Religious Fundamentalism in Cuba: What Cannot Be “Seen”

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What is religious fundamentalism? What problems are related to fundamentalist conceptions and practices? Is it possible to hold a dialogue with fundamentalism? These questions try to shed light on an issue already conceived by the journal Temas a year ago for its space Último Jueves, which took place this week at the Cultural Center Fresa y Chocolate located near 23 and 12 Streets, usual space for the monthly discussions of the publication.

Perhaps there could not be a better topic of analysis on the 17th anniversary of this space, than to dedicate the 170th session of Último Jueves to the "Rise of religious fundamentalisms" given that the latest incidents are strongly related to the Constitutional Reform Project and warn about the need to analyze the impact of these positions on the Cuban social structure.

Following up on this idea, Rafael Hernández, director of the journal, conducted a panel made up of the Uruguayan sociologist and PhD in Social Sciences Susana Nuin, who is a theologian and specialist in the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and director of the Social School of the Study Center of the Latin American Episcopal Council; the theologian Kirenia Criado, pastor of church (Quakers), coordinator of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center (CMMLK as its initials in Spanish) and specialist in diversity, gender, gender-based violence for the Socio-Theological and Pastoral Training Program of the CMMLK; the researcher of the Department of Socio-Religious Studies of the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research and specialist in Protestant and Evangelical religions, Pedro Álvarez; and Mercedes Armenteros, Santera Mayor of the Yoruba Society of Cuba, member of the Iyalocha Major Council of the Republic of Cuba and member of the board of directors of the Yoruba Association of Cuba, and Director of the Orishas Museum.

According to Nuin, defining fundamentalism is not simple, because it includes a complex sum of psycho-socio-cultural, religious, political and economic ingredients. Normally fundamentalism is linked with religion, but in truth, there are many kinds of fundamentalism and their origins are very diverse, she said.

However, there are particular features that in her opinion make fundamentalism common in its definition. This is explained by the fact that is always an issue about fiefdoms, (), enclaves or psycho-social foundations. "Fundamentalism is as old as humanity, and it clearly has to do with people’s constitution and human communities. It has begun to be studied only recently, in the last few decades, increasingly delving into the notion and the great complexities that it has brought to history,” she said.  

"As a sociologist I can say that it generally emerges in times of chaos and crisis, when the chaos and crisis cannot be read and recognized as complex and favorable elements to development and growth and to the maturation of societies and people," Nuin added

For the theologian Kirenia Criado, one thing is to talk about fundamentalism or fundamentalisms and another to focus on religious fundamentalism. "In this sense, it is vital to understand that fundamentalisms respond to a specific context, whether it be social, historical or temporal, and also have a constant dialectical dynamism. We could say that religious fundamentalism is a set of actions and assumptions that are based on some recurring principles. The first thing is the invariability of tradition, that answers to the need for keeping tradition unchanged; the second has to do with the infallibility of the sacred texts through their literal interpretation; and another important element is full respect for the liturgical ceremony and an anti-modernist orientation, which they seek to extend to the entire society."

The specialist establishes other important elements to understand it, such as the dualistic version of reality and the world, expressed through the dichotomy between good and evil, believers and unbelievers. “Religions have their shadows”, said Criado, “and the critical characteristics of fundamentalism appear herein.”

Pedro Álvarez mentioned that “many times fundamentalism is viewed collectively, institutionally, and we do not realize that it also penetrates the family and the individual, which causes people to often make fundamentalist decisions"

Regarding the causes that originate it, he pointed out that several researchers refer to scientific progress as a principal element, especially in the case of religious fundamentalism. In this case, scientific advance represents somehow a threat to the absolute truth that is defended by these fundamentalist movements. He also referred to the progress of racial, religious and cultural integration policies as catalysts, as are the crises that generate ethical-moral conflicts.

In regard to what happens with religions from Africa, Mercedes Armenteros explained that an open and flexible frame of mind are characteristic of these denominations, so that fundamentalist phenomena tend to manifest themselves less. For a while the doors to everything that came from Africa had been closed, she said, as a defense of the Cuban contribution, but then "it was decided unanimously to open space for the Africanists, for anyone who embraced the Yoruba religion, and the result has been a greater diversity, the unity in diversity.

"We feel great, we are brothers and sisters, we are all together and very happy to help promote Cuba," she added.

What specific problems of culture and society, of religious practices are related to fundamentalism? Is everything derived from fundamentalism negative or is it possible to talk about some positive aspects? Perhaps because they contribute to the evolution and the transformation of religious thought and practices? inquired the panel moderator.

Dr. Nuin said that she personally believed that "every night always brings with it some aurora," therefore this fundamentalist boom also brings with it something positive, which in this case, she said, has to do with the emergence "in humanity, of a feeling for the value of spirituality.” In addition, she noted that there are always alternatives for dialogue and although it is not easy, we must be able to develop them. "Perhaps dialogue is possible with small groups, with sectors, directly with people, rather than with large masses, communities, institutions," she said.

She also called for not throwing away tradition, but seeing it as an element to be integrated. "We realize more and more every time that when we know our family roots, we grow and develop in a different way" she said. “To return to the origins, I believe, is always important in social, religious and cultural revolutions. To go back to the origins not to copy or to reproduce what has been lived, but to understand the beginnings and why this reality was created and what key elements are plausible to accompany us ".

Nevertheless, the Uruguayan sociologist alluded to what she called eight shadows of fundamentalism, which are some of its most negative expressions and with the greatest consequences for society. Among them is the use of religion as a pretext for not assuming the here and now, which does not allow thinking of life as a transformation of sociocultural reality.

Add to this the use of these doctrines with the purpose of domination, as a source of power, which is associated with politics and huge interests that are managed sometimes behind the fundamentalists groups. Also the media, because as we have witnessed in recent Latin American history, it is possible to overthrow governments using the media.

It is different to live with God than from God, mentioned the specialist, making reference to the phenomenon of religions as business. A condition that has marked the history of humanity and that today it is manifested with an improved infrastructure.

But it is the phenomenon of war, without a doubt the darkest face of fundamentalism, because of the levels of violence it generates. "No war is sacred" insisted Susana Nuin, "no religion can afford to become makers of holy wars."

The CIPS researcher alluded to the seductive power of the fundamentalist groups, highlighting their ability to "listen to the one in need, to the community, to know the needs and interests of the communities where they live in order to adapt themselves to those interests, with a pragmatic sense that goes beyond the canons of traditional fundamentalism, thus the rise of the term neo-fundamentalism.

Álvarez mentioned that it is significant as well that promises of prosperity are used as a means of achieving adherence or discipline, with messages such as "now you can achieve it because it is part of your destiny as a Christian." While Mercedes Armenteros exemplified that in the case of Afro-Cuban religions believers assume a problem-solving view . "It is an act of faith, she said, they come to us because they want to solve X problem, believing that they will find a solution, but with ignorance on many occasions".

In this sense Kirenia Criado explained that in Cuba religious fundamentalism is associated with Christianity, especially with the evangelical church, and this is linked to the colonial heritage, which identifies Christianity with Catholicism or historical Protestantism.

At the same time, according to the specialist, it could be said that there is a void of religious culture in our society, "because people believe, but do not know what they believe in, there is a lack of culture to understand religion".

However, there is no innocence in religious fundamentalism, she warned, which does not mean that there are groups that in their essence have something evil, but fundamentalism is negative and it has to be regarded that way. The use that these groups make of emotions such as the fear of change, is an example of this. "In the times of crisis, these groups preach a discourse of certainties, of absolute values ​​and this generates a certain amount of security. What they explore is associated with the fear of losing other things, position, control, power gained at the social and community levels ". But also because they touch sensitive aspects such as family, tradition, being and doing good.
They are forms of manipulation, adds Susana Nuin, and they use them because they have a very broad knowledge of us, as well as the flexibility that not all other religions have …

Facing this, the big question is how to deal with a phenomenon that deliberately seeks to manipulate people, how to dialogue with the believers and not with the power structures?


Fundamentalisms in context

The participants in the Último Jueves debate addressed the relation between religious fundamentalism and cultural and economic levels, as well as its connection with politics. A university professor mentioned an investigation carried out in 2009 on religions in the world, which showed a direct relationship between poverty and an increase in religious practice, a phenomenon that has grown since.

From the audience they also alluded to the interrelations of religious fundamentalism with politics, as has just happened in Brazil where there was a great movement from various religious communities for the election of Jair Bolsonaro. However, this is not an isolated case for an electoral process, they considered. It has been happening for years and has to do with the lack of attention received by these congregations from the Workers' Party, which lost the bond it had with them.

We have to see ourselves In those stories, one of the participants reflected, especially in the light of the rise in Cuba of the cult houses and community temples, which have so much influence in that immediate setting, that is, the neighborhood.

Precisely what has been experienced since the beginning of the referendum on the constitutional reform project, warns us of the relevance of attending to these new manifestations. A member of the audience drew attention to the confrontation generated from the debate on Article 68, in which different sectors of Cuban society have been involved, among them different religious institutions, and which has had expressions at a symbolic, verbal and extra verbal level. It cannot be ignored, he added, that they can become groups of political pressure on the existing political system in Cuba.

An issue that concerns one of the persons who intervened is that fundamentalism tries to minimize achievements in women’s rights and gender issues. But to respond to this, another participant said it is important to differentiate between leaders and members, because the former have clear intentions and mobilize the masses, yet it is with the masses that we have to work with. What these groups move is human spirituality, they manipulate it, but when it comes to working with them we cannot be fundamentalists as well in language and concepts, we have to adapt, thinking of those masses, to make good use of language and symbols, in order to transform them.

The religiousness of Cuban people, the fundamentalism associated with moments of crisis and the capacity for dialog in our society were other aspects addressed in the debate. Regarding this, one participant considered that Cuba is in a good moment, not only of interreligious dialogue, but of the society in general, and that fundamentalisms are an obstacle and a danger at this moment.

An abakuá practitioner said that in the case of religions of African origin, practices through orality represent a different channel of formation. The fact that there are religious families and diverse temples makes them diverse, different, numerous, and yet they accept each other. Although they have different ways of expressing religiousness, there is respect for others.

Nevertheless, this reality is not intrinsic to the neo-fundamentalisms that begin to appear in Cuban society. Mercedes Armenteros mentioned that these tendencies sometimes assume other faces, such as discrimination and contempt towards religions of African origin, which impacts neighborhoods, schools and divides communities.

Pedro Alvarez added that the changes in the Cuban economic model are promoting the empowerment of these groups, because they have a capacity for mimicry. The religious market is an important element to consider, he added, as well as religion as a merchandise, which today is a constant in that Cuban religious market.

The ability of these groups to empower their members, said the CIPS researcher, is something that formal institutions do not achieve, the ability to socialize, the possibility of self-help networks. The well organized and planned internal commercial exchange promoted by their leaders, empower the economy and finances of these groups, which turns the leaders into true managers. In addition, they pursue means of international interaction.

"Fundamentalism is not conservatism," highlighted Kirenia Criado. "Recognizing our conservative positions is grounds for thinking about dialogue. Hate is a way to cover up the fear of encountering others; we must encourage understanding of the cultural and religious plurality that we are ".

The specialist urged us to seriously attend to what happens with biblical and theological formation, because there is where the leaders of these communities are formed. She also pointed out the role played by the breakdown of civic education and social discipline as a motivating factor for the incorporation of people who seek this structured behavior which these groups have achieved.

Regarding the debate on the Constitution, she said that in the case of Article 68, the issue is being placed in the so-called gender ideology, and that the symbolic design of the messages that they sow are terrible for a society such as Cuba’s, which seeks greater horizons for the rights of people and for social justice.

"Dressed up as morality is the element of power," Criado warned. For the first time, the Cuban church is seriously thinking that it can dispute public policies at a social level and that is overwhelming, "because it does not only impact the religious element, but also has to do with society and its values.

"It is a great moment that Cuba lives with the Constitutional debate and it is a great opportunity for dialogue that cannot be lost," said Susana Nuin. “I think we have to distinguish. It is almost always possible to dialogue with the individual, but with institutions and major fundamentalist movements I see it as more difficult, it would be naive to ignore it. There are major global trends from which neither Cuba nor Latin America are exempt. But Cuba has a trump card in the constitutional reform. The antidote par excellence to fundamentalism is dialogue”.


Translated by Andrea Patricia Hernandez

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