Havana's Capitolio building, modelled on the one in Washington and now under renovation

Havana’s Capitolio building, modelled on the one in Washington and now under renovation

We shouldn’t be surprised by all the news lately from and about Cuba. A few days ago, for example, Cuban President Raúl Castro met at the Vatican with Pope Francis. The pope will visit Cuba in September. French President François Hollande was in Havana on Monday.

What we are seeing now is the fruit of work carried out over many decades. Churches in Cuba, the United States and Canada—together with the World Council of Churches, the Council of Latin American Churches (CLAI) and the Caribbean Conference of Churches—have worked to overcome U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba. Now Cuban and U.S. leaders are talking with each other. (And President Castro is talking about returning to the Christian faith.)

The seeds of change were planted long ago:

  • religious participation in the Havana Cultural Congress in 1968
  • emergence of theologies of liberation after the 1960s
  • the Christians for Socialism work in Chile in the early 1970s
  • visits to Cuba in the 1980s by Brazil’s Frei Betto that resulted in a book, Fidel and Religion
  • patient work by Christians in Cuba to overcome the revolutionary government’s early distrust of organized religion, resulting in the Communist Party’s decision in 1991 to drop its requirement that party members be atheists; this in turn was understood as encouragement to tens of thousands of Cuban Christians to attend worship and join churches.
  • Rev. Ofelia Ortega and former President Fidel Castro

    Rev. Ofelia Ortega and former President Fidel Castro

    election of a series of church leaders to the National Assembly of People’s Power (Cuba’s Parliament)

There have been other high points: the collaboration among churches and governments that brought Elian González home to Cuba in 2000; visits by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012, and soon, Pope Francis; the 2004 visit to Havana by Bartholomew, the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople.

The United Church of Canada began developing partner relationships in Cuba in the mid-1970s. Initial contact was with the Cuban Council of Churches (at that time known as the Cuban Ecumenical Council), along with the Presbyterian-Reformed and Methodist Churches. Over time, partner relationships were developed with the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre, the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, and with the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Cardenas.

In the 1990s, the United Church worked with several Canadian and Cuban non-governmental organizations through the Canada-Cuba Inter-agency Project (together with the Primate’s Fund of the Anglican Church, Oxfam Canada, Alternatives, the Martin Luther King Centre, among others.). As a result, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) began co-financing NGO projects in Cuba.

In all instances, work has developed in response to specific initiatives of partners in Cuba. Currently, partners tend to emphasize their involvement as churches and civil society organizations in a range of activities—development projects, social assistance, education, etc.—always in a transparent way.

cuba us changeAnd so, when Washington and Havana went public in December with their new rapprochement, churches joined with others in expressing their joy.

Here are links to several church statements (available in English)

And here are two items about the long advocacy effort in the United States, backed by churches, for normalization:

 

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