By Dan Wooding
Former Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, who led a rebel army to an improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 US presidents during his rule, died November 25 in Havana at 90.
On my first visit trip to Cuba in 1982, I was still living in England, and had joined a team of Bible smugglers in Miami to take in Bibles to the country, via Havana’s José Martí International Airport.
After some serious prayer on the flight, we were not discovered. When we later delivered our many Bibles to a church in the capital, we walked into its lobby and a little old man came running towards me, pointed a finger at my face, and said, “You’re the one!”
When I asked him what he meant, he replied, “Last night I had a dream and, in it, I saw all of you, but I especially saw you and the Lord told me that you would pray for me and bring me some encouragement.”
I put my arm around his shoulder and began to pray for him, and the whole time he sobbed. So, at the end of my prayer, I asked him why he was so upset.
He wiped away his tears, and told me, “I am not upset. These are tears of joy. You are the first person in my lifetime to come from England to bring Bibles to us. Thank you for caring.”
During our time in Cuba, we noticed that Castro had established in every neighborhood, a house with the sign, “CDR,” on it, which meant “the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.” Each home was part of Fidel’s “Revolutionary Collective Surveillance,” containing neighborhood spies who created social violence and hatred.
At every church service a “CDR” spy would sit on the front row with a notebook in his hand and jot down what the pastor had said, just in case he criticized the communist government.
Paranoia was everywhere at that time, and during a conversation with a group of Cuban pastors, who had all spent time in prison, they described in graphic terms how they were tortured during their imprisonment.
Then, one of them decided to tell a well-known joke in the country. “There was a cat in a room, and then the authorities opened the door and threw in a rat,” he began. “Then, after a while, they opened the door and saw that the rat was dead and the cat had a huge smile on his face.” He paused and then added, “So they question is: Who killed the rat?” Before I could answer, he laughed and said, “The CIA. They think the CIA is responsible for everything in this country.”
On my final visit to Cuba, this time with my wife Norma, we visited many Cuban churches, mainly because we had set up through ASSIST, a Sister Church program, whereby we linked Cuban congregations with churches in the United States.
It was a moving time for us, as we marveled at the courage of these believers, and later, several US churches sent delegations over to Cuba to visit and encourage their sister church.
After my third trip to Cuba, I was finally banned from ever returning because of my reporting activities there.
I learned of the ban, when a friend was pulled in by the Cuban secret police, who then proceeded to produce my business card, and asked him if he knew me. When he nodded, one of the secret police officers said, “Please tell Dan Wooding that he is not welcome back here, and if he ever tries to re-enter our country, he will be arrested and immediately put in jail.”
I guess that was a badge of honor, as my writing about the persecution of Christians there had obviously got under their skin.
According to Wikipedia, Fidel Castro was baptized and raised a Roman Catholic as a child, but did not practice as one. In Oliver Stone’s documentary “Comandante,” Castro states, “I have never been a believer, and have total conviction that there is only one life.”
Pope John XXIII excommunicated Castro in 1962 after he had suppressed Catholic institutions in Cuba. Castro has publicly criticized what he sees as elements of the Bible that have been used to justify the oppression of both women and people of African descent throughout history.
However, in 1992, Castro agreed to loosen restrictions on religion and even permitted church-going Catholics to join the Communist Party of Cuba. Of course, not many took him up on his offer. He began describing his country as “secular” rather than “atheist.”
In December 1998, Castro formally re-instated Christmas Day as the official celebration for the first time since its abolition by the Communist Party in 1969. Cubans were again allowed to mark Christmas as a holiday and to openly hold religious processions. The Pope sent a telegram to Castro thanking him for restoring Christmas as a public holiday.
Castro even attended a Roman Catholic convent blessing in 2003. The purpose of this unprecedented event was to help bless the newly restored convent in Old Havana and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Pope’s visit to Cuba.
The senior spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian faith arrived in Cuba in 2004, the first time any Orthodox Patriarch has visited Latin America in the Church’s history: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1 consecrated a cathedral in Havana and bestowed an honor on Fidel Castro. His aides said that he was responding to the decision of the Cuban Government to build and donate to the Orthodox Christians a tiny Orthodox cathedral in the heart of old Havana.
After Pope John Paul II’s death in April 2005, an emotional Castro attended a mass in his honor in Havana’s cathedral and signed the Pope’s condolence book at the Vatican Embassy. He had last visited the cathedral in 1959, 46 years earlier, for the wedding of one of his sisters. Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino led the mass and welcomed Castro, who was dressed in a black suit, expressing his gratitude for the “heartfelt way to the death of our Holy Father John Paul II was received (in Cuba).”
In his 2009 spoken autobiography, Castro said that Christianity exhibited “a group of very humane precepts” which gave the world “ethical values” and a “sense of social justice”, before relating that “If people call me Christian, not from the standpoint of religion, but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian.”
Now Castro, who reigned over the island-nation 90 miles from Florida that was marked by the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, has gone.
The bearded revolutionary, who survived a crippling U.S. trade embargo as well as dozens, possibly hundreds, of assassination plots, died eight years after ill health forced him to formally hand power over to his younger brother, Raul, but many wonder if the persecution of Christians will now slow down.
My view is: Don’t hold your breath!