Castro And Religion

‘Face to Face with Fidel’

Chaman Lal

These are Fidel Castro's *Conversations with Brazilian Do-minican Friar, practising Catholic who believes in socialism. Cuban culture minister Armando Hart has introduced this conversation. In 'Paths to a Meeting', Frei Betto has narrated the background of these conversations, which he planned in 1979 as a book to be called—'Faith in Socialism'. Success of Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua with faithful Christians participating in it, where Frei was invited as advisor, encouraged him to work on this book. Lot many priests like Father Miguel D Escoto, foreign minister were part of the revolutionary government, whose ideal was Cuba. He first met Fidel Castro at the house of Nicaraguan Vice-President Sergio Ramirez in July 1980. Fidel encouraged him to freely discuss Bible and Christian ideas with him, without getting 'irritate' as Frei apprehended and told him that 'at no time the Cuban revolution has been inspired by anti-religious feelings'. Castro addressed Chilean clergy in 1971 during Allende period and in Jamaica also he addressed Protestant audience in 1977. In Nicaragua there was unity between Christians and Marxists during revolutionary struggle. Frei visited Cuba 12 times from 1981 to 1985 and had 23 hours recorded interview from 23rd May to 26th May in four days, an average of almost six hours a day of conversation. He wrote this note immediately after the conclusion of the interview on 29th May 1985.

Book has two parts. 1st part titled as 'Chronicle of a Vist' includes Castro talking to many people during the visit of Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid and with some other guests, like with a group of Brazilians, meeting Brazilian journalist Joelmir Beting. Fidel has the courtesy of even personally driving down Beting and Betto to their hotel one night at the conclusion of their meeting. The first part has seven chapters and is spread into 45 pages. It comes out from this part that Fidel is good cook and later in comparison with Che Guevara, in second part of the book, his comments—'I am a better cook (than Che). I am not going to say that I am a better revolutionary, but I am definitely a better cook than Che was'. (Page 268) Fidel informs that they have one lakh independent farmers in Cuba, holding private land, but other farmers joining cooperatives have much better life conditions. Castro also emphaises upon manual labour and students going for it one month per year. University of Havana was founded in 1728; Marta Harnecker is Chilean Marxist living in Cuba.

Part II is the major part of the book, spread in 4 chapters and 220 pages. Every chapter is account of one night's interview, most of the interviews were conducted in evening or rather late evening and some continued past midnight. On the first day, 23rd May 1985, at the beginning of interview Frei informs that perhaps for the first time head of a socialist state has granted an exclusive interview on the topic of religion. Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of Nicaragua issued a document on religion in 1980. In the first part of interview Castro speaks about his family, his childhood, his religious training in school etc. Castro tells that his mother Lina and father Angel were faithful religious people, but more so his mother. He was born in a farm called Biran, but there was no church. Castro's father was a Spaniard from Galicia and had settled in Cuba, working there. Castro's parents were from poor background, though later his father bought enough land. Castro refers to Cuba's first war of independence against Spain in 1895, which ended with the defeat of Spanish colonial regime in 1898, Castro describes Cuba to be 'the Vietnam of 19th century'. Castro's father died on 21st October 1956, be-fore the triumph of Cuban revolution, his mother died after the revolution on 6th August 1963. Castro describes that how Christmas was celebrated in his house in his childhood. Castro was born on 13th August 1926 and his armed struggle started at the age of 26 years on 26th July 1952 with attack on Moncada, the struggle got the name as '26th July Movement'. His father bought 800 hundred hectares of land, of which 400 hundred hectares were surrendered after the revolution as per new law of land owning limit. There was no church in Castro's village, he was baptized in Santiago de Cuba at the age of 5 or six years. He was named as Fidel—the faithful one, on his godfather's name. Castro's aunts and grandmother had strong belief. Castro was third child of her mother's second marriage, out of seven in total. Children from first marriage were also known to them. Castro has four sisters and two more brothers. He was put in school in Santiago de Cuba, staying at the house of godfather. Castro listened to the Three Wise Men stories from family-Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar-mythical stories. He was not happy in home, later was shifted to boarding school La Salle for four years, which gave Castro satisfaction. He had his religious training in school and enjoyed his X-mas vacation of two weeks at his home. He was a good athlete at school and good in studies as well. Castro makes interesting observation about martyrdom here—'Conviction is what makes martyrs. I don't think that anybody becomes a martyr simply because he expects a reward or fears punishment. I don't think anybody behaves heroically for such a reason.' Castro had his high schooling in Colegio de belen school in Havana, he graduated from high school in 1945 at 19 years. He first heard about communism in school as a 'terrible thing'. He excelled in sports, academics. His school certificate recorded—"Fidel Castro Ruz (1942-45). He distinguished himself in all subjects related to Letters. A top student and member of congregation, he was an outstanding athlete, always courageously and proudly defending the School's colours. He won the admiration and affection of all. We are sure that, after his law studies, he will make a brilliant name for himself. Fidel has what it takes and will make something of his life".

After Joining the University Fidel acquired Marxist ideology, he was a firm follower of Jose Marti. Batista made military coup in Cuba on 10th March 1952 and on 26th July 1952, Castro made armed insurrection, which failed. 1st part of interview concluded at 3.00 am, starting from 9.00 pm, six hours before.

Second part of the interview started on 24th May 1985 at 4.45 p.m. Frei refers to Christian participants in 26th July movement such as Frank Paise and Jose Antonio Echeverria. Castro told that how much they respected their faith and gives example how he chastised his comrades at the death of Echevveria, when from his wilI his invocation to God was left out. In this chapter the attack on Moncada is detailed, about 120 men attacked Moncada, in the clash, 1000 soldiers countered the attack, only 2 or 3 comrades were killed in initial clash. But Batista army brutally murdered 70 rebels after arresting them. Castro could also have been killed, but a black lieutenant did not allow his men to shoot them, in fact, he even praised Castro men by saying-you are brave boys brave-, later the lieutenant was blamed for not killing and discharged from army. Later after the revolution he was made Captain and in charge of President's security, his name was Padro Sarria, but he died of cancer in 1972.

Castro spent 22 months in prison in Isle of Pines, now named as Isle of youth, 19 months he was kept in solitary confinement. Father Sardinas from church joined Sierra Maestra guerrilla struggle in 1956. After revolution, one judge Urrutki was made provisional President of Cuba, but he clashed with revolutionaries. Castro was named as Prime Minister, he resigned and in public debate Urrutia had to face embarrassment and he resigned, later a prestigious comrade was named President and then many radical laws were passed. Castro tells—'Values and morals are man's spiritual values'. Castro refers how priests and church was tried to be used by CIA against the revolution and three priests participated in invasion of Cuba in Bay of Pigs in 1961. They could have been executed, but were treated leniently. Communist Party of Cuba came into existence in 1965 from Integrated Revolutionary Organisations.

82 men waged war in 1956-57, 1st major battle in January 1957 by 22 comrades, won the first battle. When they won the war on 1st January 1959 Castro had just 3000 men, who defeated Batista's 80 thousand army. People Socialist Party (PSP) was more homogeneous. Socialism was proclaimed at the time of Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Castro described relations with church as 'A period of coexistence and mutual respect between the party and the churches'. (Page 171).

The conversation concluded at 10 pm more than six hours after it started.
Third conversation started on 25th May at 8 pm. Castro exposes 'gentleman' Pinochet, allegedly a 'devout' man, who is responsible for thousands of deaths, murdered, tortured or missing people in Chile. Castro tells the proud role of one lakh teachers and thousands of doctors working in other countries as missionaries. Castro also praises nuns who are taking care of old people's homes in Cuba with much austerity, like model communists. They talk about Father Ernesto Cardenal, a Sandinista poet and writer, much respected personality of Nicaragua. Castro emphasises the need of improving works of revolution and defines it as a work of art. They discuss the positive role of Liberation Theology in Latin American countries like Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador and others, in promoting revolutionary ideas, which was described subversive by US rulers. Church described as oldest institution, 2000 years old, Buddhism and Hinduism may be older, but they are not institutions.

Discussion concluded at 11 p.m, first time in just three hours.
4th and last part of interview took place on Sunday, 26th May 1985 at 7.00 pm. Castro gifted the copy of his school certificate as memento to Frei. They discuss the proposed visit of Pope, which Castro is ready to welcome. Frei asks question on religion as 'Opiate of the people'. Castro explains the phenomenon in detail and opines that it is possible for Christians to be Marxists, but they have to be honest in ending the exploitation of man by man and struggle for equal distribution of social wealth. Here Castro also referred to first social revolution of modern period—French Revolution with three word slogan—Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but exposes the myth of the slogan in practice in capitalist system. Castro opines that the achievement of the spirit of this slogan is possible only in Socialist society. Castro also exposes the myth of ancient Greek and Roman democracy, by detailing the unknown facts about the number of slaves, more than the Greek/Roman own population and only high classes participating in debates, reference to Nero also comes, while Rome was burning and he was playing the lyrel! Slavery abolished in Cuba and Brazil in 1886.Then they talk about 'hatred' and Castro explained that Either Marx or Lenin, Marti or he never hated persons, they hated only the system, it reminds Bhagat Singh's famous court statement mentioning this very concept. Castro underlines the fact that he hates fascism, and Nazism. They also note the fact that during Imperialism's most cruel system, in world war first 20 million people and in second world war more than 50 million people lost their lives and underlines the fact that Imperialist system is to be blamed for this, which needs to be smashed as system. Frei also questions about love and 'export' of revolution. Castro explains that revolution can never be exported, only ideas travel world over, not the physical forces can go and make revolution. Revolution is made by internal forces and mechanism only. They talk about Che Guevara as well, the kind of fond relationship Che and Castro had with each other. Castro brings out the exceptional qualities of Che, his leadership quality and intellectual characteristics, courage; he was so daring that had to be held back by Castro. Che had great moral integrity, man of profound ideas, untiring worker, rigorous and methodical in fulfilment of his duties. 'He was one of the greatest figures of his generation in Latin America and nobody could tell how much he would have accomplished if he'd survive'. Same comment may be true for Bhagat Singh in context of India. Che went to Congo, Zaire, Tanzania and then to Bolivia. They talk about other revolutionary hero Camilo, who died young at 27 in 1959.

The book concludes with the fact— 82 men expedition arrived in Cuba on 2nd December 1956, after first hard setbacks, 14-15-16 men regrouped—Fidel and Raul Castro, Che and Camilo among them and made historic revolution in Cuba on 1st January 1959, the most wonderful event, even more interesting than October 1917 and 1949 Russian and Chinese revolutions!

Though focussed on the issue of religion the book actually narrates the story of Castro's life as well as the story of Cuban revolution. A very good book to follow.

*Fidel and the Religion–Conversations with Frei Betto
People's Publishing House, Delhi, 1st ed. 1987, pages 276, Price Rs 100.00

Vol. 49, No.28, Jan 15 - 21, 2017