Where is the Theology of Liberation in Revolutionary Cuba?

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Fri Dec 29 08:46:41 MST 2000

Where is the Theology of Liberation in Revolutionary Cuba?

Stefanie A. Swenko
Department of Religious Studies
Center for Latin American Studies
University of Pittsburgh


The Theology of Liberation is a doctrine that was quite popular among
the countries of Latin America in the late 1960s and throughout the
1980s.  As it was born out of the combination of Christian teachings
and Marxism, it would seem probable to encounter such a doctrine in a
country that embraced socialism, such as Cuba.  However, as we shall
see, Cuba is the one country in which surprisingly there is no
Liberation Theology to speak of.  How can this be?  If Cuba had been
like the other Latin American countries, it would have developed the
Theology of Liberation, as we are familiar with it.  This paper will
address this seemingly absurd circumstance.

At the outset, one must make note of the fact that Cuba is intensely
different from every other Latin American country.  In fact, "it
appears that both the country and its church are an anomaly in modern
times," according to Kirk.1  It is exactly this profound difference
that explains so well the absence of Liberation Theology from Cuban
thinking.  As García says, "other conditions, different from those in
the rest of Latin America, are the specific historical conditions in
Cuba.  Different conditions of life obviously are reflected in a
different theology and spirituality."2  One of these doctrines of
theology/spirituality is Theology of Liberation.

The Cuban Revolution in general has inspired revolutionary thinking
across the rest of Latin America.  It is this revolutionary thought
process that furthermore has "influenced the rise of the Theology of
Liberation and interest in Marxism."3  In fact, most authors accept
the argument that Liberation Theology is based on the ideals of the
Cuban Revolution.4  Alistair Kee even goes so far as to say that
Theology of Liberation has two main roots, one of which is the Cuban
Revolution, the other being the Second Vatican Council.5  As this may
be the case (an argument that would be difficult to demonstrate), for
reasons that have yet to be presented Liberation Theology never fully
developed in Cuba.  Kirk is so bold as to say that "it [Cuba] was
scarcely affected by the liberation theology that spread like
wildfire in the 1970s (preferring instead to pursue a theology of
reconciliation.)"6  In order to understand why this is so, we must
try to reconstruct the process.

Christian-Marxist Unity

The Cuban Revolutionaries came to power in 1959, and ushered in the
beginning of socialism for the island country.  However, as Marx had
attacked religion, many Christians (the vast majority of which were
Catholic) feared that their religious beliefs would be somehow
compromised by the ideals of the Revolution.  Nevertheless, in May
1961, the media's message to the Catholics was "you don't betray your
Catholic conscience if you collaborate with socialism."7  As this
concept was rather incoherent on the surface, out of necessity it had
to be defended.  Many articles appeared, talking of the progressive
church in other countries, and interviews with priests who supported
the Christian-Marxist dialogue were published in numbers.8  Upon
reading accounts of the priests' usage of Marxist ideas, Catholics
(the few that remained in Cuba) began to believe that perhaps this
"Christian- Marxist dialogue" was possible.

By 1961-1969, there were Catholics in Cuba "who appreciated the
enormous work of the Revolution and its possibilities for the future.
Having analyzed the errors made by the church, and the attitude of
the government and the Communist Party, they integrated themselves
fully into the revolutionary task of building socialism."9  In fact,
not only did individual Catholics participate in the tasks of the
Revolution, but the Church in general could be said to have agreed.
In 1969 Arce delivered a paper at the Seminario Evangélico de
Teología in Matanzas in which he said,

There is a fundamental demand which a revolutionary environment
imposes on 'its church.'  This demand concerns its reasons for being.
Theology has to clarify for the church the question of the 'why' of
the Revolution from a theological point of view.  That is, what is
the church within the divine economy of the Revolution?  And what
does the Revolution mean in God's economy?10

Furthermore, the Church released an official document on 8 September
1969 in which they addressed the philosophical conflict between the
atheistic teachings of Marxism and the theistic belief of Christians.
The document said "We must approach the atheist with all the respect
and family-spirited charity that one deserves simply by being a human
being."11  In addition, the document urged Catholics to look beyond
issues of belief/ non-belief, and to work together for the common
good.  Even though the Cuban Church was radically different from the
other Latin American Churches, the general trends established in the
Second Vatican Council and the 1968 CELAM meeting in Medellín slowly,
although weakly, began to manifest in Cuba.

Many books were published from 1970-1979 to make "believers feel that
they were participating more fully as revolutionaries and builders of
the new society" and also for the party members themselves, "to
orient the form of relating to believers without offending them, so
that they might assimilate more of the Revolution."12  In general,
this period is referred to as the "re-encounter" and the church
itself is called "the New Church."13  Obviously, the names reflect
the degree of optimism felt by historians of the Church in Cuba.

Another stimulator of the dialogue, which surprises many people, is
Fidel himself, for he encouraged the Catholics to "radicalize their
faith,"14 and challenged them to meet the goals of the Revolution.
In 1971 Fidel spoke of the Christian-Marxist Unity, and said,

When people examine the similarities between the objectives of
Marxism and the most beautiful precepts of Christianity, they will
see how many points of agreement there are, and will understand why a
humble priest has experienced hunger -- because he sees it in his
flock -- sickness and death, a man who has experience with human
suffering; or like some of those priests who work in mined or with
humble peasant families, and can identify with their situation, and
struggle next to them; or selfless individuals who sacrifice their
life to tend the sick, suffering the worst diseases....When people
look for similarities, they will see that the strategic alliance
between revolutionary Marxists and revolutionary Christians is indeed
a real possibility.15

He has also said, in his interview with Frei Betto,

I've seen the influence which John XXIII's thinking has had on the
evolution of the Catholic Church as the emergence of this movement.
I think that the influence was mutual, reciprocal: the poor
influenced and invaded the Church, and the Church, in turn, as a
reflection or as an echo of that suffering, also reached the poor.  I
can assure you that never before has the Church had such as much
influence and prestige in this hemisphere as it has had since many
priests and bishops began to identify themselves with the poor.16

In the same year that Fidel talked with Frei Betto, the government
created the Office for Religious Affairs.  Felipe José Carneado, the
head of the new Office, has also promoted the Christian-Marxist
Dialogue.  He says that "we need the church to speak out. We need the
criticism of the churches.  That helps us to do better work"17

Lack of Liberation Theology

Despite the formation of the Christian-Marxist Unity, the countless
statements made on behalf of the Church, and others on behalf of the
Government, in mutual support of one another, the development of
Theology of Liberation never takes place.  The precursors
unquestionably are there, but as Kee rightly says, "The theory which
immediately precedes liberation theology is not an example of
liberation theology."18

What happened in Cuba that impeded this process?  Did the Church not
embody this revolutionary spirit?19  Several reasons can be suggested.

One obstacle was the US blockade.  As García explains, "the trade
embargo against Cuba was an inconvenience since, of course, most of
the religious literature received from abroad was anti-Communist, and
for many years Cuba received relatively little news of the
theological renewal which was then growing in the rest of the world,
particularly of the Theology of Liberation in Latin America.  This
tended to retard the rise of new currents."20  Although García may
have reason to say this, it however cannot be denied that the Cuban
clergy had enough access to outside thoughts, for they had come so
far already in the development of what appears to be the beginning of
Theology of Liberation.

The primary reason that we do not see the expansion of Liberation
Theology is actually a rather simple explanation.  Liberation
Theology was only discussed as a phenomenon that occurred outside of
Cuba.21  Furthermore, "CELAM's influence was not helpful to the
Church in Cuba."22  Why?  Because Liberation Theology was not needed
in Cuba.

Liberation Theology is exactly what its name implies, a theological
strategy for liberating people from oppression, which, in the case of
Latin America, is economic oppression.  However, these drastic
displays of economic oppression only occur when a society has
enormous gaps between the rich and the poor, a phenomenon which one
usually associates with capitalist countries.  Thus, Cuba, as a
socialist nation, does not have these problems.  As John Kirk phrases
it, "in Cuba -- unlike in other parts of the mainland -- the church
has not needed to be the voice of the voiceless."23

Moreover, one may say that Cuba was already in a "post-liberation
theology" stage. Gómez says that, "Many of them [Cubans] found their
Christian ideals realized in what the revolution was doing."24  The
point is more strongly put by Vivero, when he writes, "En un sentido
muy propio, una auténtica Teología de la Liberación, en Cuba y para
Cuba, sería una 'revolución' y oficialmente, con una, ya en acto,
basta."25  Thus, since the Revolution has already accomplished (or is
well on its way to accomplishing) the goals of Liberation Theology,
it would have no purpose.  Furthermore, the Cuban Theologians are
coming from a liberated perspective, whereas the rest of Latin
America must approach the theory as they are being oppressed.26  It
is no wonder, then, that the Theology of Liberation was never the
center of discussion in the Cuban seminaries, as it was for many
other Latin American countries.

The only function that the Liberation Theologians could perform would
be the one posed by Felipe José Carneado, head of the Office for
Religious Affairs, that was mentioned previously.  He said that the
Church serves to criticize the government, so as to improve it.27  It
is unlikely, however, that any government would welcome criticism
from the Church.  In fact, Larrea has proposed that Cuba's socialist
government "has not permitted Theology of Liberation to come to any
conclusions about it [socialism] because of the complex relations
between the Cuban Church and the constituted power."28  Exactly what
these "complex relations" are Larrea does not tell us.  However,
anyone who researches into the history of the Cuban Catholic Church
finds many skeletons in the closet of the Government, skeletons which
even Fidel sometimes feels he must mention.29


Thus, we reach a very simple conclusion in the end.  Although one may
say that Liberation Theology was inspired by the Cuban Revolution, it
is perhaps more correct to say that the Revolution was the
"grandfather" of the Theology, as Cuba's need for liberation had
already passed when Liberation Theology was being formulated.  There
was no oppression left in Cuba for one to be liberated from,
according to the Revolutionary Government.  Therefore, the theory was
not relevant, and for that reason, not discussed with vigor.


1.Kirk, "(Still) Waiting for John Paul II" p. 147.
2.García, Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 87.
3.García, Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 48.
4.To name some examples, see the following: Arce, "Is a Theology of
the Revolution Possible?" p. 133; Kee, Marx and the Failure of
Liberation Theology, p. 131; García, Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 48;
Berryman, Teología de la liberación, p. 184; Vivero, "Teología de la
liberación en Cuba..." p. 29.
5.Kee, Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology, p. 131, 135.
6.Kirk, "(Still) Waiting for John Paul II" p. 147.
7.Kirk, Between God and the Party, p. 104.
8.Kirk, Between God and the Party, p. 104-5.
9.García, Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 49.
10.Arce, "Is a Theology of the Revolution Possible?" p. 196.
11.Gómez, The Church and Socialism in Cuba, p. 70.
12.García, Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 59.
13.Gómez, The Church and Socialism in Cuba and Kirk, Between God and
the Party.  These names have become almost standard usage now,
although a few authors give slight variations on the dates, and
others try to coin a new name for the phase.
14.Kirk, Between God and the Party, p. 105.
15.Fidel Castro, as cited in Kirk, Between God and the Party, p. 133.
16.Castro, Fidel and Religion, p. 247-8.  John XXIII was the pope who
called the meeting of the Second Vatican Council, and thus breaking
the Church's tradition of detachment.
17.Rendon, "Fidel y la Religión Signals New Era in Cuba," p. 509.
18.Kee, Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology, p. 156.
19.Daniel Levine ("On Premature Reports of the Death of Liberation
Theology," p. 119) reports that Phillip Berryman's Stubborn Hope
details different styles of Catholicism, one of which is
revolutionary, our main concern, the others being popular and
charismatic.  I would add to those the orthodox style, to make a
total of four, even though the orthodox version is at all times
deeply interacting with the other three.
20.García, Christian-Marxist Unity, p. 79.
21.Vivero, "Teología de la liberación en Cuba..." p. 30.
22.Gómez, The Church and Socialism in Cuba, p. 27.
23.Kirk, "(Still) Waiting for John Paul II" p. 148.
24.Gómez, The Church and Socialism in Cuba, p. 29.
25.Vivero, "Teología de la liberación en Cuba..." p. 30.
26.Arce, "Teología cubana" p. 75.
27.Rendon, "Fidel y la Religión Signals New Era in Cuba," p. 509.
28.Larrea, "The Challenges of Liberation Theology to Neoliberal
Policies," p. 42.
29.For example, see Fidel and Religion, or his speeches given in
Chile and Jamaica.


Arce Martínez, Sergio. The Church and Socialism: Reflections from a
Cuban Context. CIRCUS Publications, Inc., New York, 1985.

______. "La teología como desafío" and "Teología cubana: teología en
revolución" in MENSAJE -- Reflexión y Diálogo. No. 1. La Habana
(Cuba), 1980.

______. "Is a Theology of the Revolution Possible?" and "The Mission
of the Church in a Socialist Society" in Religion in Cuba Today: A
New Church in a New Society, edited by Alice L. Hageman and Philip E.
Wheaton. Association Press, New York, 1971.

______ and Oden Marichal Rodríguez (eds.) Evangelization and
Politics: Addresses and related papers from an International Meeting
of Theologians held at the Evangelical Seminary of Theology,
Matanzas, Cuba, February 25- March 2, 1979. CIRCUS Publications,
Inc., New York, 1982.

Berryman, Phillip. Teología de la liberación: los hechos esenciales
en torno al movimiento revolucionario en América Latina y otros
lugares. Siglo Ventiuno Editores, México, D.F., 1989.

Castro, Fidel. Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and
Religion with Frei Betto. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987.

García Franco, Raimundo. Christian-Marxist Unity: A Miraculous,
Explosive Prescription (Reflections from Cuba). CIRCUS Publications,
Inc., New York, 1989.

Gómez Treto, Raúl. "Cristianismo y revolución en Cuba" in Resistencia
y esperanza: historia del pueblo cristiano en América Latina y el
Caribe, comp. por Enrique Dussel. Editorial Departamento Ecuménico de
Investigaciones, San José (Costa Rica), 1995.

______. The Church and Socialism in Cuba. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 1988.

______. La iglesia católica durante la construcción del socialismo en
Cuba. Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones, San José (Costa
Rica), 1987.

Kee, Alistair. Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology. Trinity
Press International, Philadelphia, 1990.

Kirk, John M. "(Still) Waiting for John Paul II: The Church in Cuba"
in Conflict and Competition: The Latin American Church in a Changing
Environment, edited by Edward L. Cleary and Hannah Stewart-Gambino.
Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 1992.

______. Between God and the Party: Religion and Politics in
Revolutionary Cuba. University of South Florida Press, Tampa, 1989.

Larrea Gayarre, José. "The Challenges of Liberation Theology to
Neoliberal Economic Policies" in Social Justice, vol. 21 no. 4,
Winter 1994: 34.

Levine, Daniel H. "On Premature Reports of the Death of Liberation
Theology" in The Review of Politics, vol. 57 no. 1, Winter 1995: 105.

"Liberation Theology in a Post-Marxist World" in The Christian
Century, vol. 111 no. 20, 29 June 1994: 637.

Novak, Michael. Will it Liberate? Questions About Liberation
Theology. Madison Books, New York, 1991.

Rendon, Thomas. "Fidel y la Religión Signals New Era in Cuba" in The
Christian Century, 21-28 May 1986: 508.

Villegas, Abelardo. "América Latina, revolución y lucha de clases: un
ensayo categorial" in Nuestra América, año 4 no 11, mayo/agosto 1984.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: 109.

Vivero, Nazario. "Teología de la liberación en Cuba y relaciones de
la iglesia católica cubana con las jeraquías eclesiales
latinoamericanas y con el Vaticano." unpublished manuscript from the
Benson Library (Latin American Collection) University of Texas at


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