Religion, Culture and Society in Cuba
The Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin American Program hosted a series of six panels over a day and a half that focused on religion, culture and society in Cuba and their relationship to the formation of identity both in Cuba and across international borders. The seminar included scholars and practitioners from the United States, Latin America and Europe.
The first panel framed the discussion by presenting theoretical and methodological frameworks for the analysis of the interplay of religion, culture and society. Daniel Levine outlined four major approaches to analyzing the roles religions play in diverse societies: institutional, gramscian, phenomenological, and rational choice. Ariel Armony combining the last two argued for an expanded definition of civil society to include informal networks and ties to group membership. Using this expanded concept, Armony discussed the transformations Cuba experienced in the 1990s due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the introduction of moderate reforms, focusing on the reorganization of consent, the antinomy of unified versus pluralistic civil society, and the fragmentation of civil society and the weakening of the rule of law. He concluded that democratization in Cuba would have to be closely tied to the creation of a pluralistic civil society. Frances Hagopian commented that further examination of the case of Cuba might help us better understand the diversity of roles played by religions in complex societies.
The second panel focused on historical analyses of the interaction of religion, culture and society. Margaret E. Crahan traced Cuban diasporas from the sixteenth century to the present and examined their impact on the formation of diverse religions in Cuba and the link between these religions and Cuban national identity. Alfonso Quiroz analyzed the strength of Cuban civil society from a legal standpoint by reviewing the evolution of laws regulating associations in Cuba from the nineteenth century to the present. Quiroz concluded that relaxing of the current legal framework to allow for the creation of independent organizations would result in a society more capable of responding to generalized societal problems in contemporary Cuba. Karen Leimdorfer suggested that religions' historic international links and their associations with foreign agendas had resulted in religions frequently being regarded as not supportive of Cuban national interests. Arturo Lopez Levy pointed out that religious activity in Cuba has increased significantly in the past decade. He added that religious institutions were particularly attractive to younger people who sought spaces where they could pursue their own interests and discuss personal and societal problems.
The third panel discussed the role of the Catholic Church in Cuban society and the Church's relationship with the State. Cristina Hip-Flores argued that the Catholic Church is not an umbrella for dissident movements, but rather an umbrella for nascent civil society. In her view the Catholic Church has chosen to remain apolitical while providing some social services that the Cuban government has been unable to provide. She added that a major challenge has been the struggle for physical space needed to increase the Church's activities on the island. David Roncolato agreed that by examining Catholic social thought, it is evident that the Church clearly feels that it should remain apolitical and uphold the principle of subsidiarity, whereby it serves as an intermediary provider of spiritual and other services. Thomas Quigley noted that the Church's international links have increased in the past two decades and these ties have strengthened the Catholic Church in Cuba and helped it expand its activities. Brian Goonan outlined the work of Caritas-Cuba, which supports 60-70 projects largely through volunteers.
Session four highlighted the importance of religion and race in the formation of cultural identity and the link between Spiritist practices on the island and elsewhere. John Burdick described popular devotion to the Brazilian slave Anastasia and analyzed the black movement's rejection of her as being part of black identity, in order to suggest the various manners in which popular religiosity and race intersect. Marta Moreno Vega examined the transformation of Afro-Cuban spiritism in Cuba and the globalization of these traditions. She noted that Afro-religious beliefs and rituals were historically kept underground and were used as resistance mechanisms but, nevertheless, have had major impact on Cuban culture and identity. In addition, many people who practice Afro-Cuban religious rituals identify with other religions mainly Catholicism. The presence of these spiritist religions has increased dramatically in recent years both in Cuba and abroad. Because the cost of initiation into Santeria is much cheaper in Cuba than it is in other places, many people travel to Cuba to go through the initiation process. She added that there has been a long history of ties between people who practice spiritism in Cuba and those who practice it in New York and elsewhere.
The fifth panel reviewed transnational religious ties and their impact on identity, as well as religion and the construction of the Cuban American. Sarah Mahler described her research on religious ties between Miami and Cuba. She noted that while religious officials in Cuba may maintain an apolitical stance, those abroad sometimes use religion to express their political opinions ranging from antipathy towards the Castro or US governments to support for rapprochement and reconciliation between Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Silvia Pedraza examined the role of the Catholic Church in the Cuban exodus since 1959 and the impact of it on the work of the Church on the island. Pedraza stressed that it is important to differentiate between the official posture of the Catholic Church and the opinions of different leaders and members. Yolanda Prieto described the impact of four waves of out migration on the Catholic Church in Cuba and the inter-group dynamics among these four groups in the United States, specifically in Union City, NJ. Mauricio Font commented that he would like to see more evidence of the impact of religion on politics. He added that the Catholic Church is in a unique position to build civil society in Cuba.
The last panel commented on the main ideas and themes of the previous five panels. Philip Brenner pondered the concept of Cuban identity and the development of transnational identities in the context of globalization, specifically the growth of global civic culture. Brenner predicted the concept of identity will have important implications for Cuba in the future. Hugo Frühling compared the role of civil society in the democratic transition in Chile with his observations of the state of civil society in Cuba. He remarked that there do not seem to be many incentives for the Cuban state to allow more space for civil society. William LeoGrande noted that the panelists seemed to indicate that there was an increasing degree of space for civil society in Cuba. LeoGrande argued that the growth of civil society creates the conditions for the emergence of a political transition, but warned that this would depend equally on the dynamic within the regime and its interactions with civil society. Christopher Welna reiterated that religion plays an important role in strengthening civil society and in articulating a national vision. He said he would not expect to see an opening from the top-down, but would be inclined to see changes within organizations that are pushing for greater autonomy.