The following book review appeared originally in the Bulletin of Latin American Research 28.4 (2009, 561-2) in a special edition exploring the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
Corse, T. (2007) Protestants, Revolution, and the Cuba-US Bond, University of Florida Press (Gainesville, FL), xi + 194 pp. $59.95 hbk.
This important study explores a considerably under-researched field in Cuban Studies, namely, Protestant–state relations during the revolutionary period. Drawing on substantial archival material and various interviews with church leaders, Theron Corse focuses especially on how pre-revolutionary Cuban Protestant institutional bonds with their US counterparts have proved durable and resilient since 1959, while the selfidentity implanted by US missionaries has assisted Cuban Protestantism to survive a period of forced autonomy.
Setting out his material in a useful chronological narrative, Corse recognises the non-religious nature of Cubans prior to the Revolution (compared with revolutionary Nicaragua, whose strongly religious population influenced how the Sandinistas handled religion). In a nominally Catholic Cuba, Protestants enjoyed considerable influence, partly because they sought to contribute to the modernisation of the country. Yet despite strong institutional and financial ties with their US counterparts, they initially supported the Revolution, partly because they were fed-up with the Batista regime, but also because they were attracted to the new government’s moral tone against gambling, prostitution and corruption. Interestingly, Corse also demonstrates how Protestant missionary boards back in the United States also initially supported the Revolution, indignantly challenging the views of both the US government and the Christian press as one-sided and distorted (despite the criticism this earned them from their peers). Some Cuban Protestants, however, were not so enthusiastic, believing Communism lurked around the corner.
Yet pro-revolutionary euphoria eventually gave way to poor Protestant–state relations caused by the government’s mistrust of religion. Reasons included heightened tensions between Cuba and the United States, especially after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, leading to a government crackdown on pacifist groups such as the Mennonites. Institutional links with the United States were also viewed with suspicion. Moreover,
Corse argues the Cuban government was not prepared to entertain a rival Protestant vision for national modernisation. For their part, many Protestants struggled with the increasingly ideological direction the Revolution was taking. They identified themselves as Cuban, working class, and socially active, but certainly not Communist. Thus, Protestants faced a stark choice: go into exile (which many did), or ride the storm and survive in the face of forced autonomy. The early 1960s saw scattered reports of petty harassment, followed by the arrest and detention of Protestant pastors regarded as a security threat or an obstacle to modernisation. Many were sent to the newly created UMAPs (work camps), and for Protestants the period through to the late 1960s were the darkest days of the Revolution.
Yet despite these difficult times and forced autonomy, Cuban Protestants clung to their institutional self-identity and sentimental bonds with their US counterparts as a survival strategy, and all but the smallest denominations survived. Later, with the decline of the Soviet Union and a more relaxed government view of religion, Cuban Protestant sentimental bonds with their US counterparts became more tangible as institutional links were gradually re-established.
Corse’s important research raises two issues. First, with strong Cuban Protestant support for and participation within the Revolution, echoed by US mission boards and missionaries in Cuba, why did the Castro government choose to alienate Protestants as it did? Far from a threat to the Revolution, Protestants differed considerably from their Catholic counterparts in their support for the Revolution, yet the government’s treatment of Protestants during the 1960s was unnecessarily brutal. This research is a direct challenge to those who, for ideological reasons, maintain religious oppression was a reaction to the security threat posed by Washington. Rather, Corse believes Protestants were regarded by the revolutionary government as an ideological rival that had to be neutered (much like classical Pentecostalism in Sandinista Nicaragua; see my work (Smith, 2007). Second, I would like to see more discussion of the Assemblies of God in Cuba. Corse notes how, during the difficult days of the 1960s, the denomination lost a third of its members. But this denomination is now one of the fastest growing in Cuba, taking full advantage of and exploiting ruthlessly the very institutional ties Corse discusses (these pre-revolutionary links are detailed at length in the denomination’s archives in Springfield, Missouri). As such, a stronger focus on the Assemblies of God would have lent even more weight to Corse’s authoritative study.
This said, Corse offers a carefully researched and interesting narrative, supported by numerous primary sources, which sheds important light on Protestant–state relations, together with Cuban–North American Protestant bonds during the revolutionary period. Importantly, his nuanced study defies easy stereotypes concerning Protestant responses to the Revolution, and as such this study represents a valuable contribution not only to Cuban Studies, but also Protestant–state relations in Latin America as a whole.
Smith, C. L. (2007) Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua. Brill: Leiden and Boston.