The Coverage of Fidel Castro’s Death

How Fared the Church and Religion?
CNS/Reuters

Now that Fidel Castro is well and truly dead—his demise was rumored periodically for years on the streets of Miami—it may be useful to examine some of the intense coverage of his passing on November 25, 2016. In particular, I’ve been struck by the number of “false facts” or “fake news” that abounded in the coverage, as well as by the frequent misinterpretations of the past, especially as regards the Catholic Church.

Some came from decidedly right-wing sources, as when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen reported, as soon as it was confirmed that Castro had died, that “Cuban dissidents are being rounded up as we speak.” And Heritage Foundation’s Ana Quintana told PBS NewsHour that “churches by the hundreds are being bulldozed,” an extraordinary phenomenon noted by no journalists in Cuba. Neither story bears examination.

The Catholic Thing’s Robert Royal, adding to his seemingly endless list of criticisms of Pope Francis, wrote that the pope “cried at his passing” but “among those close to the situation—the Cuban bishops—it’s dry eyes all around.” I confess I missed the papal tears, but the Cuban bishops did issue a statement of condolence to Castro’s family: “We entrust Dr. Fidel Castro to Jesus Christ, the face of the Father’s mercy,” they said, and aware of the new phase the country was about to experience, added: “We ask the love of Jesus that nothing disturb the coexistence among us Cubans.”

Royal also informed us that “Salesians and Jesuits educated Fidel,” when it was the La Salle Christian Brothers that had him for a brief time before the Jesuits at the Colegio Dolores and at Belén. Something about the La Salle Brothers apparently confuses writers; Peter Bourne’s 1986 approved biography, Fidel, has the school “run by the French Marianist brothers.”

Even better-informed writers like Austen Ivereigh managed to jumble some facts. In March 2016 (The Tablet 3/12/16) he wrote of Cuba that Just two hundred priests remained in the 1970s, down from 3,500….” The two hundred is roughly correct throughout most of the years since 1961, when some one hundred and thirty-two priests and religious were unceremoniously bundled aboard the Spanish ship Covadonga and sent into exile. But there were never anything close to 3,500 priests in the country, and Castro had maintained a kind of numerus clausus—closed number—of roughly two hundred priests, allowing a handful of foreign clergy to replace deceased or departed clerics.

In recent years that number has increased considerably, partly due to the numbers of Cubans entering seminary, as well as permission for a few religious congregations (e.g., the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate) to enter. The Vatican Information Service gives the number of priests today as three hundred and sixty-one, plus six hundred and fifty-six religious sisters and brothers.

A poignant comment was offered by Fr. Fernando Heria, rector of the Ermita, the national shrine of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre in Miami. He was born in a small town in Pinar del Río, whose diocese had forty-eight priests and religious on Friday, September 15, 1961; on Monday, September, 18, 1961, only six priests and no religious sisters or brothers remained.

A story unrelated to the present situation merits recounting here. When Miguel D’Escoto was Nicaraguan foreign minister, he persuaded his friend Fidel Castro to allow a small number of his fellow Maryknollers to come to work in Cuba. Three priests prepared to take on this missionary work when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston learned of the plan. He called on the prelate who oversaw the Maryknoll Society, New York Cardinal John O’Connor, to urge him to call off the Maryknoll effort so as to allow for three of Boston’s St. James Missionary priests to substitute for the Maryknollers.

My source for the story is the St. James priest, then on staff at the U.S. bishops’ conference, who had the task of repeatedly going over to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to inquire as to the state of the visas for the priests. “I’m sorry, Father,” he was repeatedly told, “but I’m sure we’ll hear soon.” After a few weeks of this, it became clear that no St. James priests were going to work in Cuba.

Ivereigh also conflates fact with fiction in his telling of the tale of Fr. Guillermo Sardiñas, chaplain to the July 26 movement in the Sierras, famous for his olive-green cassock. Fr. Sardiñas, he writes, “was licensed by his bishop to marry the guerrillas, baptize their babies, and bury them.” All true, but then he adds that “Pope John XXIII gave special permission for him to wear olive-green fatigues.” Well. No priest needs permission to wear fatigues of any color—everyone there in the hills wore fatigues—and the fact that this priest wore a cassock of military hue almost certainly involved no episcopal permission. How the author of the well-received biography of Pope Francis could imagine the pope himself being involved in the matter of a guerrilla priest’s attire is beyond me.

Following the revolution, Sardiñas continued to wear his verdeolivo cassock with a medal proclaiming him a Comandante del Ejército Rebelde, a commander of the rebel army, for which assuredly no pope or bishop gave permission. He became a rather sad figure and died at the end of 1964.

A final Ivereigh imprecision: “The Belén was shuttered.” Well, all private schools, including the most prestigious secondary school in Cuba, the Jesuit’s Colegio Belén, were closed. But the very large, and architecturally outstanding, Belén was converted into the Cuban Military Technical Institute, a prize of Gen. Raúl.

Almost as bizarre as papal permission for clerical attire was the story, repeatedly picked up by many media, of George Will’s account of a hare-brained plan to assassinate Castro. Supposedly, a U.S. submarine was to surface in Havana harbor and fire star shells into the night “to convince Cuban Catholics that the Second Coming had come, causing them to rebel against Castro the antichrist.” Skeptics were said to have termed the plan “elimination by illumination.”

What one can confidently say about this is that no Catholic could have dreamed up such a plan. (It was said to have been cooked up by Operation Mongoose chief, Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale.) Catholics, whether Cubans or North Americans, spent little time thinking about the Second Coming or the antichrist; however poorly catechized, the idea of Havana Catholics drawing such conclusions beggars belief. Since U.S. fundamentalists, on the other hand, mined the Book of Revelation for all it was worth, one has to wonder if Will and the many who re-printed the story found it even remotely credible.

Two other stories got a lot of play: the banning of Christmas and the Moncada attack trial.  On December 3, the EWTN-related Catholic News Agency said that “in 1969 [Castro] banned the celebration of Christmas.” But then, in 1998, “John Paul II successfully convinced him to remove the ban.” The fact is that there was never a ban on celebrating Christmas; Christians did so in their churches and in their homes. However, the day was no longer a national holiday; the official reason given was that it interfered with the sugar harvest.

John Paul was indeed responsible for the day’s restoration as a holiday. According to Joaquín Navarro-Vals, the papal spokesman said to Castro that “the Holy Father would like to be able to publicly thank you for this gesture once he lands in Havana.” That, and the diminishing importance of the harvest, evidently did the trick.

The Moncada trial, recounted in virtually all the post-mortem stories, was notable for the missing bishop. After the fool-hardy and clumsily organized attack on the Moncada army barracks in July, 1953, several of the guerrillas were immediately executed, those captured likely to receive a similar fate when the local bishop intervened. The archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Enrique Pérez Serantes, was a Galician and a friend of fellow Galician Angel Castro, and it was his intervention that, more than any other, secured a trial for the surviving attackers. 

From that trial came a fifteen-year sentence, shortened to two years by Batista’s amnesty, and the famous “History will absolve me” speech. (The exiled author Carlos Alberto Montaner wrote in the Miami El Nuevo Herald in November:La Historia no lo absolverá.”) It was during those two years of intense reading of history that the hot-headed Castro became a convinced and calculating revolutionary. The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff in December had a good line about Angel Castro learning of the attack and that Raúl was involved: “I knew I had a crazy son but I didn’t know that the other would follow him.”

While several of the longer articles provided some detail about the Moncada raid and the trial, the essential role of Archbishop Pérez was brushed out. Well -regarded Latin Americanists like Jon Lee Anderson, Tim Padgett, and Anthony De Palma’s (in his long Sunday Times article of November 27) all detailed the Moncada matter, absent Pérez. Miroff in a November article in the Washington Post did mention that “through the intervention of a bishop who was a friend of his father, Mr. Castro was spared immediate execution and was instead put on trial.”

Miroff also credits the intervention of the Catholic Church with the release in 2010 and 2011 of the famed seventy-five dissidents. And while De Palma speaks of the more than five hundred Batista-era officials and others who were “summarily convicted and shot to death,” there is not a word about the Church’s strong opposition. Priests were prominent at the wall, giving absolution to those about to die, but they had no power to stop the murders.

Many reports of the time indicated that not five hundred but several thousand Cubans “went to the wall”—al paredón—during the first years. Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post on November 28 of “the 5,600 Cubans who died in front of Castro’s firing squads, or the 1,200 murdered in ‘extrajudicial assassinations’ …” Apart from the urban centers, people in the countryside were also under strict curfew, such that, according to a military order issued May 25, 1963, “any campesino seen outside his house after 8 p.m. and before 5 a.m. will be shot without trial.” Just during the fortnight of July 15-30, 1963, some three hundred and fifty campesinos were shot. It’s worth recalling that the majority of Catholic priests had been summarily expelled so, from a weak Church voice of opposition there was finally no voice at all, and there wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s.

Time’s Joe Klein had an almost-but-not-quite-believable tale of his 1975 visit to Cuba with a delegation headed by George McGovern. During the visit, which included lots of facetime with Castro, Klein said he “strayed from the official tour and went to a Catholic church in Havana looking for dissidents. I found a man who had been imprisoned and tortured both by the right-wing dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and the Castro regime.” When asked what the United States should do, the man said “End embargo!  Recognize us!”

I, too, was in Cuba the year before that, also on a Potemkin Village tour, though with a much less prestigious group. (Barbara Walters was part of Klein's group.) That Klein was free to leave his group is itself noteworthy. That he could walk into a church and expect to find a dissident, willing to talk to an unknown gringo about his imprisonment and torture, and presumably in English, is simply incredible. If the meeting happened, it had to be by pre-arrangement, and even there, color me skeptical.

Klein, whose fame came largely from his “anonymous” authorship of Primary Colors, starts off with an error: “… we met Castro at his brother Raúl’s farm.” But Raúl never milked cows or collected eggs. It was the farm of Fidel’s older brother Ramón, who looked remarkably like him, one of Angel Castro’s three children born before the old gallego got around to marrying their mother. Ramón, whom I also met at his farm, but not Fidel, died just last February.

Speaking of Barbara Walters, she claimed that Fidel told her that he began wearing a beard after the U.S. embargo cut off supplies of Gillette razor blades. In fact, he had the beard in the Sierra Maestra. One wonders if someone at Gillette got a handsome raise with this product placement.

There was this curious line from USA Today’s Rick Jervis, reprinted in NCR in December: “Even in his death, announced Nov. 25, Castro defied the church by requesting that his remains be cremated….” Defied the church, when cremation is extremely common among Catholics today? And requesting? Fidel never requested anything; he said do it, and it was done.

Jervis also noted that Cardinal Jaime Ortega “stepped down as cardinal this past summer.” Ortega, of course, will be a cardinal until he dies; it’s from being archbishop of Havana that he “stepped down.”

Then there’s the small matter of Fidel’s birthdate. All the media said he died at age ninety, thus born in 1926. The almost certain fact is that he was born in 1927. It seems that his parents sought to enroll both him and Ramón in the Christian Brothers school but, technically, Fidel was a year too young to enter then—the Brothers were tough. At this same time, and at the encouragement of the senior Castro’s friend, the then-bishop of Camaguey, Enrique Pérez Serantes, the two boys were finally baptized. When the baptismal certificates were signed, Fidel’s birth date was pushed back a year to make him eligible to enroll at La Salle.

The source for this is Peter Bourne’s Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro (Dodd Mead 1986). The author says he heard this directly from Ramón Castro who was there and would have no reason to falsify a date.

Finally, two issues: the matter of the Church’s role in the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, and the question of Fidel Castro’s belief. No need to cite the journalists who got right the story of the unprecedented role played by Pope Francis. It was simply so central a part of the story that few failed to mention it. Many were also taken by Raúl Castro’s ad lib statement at the Vatican in May 2015. While thanking the pope for helping restore ties with the United States, he said that if the pope continues what he has been doing, “I will start praying again and return to the Church.” He added, “and I am not joking.”

It was no secret that Fidel Castro, unlike his brother, was opposed to the warming relations between the two countries. But in his last years he occasionally reflected out loud about his past connection with the Jesuits and on the matter of faith. In his final column in Granma, October 8, 2016, he wrote: “At this point, religions acquire a special value … I know a fair amount about Christ, given what I have read and what they taught me in schools run by the Jesuits and by the La Salle Brothers, from whom I heard many stories about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the manna that fell from heaven when food was scarce because of drought or other reasons. I will try to convey a few more ideas about this singular problem, at another time.”

He never got around to that, and it’s tempting to compare his reflections on religion with those of Donald Trump, so clearly uninformed and even childish. But his encounters with three popes and the influence of some of his Jesuit teachers, including Amando Llorente, S.J., whom he expelled in 1961, may possibly have left some gnawing questions about “this singular problem.”

Published in the February 24, 2017 issue: 

Tom Quigley is a former policy advisor on Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean issues to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Also by this author
Benedict Goes to Cuba

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections