Granma, Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, and the Cuban News Agency have reported that Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the First Vice President of the Cuban Councils of State and Ministers and a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee (Political Bureau), recently met with Cuban evangelical and protestant leaders from the Cuban Council of Churches.  The meeting’s purpose was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first meeting between Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro and leaders of the Council and to discuss current challenges facing the organization.
After the first meeting in 1984, considered to be milestone in relations between the church and State, a practice developed of holding periodic meetings between all religions and the leadership of the country to promote work and dialogue.
The Recent Meeting
Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, the President of the Cuban Council of Churches and a pastor of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba, highlighted the importance of sustaining the churches’ relations with the government and of the role the Council has played, at crucial moments, for the Revolution, such as the Council’s “staunch opposition to the U.S. blockade against the Cuban economy, fighting for the return of Elián [Gonzalez to Cuba from the U.S.] and the release of our five anti-terrorist brothers from the unjust incarceration they have been subjected to in the U.S.”
Rev. Raúl Suárez, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, recalled Fidel’s comments at the first of these meetings in 1984 about the need for mutual understanding between Cuban religious organizations and State institutions and Cuban society.
Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal, Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, stated that “protestant churches have been a means of cultural penetration in Cuban society” and given this reality he urged for “a greater strengthening of the ethical and behavioral work of the faith toward the community of believers and society, based on human and patriotic values.”
Marichal emphasized greater participation of the inter-faith movement and churches in the search for solutions to problems facing Cuban society, such as an aging population. He stated, “We must revive Fidel’s idea of a strategic alliance between revolutionary Christians and Marxists, for which permanent dialogue is necessary.”
Díaz-Canel, the government Minister, commented on the importance of transmitting this historic occasion to the current generation in order to strengthen dialogue and unity among Cubans. He described the meeting as an encounter of faith, friendship and memories. He said, “It is touching to remember all those moments – lack of understanding at times which was later overcome through respectful dialogue.”
He also expressed the desire to address concerns about Cuba’s social and economic order, as well as challenges being faced in the struggle to strengthen and promote social values “in order to prevent the establishment of a base of neocolonial and neoliberal capitalist reconstruction. This is the struggle we must assume, strip away all the pseudo culture, all the banality and selfishness and individualism,” he concluded.
The First Meeting in 1984
In 2007 I heard directly from Rev. Raúl Suárez about the circumstances surrounding the first meeting between Cuba’s Revolutionary government and the Cuban churches. This happened when I was with a group of Westminster Presbyterian Church members from Minneapolis that visited Havana’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, which is affiliated with the adjacent Baptist Church, where Rev. Suárez was the pastor.
Suárez told us that in 1984 he learned that Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President that year, was coming to Cuba. Jackson said that Fidel Castro had invited him to discuss the status of 22 U.S. citizens then being held by the Cuban Government. Jackson said that he also wanted an invitation from a Cuban church so that he could participate in a religious service in Cuba. Jackson asked Suárez, then Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Director of International Relations of the Cuban Baptist Church, if that would be possible. Jackson also gave Suárez a letter to provide to Castro on this issue.
Suárez then contacted Fidel, who responded that it would not be a problem even though atheism was the established “religion” in the Cuban constitution at the time.
Jackson made his trip to Cuba in June 1984 and gave a speech to 4,000 students at the University of Havana with Castro in attendance. Afterwards the two of them and their aides walked a few blocks to the nearby Methodist Church where Jackson would be preaching. As they neared the church, Suárez heard a Castro aide say to Fidel, “Take off your hat, you are close to a church.” Fidel took off his hat. Suárez was surprised by this comment and Fidel’s response. Suárez told Fidel that the people in the Plaza de Revolution (supporters of the Revolution) and the people in the church were one and welcomed Fidel to the church. Fidel said, do not ask me to preach.
There were 700 to 800 people in the church that day, including 35 church leaders and the Roman Catholic Archbishop (in 2007, a Cardinal). When Castro entered the church, the choir extemporaneously cried, “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.” Castro did make a short speech from the pulpit with a cross behind him. (Another Cuban pastor who was present told me that Castro obviously felt uncomfortable with the Bible on the lectern and awkwardly put his hands behind his back.) Castro praised Dr. King and Jackson and said there was a need for more exchanges between the churches and the government.
Later that same day Suárez was invited to a dinner with Fidel and Jackson. This was the first time he had ever shaken Fidel’s hand, and Fidel asked him to come to the airport the next day to say goodbye to Jackson.
Soon thereafter Suárez asked for a meeting of religious leaders with Fidel and submitted to Fidel a document of concern about the official policy of atheism’s limiting the space for religion.
This resulted in a four-hour meeting between Fidel and about 14 Protestant leaders and the College of the Roman Catholic Bishops. Fidel expressed surprise at the Protestants, saying that when he was a boy in Jesuit schools, Roman Catholics disparaged Protestants. At the end of the meeting Castro made a covenant with these leaders: the churches will made an effort to understand “us” while Fidel and the Cuban Communist Party will make an effort to understand the churches. This agreement, said Fidel, should be easier for the churches than for the Party.
 The Council was founded in 1941 as “a fellowship of churches, ecumenical groups, and other ecumenical organizations which confess Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to respond to their common calling, to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It gives “unity to the Christian Churches of Cuba” to facilitate cooperation with other churches around the world. Its purposes include encouraging “dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. [The Council] also promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.” Its membership now includes 22 churches, 12 ecumenical groups and centers, 3 observers and 7 fraternal associates.