Fidel Castro, dead at age 90, was one of the last communist tyrants, murdering thousands as he imprisoned and impoverished a whole nation with Marxist police state dogma. Tragically, U.S. church groups and officials often praised Castro’s regime for its supposed uplift of the poor while ignoring the suffering of its victims.
Not long after its 1981 founding, to challenge church groups that abetted dictatorships, the Institute on Religion and Democracy gave its 1983 Religious Freedom Award to Cuban political prisoner Armando Villadares, who had just escaped from 22 years of horrors in Castro’s prisons. His acceptance speech cited these church abetters of Cuba’s dictator:
The honor which you bestow upon me today will have special significance for Cuba’s political prisoners….During those years, with the purpose of forcing us to abandon our religious beliefs and demoralize us, the Cuban communist indoctrinators repeatedly used the statements of support for Castro’s revolution made by some representatives of American Christian churches. Every time that a pamphlet was published in the United States, every time a clergyman would write an article in support of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, a translation would reach us and that was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger. While we waited for the solidarity embrace from our brothers in Christ, incomprehensively to us, those who were embraced were our tormentors…. the Christians in Cuba’s prisons suffer not only the pain of torture and isolation but also the conviction that they have been deserted by their brothers in faith.
Seven years later, I quoted this speech as I spoke to the United Methodist Virginia Annual Conference, pleading for a resolution that renounced United Methodist and ecumenical agencies supportive of Castro and other oppressors. One example of many across decades came from United Methodist Bishop James Armstrong, who as president of the National Council of Churches led a fawning delegation to Cuba in 1977. He explained their indifference to Castro’s prisoners:
There is significant difference between a situation where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to perpetuate inequalities (as in Chile and Brazil, for example) and situations where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to remove inequities (as in Cuba).
In others words, rightist dictatorships were condemned, but communist ones got a pass. My resolution to Virginia United Methodism citing this hypocrisy failed, which made me all the more determined to reform the scandalous political witness of my denomination and other Mainline Protestant bodies. Even a quarter century later, it’s unclear how many lessons if any have been learned by Castro’s longtime religious apologists.
Those apologists for oppression will be lamented or forgotten. Remembered and honored will be the saints, martyrs and heroes who resisted Castro’s cruelty, even in filthy prisons, while the firing squads could be heard. Villadares in his memoir admiringly recalled one saintly inmate who ministered to his fellow prisoners:
Every afternoon at dusk the thundering voice of the Brother of the Faith, as we called Gerardo, the Protestant preacher, echoed through those passages, calling out to the prayer meeting. They tried to keep us from our religious practices, to interrupt, silence the prayers, and that cost us extra quotas of blows. The first time this happened the guards unleashed a beating in the midst of the prayer meeting, cell by cell, but as soon as they left the beaten men continued singing, and the other prisoners followed their lead. The guards moved back and forth and handed out blows in what seemed to be a different dimension from the one in which we were praying and singing hymns to God. In the cell in front of mine, I watched guards kicking two prisoners lying on the floor. Those prisoners also began to sing and pray as soon as the guards had left. Now those men over there, who had been singing before, were being beaten. And so the surreal scene went on. Above the shouting and tumult, the voice of the Brother of the Faith was singing “Glory, glory Hallelujah!”
We should not speculate where Castro now dwells, having stood before his Maker, accountable for countless blood soaked crimes. But that imprisoned preacher of decades ago, whether still in this world or the next, doubtless still sings glory, glory to his Savior.