We can all debate the pros and cons of the ongoing 54 year experiment with socialism that has existed since Fidel and Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara led the Cuban Revolution that overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959: Most are aware of the very high literacy rate of the Cuban people who have all benefited from a high quality education. Health care in Cuba is considered to be a human right for all citizens, and therefore access to high quality care for all citizens has been a priority of the government, and despite economic handicaps, Cuba has scored well on major health indicators: In the World Health Organizations first assessment of world health systems in 2000: Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica and Cuba are rated highest among the Latin American nations – 22nd, 33rd, 36th and 39th in the world, with the U.S. ranked 37th out of 191 countries despite spending a far higher percent of GDP on health care.
Of the several benefits of the Cuban Revolution, what is far less well known, but does become readily apparent during a visit to Cuba and interaction with the genuinely warm and friendly people, is the tolerance of differences amongst and between people. Based on my experiences, the Cuban people do not “see color” the way that many in the U.S. see it and experience it. There is a mix of race, religion, and ethnicity that appears to be just accepted and part of the fabric of Cuban life and culture. I am told anecdotally that much of this tolerance is a result of how the school populations were constructed by Fidel Castro after the Revolution: each school would matriculate 1/3 from African or West Indian ancestry, 1/3 from European or White ancestry, and 1/3 from mixed or Mulatto ancestry.
From my relatively limited experience with religion in Cuba, it appears as if Catholicism and Santeria predominate, but there are active groups of Anglican (25,000), Baha’i (800 members), Buddhist (400), Jehovah’s Witness (95,000), Jewish (1500), Methodist (20,000), Later Day Saints/Mormon (500), Muslims (9000), Quakers (350), Russian Orthodox (800), and Seventh Day Adventists (30,000) amongst many other Protestant denominations (400,000). While in accordance with the traditional anti-religious doctrine of Marxist and Leninist ideology, the state initially adopted a policy of promoting atheism (and in the early days, the CDR or local Comités de Defensa de la Revolución told neighbors that it was not good for the children to attend church services), in July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism-Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Today, in 2013, the Cuban government respects the right of citizens to “profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law.” During my time in Cuba, I observed Catholic Mass, Jewish Shabbat services, and Santeria (more on Santeria in a future blog post). From my observations, the Cuban government has both created an environment where people of all races, religions and creeds live in relative tolerance (despite sometimes difficult economic conditions, which in other countries have driven people apart and toward racism), and has relaxed or eased many of the restrictions on religion associated with the ideologies that guided the Cuban Revolution in its formative years.
As I enjoy my traditional Christmas dinner of Chinese food and Coca-Cola, I do wonder whether, somewhere on the beautiful island of Cuba, Fidel Castro is joining me with a Coke, a smile, and a plate of Kung Pao chicken out of respect and tolerance for all the people that live on this earth. For one of the very nice things about Cuba is the apparent high degree of racial, religious and ethnic tolerance!
Source: Photography Collection of Argentina Estevez, Revolutionary and Fiance of Camilo Cienfuegos.