Cuba promising reforms and change in the island nation. For many of Cuba’s religious adherents this came in the form of repression and persecution. Castro began his attack on religion in 1961 by forcing Cuba most powerful clergymen into exile in a series of despotic reforms meant to cripple the powerful influence of the Catholic Church. Thereafter, Castro was excommunicated by the Vatican but persecutions continued as the government discriminated against all Cuban church members by denying them jobs, excluding them from government posts, and ridiculing them in government sponsored media outlets. Although religion was not completely banned, young Cubans were taught in the state-run schools to believe that religion was a foolish superstition and an irrelevant part in the new progressive Cuban state. The Cuban leader officially stamped his seal of disapproval on religion by declaring Cuba an atheist state in the Constitutional Reform of 1976.
Despite the persecution, some Cubans refused to reject their religion and opted to continue in their faith in underground organizations. Today the Jehovah’s Witness Church is one of the largest religious sects in Cuba due to their refusal to subject themselves to state-run governments. Their missionary work continued in the face of public humiliation, discrimination, and even violence. Reportedly, some Jehovah’s Witnesses that refused to heed the strict code of conduct imposed by the Communist party were sent to the island’s prisons and torture chambers. More commonly however, they would face staunch opposition and public ostracism. One of the victims of this persecution was my aunt, Mary Carol Garcia Juch. She was born to a privileged family in Havana, but when her siblings left for the United States in 1961 she refused to leave because she believed that the Revolution would make the country better. She later fell in love and married a captain in the Rebel Army, and Communist party official, Rafael Garcia. They lived happily together and quickly had two sons, Hector Rafael and Juan Alberto, while living in Mary Carol’s nice home in the desirable Miramar suburb.
However, shortly thereafter, tragedy struck the home. Mary Carol, who like her mother was fluent in English, met and befriended an English speaking missionary from the Jehovah’s Witness Church. She was taught their doctrine and converted to the underground congregation. Her husband tried to keep her secret safe from the party officials, but after word got, out he was forced to choose. His bosses gave him the ultimatum: either he divorce his wife, or he would lose his position in the party. Because he knew that losing his position would also bring upon him the label of traitor and most likely a prison sentence, he had to divorce his wife. The authorities granted Rafael Garcia a new house, custody of both the children and in turn, left Mary Carol alone in the family house in Miramar.
Mary Carol suffered greatly as a victim of religious discrimination. She remained faithful to her beliefs, but she had to search long and hard to find happiness. Because all jobs in Cuba are bestowed by the government, she could not find any source of employment. Over the years she married several other men who supported her for a time, but she never had anymore children. In Cuba, economic difficulties such as those that she faced often lead to opportunistic marriages. Still lacking for money, she began to rent out the rooms of the house, and she leased the land surrounding the house for other people to build on. Gradually, eight additional families moved onto the property living in close quarters and sharing bathrooms. A few years later the government ruled that Mary Carol was mentally incapable of caring for the house and awarded the rented property titles to the families that had been living there. Religious persecution left her alone, in poverty, and with only two rooms to her name in the five bedroom house.
After taking power, Castro and his government seized many churches and the property of religious organizations. The Catholic Church especially was very wealthy before the Revolution and held many of the best and most valuable lands. The new regime turned many of these buildings into party headquarters, museums, and schools. The Communist party turned there religious sanctuaries into institutions that could strengthen their own power and that would weaken other rival powers, such as the Church. In Havana especially, persecution and atheism was most felt very strongly and much more noticeable than in the provinces.
However, in the early 1990’s Castro and the Communist party had a change of heart. The collapse of their communist allies in the Soviet Union introduced a new period of economic depression for the island which Castro termed, “The Special Period.” Looking for new allies and friends in the international community, in October of 1991, the party began a series of liberal reforms including extending party membership to religious believers. Furthermore, in 1992 President Castro had the constitution amended to declare Cuba a secular rather than an atheist state to accommodate religious tolerance while still adhering to the party’s non-religious status. Then, in a surprising move the Cuban President personally traveled to the Vatican to visit Pope John Paul II in 1996, and two years later the Pope returned the favor by making a groundbreaking visit to Cuba. Today in Cuba all of the church buildings are still controlled by the government, and they decide who can meet and what can go on inside of them; however, a certain degree of religious toleration is afforded. While some Cubans will completely deny that there was ever religious discrimination on the island, there is much evidence that proves that it did exist and there are still traces that some discrimination continues today.
The religious reforms that have already taken place have impacted the lives of many people in Cuba- including several who have been baptized as members of the LDS church. Although the LDS Church has not officially recognized the congregation in Cuba, there is today a group of active church members who worship and strive for the same eternal goals as any Latter-day Saint in Salt Lake City. While in the neighboring islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic LDS membership has exploded at almost 200,000 members, in Cuba the latest statistic tell us that there are only twelve baptized members attending the meetings in Havana. This startling contrast has come about as a result of the revolution of 1959. The sentiment and feelings on religiosity I inquired on was a profound and eye-opening experience for me.
Unlike some other religious groups, the LDS Church has patiently been waiting to officially recognize the congregation of Cuban members until they can practice and worship freely and openly. Several LDS Authorities have been sent to monitor the status of the religious environment on the island, including Elder Manuel Gonzalez, Elder Gustavo Ramos, and Bishop Victor Montoya. Despite the slow progress that has been made for religious tolerance, LDS Church headquarters is still holding back on entering the island freely. The transition of power from Fidel to his brother Raul has opened up a window which some see as a delicate time in LDS- Cuban relations and one which possibly initiate the opening of the island to preaching missionaries. It is so delicate that in fact the LDS Church has asked the students from its sponsored institution, Brigham Young University, not to go to Cuba, and especially not to ask questions about the LDS church in Cuba. It seems that although Cuba is only ninety miles away from Florida, it is still a world apart- but it’s getting closer!