Religion runs through Castro’s life

Key dates in the relationship between Catholicism and Cuba's Communist Party.

(Adapted from original MSNBC article by Miguel Llanos.
Additional information by Roberto Solera.

After years of shaping Cuba as an atheist state, Fidel Castro has started to make some room for religion on the island. The question now: Just how much room will he give it? "Are you priests? Confessors? Those are my intimate affairs and I donít accept that you have me make that kind of public confession," he responded to reporters who asked if he believes in God. He refused to say if he believes in God — be it the God of Christianity or that of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria. "Are you priests? Confessors?" Castro replied when foreign reporters asked him that a week before the pope’s visit. "Those are my intimate affairs and I don’t accept that you have me make that kind of public confession.

"I can say one thing," Castro added. "I respect those who believe and those who do not believe. If you say you do not believe, you offend those who believe. If you say you believe, you offend those who do not believe. In a way you make yourself a preacher. I am not a preacher."

So, instead of preaching, he has sent signals — over several years now — that he’s willing to make some room for religion in Cuba.

Looking at how and some possible reasons why offers insights into just how deep Fidel’s faith might reach.


1932-’45: Jesuit schools Castro spent more time with Catholic priests in his youth than most people do in a lifetime. The son of a Spanish peasant turned wealthy landowner, Castro went to religious boarding schools, first with Marist brothers from age 6-9 and then two Jesuit schools until age 18.

Castro is the first to admit he wasn’t a model student, and even boasts of how he pummelled a Marist priest once.

And he has told interviewers that priests were never able to engrain a religious faith in him. Yet he has also praised the Jesuit system for its “spirit of discipline” and for having “formed people of character.

Indeed, it turns out that many of Fidel’s fellow rebels were educated by Jesuits in cities around Cuba. His recollections of those years can be contradictory. He has noted his fascination with the Bible and its parables but also claimed he “lost many years” to “superstitions and lies.”

And while he claims those school years helped him hone his political skills, he never pursued a cause even though the Cuba of those years was a cauldron of instability. His focus, he has told interviewers, was on sports and good grades.


Imagine a college campus where students wore guns because of killings between rival political parties. That was Havana University as lived by Castro, who until then had led the disciplined student life of the Jesuits.

That environment also required one to take political sides. Initially, and ironically, Castro’s first foray was with a Catholic student faction — against the Communists. At that time Castro and Communist leaders had a mutual mistrust. He later maneuvered between parties before settling into a nationalist, anti-U.S. stance.


Castro graduated in 1950, and by 1953 had begun an armed uprising, attacking the Moncada military barracks. It was only then that the church reappeared in Castro’s life. Here’s a quick rundown of events where Castro and religion have mixed since then.

1953: Bishop Enrique Perez Serantes, a Castro family friend, helps spare Fidel and his brother Raul from the death penalty for attacking the Moncada barracks.

1957: Several priests join the rebel army as chaplains.

1959: Victorious Castro marches into Havana wearing a chain around his neck showing Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity. A victorious Fidel Castro is interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press" back in February 1959 (10 minutes) National Catholic Congress gathers tens of thousands in the Plaza of the Revolution; Castro attends. Speakers praise Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista dictatorship but criticize communism, class struggle and atheism.

1960: Pastoral letter by Cuban bishops praises the idea of social reforms but warns against communism.

1961: Three priests are among the Bay of Pigs invaders captured by Cuba. Militia occupy a number of churches and briefly imprison leaders suspected of favoring the invasion. Castro announces that the revolution is socialist, later elaborates that it is Marxist-Leninist. A large march organized by the church is broken up by police. More than 100 priests are expelled; 460 others leave on their own within the first three years of revolution. All private and religious schools are closed, except for seminaries. Catholic Church unveils “Operation Peter Pan,” encouraging parents to send their children abroad for schooling.

1962: Fidel Castro reveals details of the government's education program in a 1962 TV broadcast to the nation. Constitution modified to make Cuba an atheist state, an action that bans religious Cubans from many jobs.

(The following note is added by correspondent Roberto Solera:) The MSNBC version is mistaken. The Constitution was never revised in 1962 to say that Cuba had an atheist government. The 1940 Constitution was reformed and changed into Ley Fundamental in 1959 (they just amended some articles). We had to wait till 1976 for the Constitution to be reformed. In that one that affirmation was made.

Another thing "school were not closed," they were "nationalized" in the sense of making them public and kept, in general, like schools run by the government. Some were transformed into Technical Schools or into Techical Institutes (examples of the former, Maristas in Rancho Boyeros Highway and of the latter Colegio Belen, first made "Hnos Gomez" Institute and later on made a military school for cadres. Also Candler College and Buenavista --all male the first, all female the latter, Protestant institutions) made Amistad Cubano-Sovietica Technical School.

1968: Conference of Latin American bishops endorses a form of liberation theology, which endorses liberating man from unjust conditions.

1969: Cuba’s bishops condemn the U.S. embargo.

1971: Meeting with religious figures in Chile, Castro describes similarities between Christians and revolutionaries.

1979: Pope John Paul II denounces U.S. embargo on Cuba; declines Castro invitation to visit Cuba on his way back to Vatican from Mexico. Cuba TV shows Castro attending a Methodist service with the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Catholic leaders attend, later arrange for U.S. bishops to start visits. TV coverage leads some religious Cubans to feel more comfortable showing their faith.

1985: Castro describes religion’s impact on his life in a booklength interview with Brazilian priest Frei Betto, a liberation theologian. He insists he has nothing against the religious, just the use of religious institutions to foment political unrest. Declares that fellow rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara probably would have been “made a saint” if he had been a Catholic since he had “all the virtues.”

1985: Castro mingles with Catholic bishops from abroad at the home of the Vatican envoy to Cuba.

1986: Cuban Church holds its first national meeting since the 1959 revolution.

1988: Bishop Ted McCarrick of Newark and five other clergymen meet Castro in a Havana government office; McCarrick leads prayer.

1991: Communist Party drops ban on membership by Christians.

1992: Constitution amended to make Cuba secular rather than atheist.

1993: Cuban bishops attacked by state media after they express concerns about economy and call for more open political system.

1994: Cuba expels several U.S.-based religious charities as they gain popularity.

1995: Communist Party document makes Catholic Church a “social justice partner.”

1996:Cuban President Fidel Castro shakes hands with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican during their first-ever meeting, Nov. 19, 1996, calling the event “a miracle” and inviting the pope to Cuba.

1997: In November, Castro asks Protestant leaders to pray for Cuba’s economic recovery. Christmas celebrated as an official holiday for first time in nearly three decades, in honor of the pope’s visit.

1998:  The Pope visits Cuba.