Fidel's social justice legacy


Frei Betto, Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology, Ocean Press, Melbourne, 2006. RRP $30, 292pp. Paperback, ISBN 1-920888-45-4, website.

Fidel's social justice legacyOn 15 August, two days after Fidel Castro turned 80, and amid rumours that he was dying, the former Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff made a startling revelation to an Italian journalist about a conversation he and Brazilian priest Frei Betto had once had with the Cuban dictator.

“One day,” Boff recalled, “Fidel told us: Betto and Leonardo, on the day of my death, I want you both to be here at my side.”

Castro has never confirmed the comment and, if it is true, whether it suggests the possibility of a deathbed conversion for a man who was baptised a Catholic only to be excommunicated when he became a Communist, is anyone’s guess.

What is clear, however, is that no assessment of Fidel Castro’s legacy will be complete without serious attention to his thoughts on religion and to how and why, over the past 20 years, this last disciple of Marxism has turned Cuba from an international troublemaker into a global champion for social justice.

That, and continuing uncertainties over Castro’s health, makes the re-publication of Fidel and Religion exceptionally timely. The book, an account of conversations between Castro and Frei Betto about faith, theology and revolutionary commitment, was originally released 20 years ago. It soon sold one million copies in Cuba alone and has since been translated into 23 languages.

Apart from an updated introduction, there is nothing new in this latest edition. But what is old may not be familiar to everyone, and it still makes compelling reading for anyone interested in the historical clash of Christianity and Marxism.

“We are living at a time when politics has entered a near-religious sphere with regard to man and his behaviour,” Castro told a gathering of Chilean Catholic clergy as far back as 1971. “I also believe that we have come to a time when religion can enter the political sphere with regard to man and his material needs.”

That has happened—but hardly in the way Castro envisaged. Except for the brief eruption of liberation theology in Latin America in the '70s and early '80s, religion has not been a major factor for radical social change in any positive sense. Still, a year after liberation theology was denounced by the Vatican as sailing too close to Marxism, Castro reminded Betto of its continuing tug on the consciences of those who take the gospel seriously:

Fidel's social justice legacy“I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history. It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time."

Fast-forward to June 2002. During a graduation address at West Point Academy, President George W. Bush announced a new doctrine of "pre-emptive" military defence against rogue states and terrorists—as defined by Washington. It was America’s right, Bush declared, and the graduates’ duty, to “be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world” where the US felt threatened.

Present-day Iraq is a consequence of that thinking, as are Guantanamo Bay, secret CIA-run prisons around the world, and America’s flouting of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of enemy combatants.

Eight months after Bush’s West Point address, Castro warned a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Malaysia that “dark corners” was how the US and its allies now viewed the countries (and consequently peoples) of the Third World:

Fidel's social justice legacy“There is nothing like full independence, fair treatment on an equal footing or national security for any of us; none is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto right; none has any possibility of being involved in the decisions of the international financial institutions; none can keep its best talents; none can protect itself from capital flight or the destruction of nature and the environment caused by the squandering, selfish and insatiable consumerism of the economically developed countries.”

When was the last time anyone heard a leader of the Christian West be quite so blunt?

Under Castro, Cuba has backed up this call for international justice by sending medical teams to poor countries (including, most recently, to East Timor and parts of the Pacific), helping to tackle the AIDS pandemic in Africa by making its pharmaceuticals available to sufferers cheaply, and opening its universities to under-privileged students from around the world to study medicine (more than 3,000 now study in Cuba)—even extending the invitation to low-income Americans.

There is a pragmatic angle to all this, of course, just as there is an unsavoury side to Castro’s long dictatorship that neither Boff nor Betto seem eager to confront.

Still, Fidel and Religion offers an important insight into the thinking and behaviour of one of the towering political figures of the last 50 years. More importantly, in an era when the message of Jesus appears to have been appropriated exclusively by the political Right, it offers a tantalising glimpse of what the gospels may mean by building the Kingdom of God in the here and now.



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Existing comments

Thank you Chris for your revealing article re. book.It's still a mystery to me why Cuba is still'blacklisted by America and I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer from Americans I know and love.Obviously the United Fruit Canning Co.had powerfull friends in Gov't when their land was 'nationalised'.
russell walsh | 18 November 2006

Thanks for that Chris.

Russell wonders why Cuba is still blacklisted by the US; perhaps it could be noted that it was an American who first said that winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing.

Also, US Administrations are first of all charged with a duty of eliminating all threats to American business, then all external threats to American people; only other American businesses are allowed to best a US firm, and only American citizens are allowed to kill other American citizens.
david arthur | 25 April 2007


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