ON Nov. 27, Cuba's staunchly Marxist government granted broadcasting rights to Protestants, allowing them to produce and broadcast religious programming on state radio and television networks beginning in March 1991. In October, sources in the Cuban Ecumenical Council said they had been permitted to place some 1,400 Bibles in state-operated bookstores throughout Havana. Supplies quickly sold out.
Lately, government officials have been conferring with representatives of the United Bible Societies regarding the possibility of reopening the Cuban Bible Society, which was closed in 1962. Officials may even grant permission for the Bible-providing agency to open a small bookstore to the general public.
Last April, Castro met with leaders of the Ecumenical Council and independent Protestant denominations, and acknowledged discrimination against believers had been tolerated over the past 30 years of communist rule. In a gesture of reconciliation, Castro offered the leaders and their constituencies possible membership in the Communist Party, and more equality within Cuban society as a whole. The event was televised nationwide.
At first glance, these events appear to represent a glimmer of glasnost breaking through the crusty exterior of Castro's Stalinistic state. But concessions toward the church may be merely an attempt to gain support from one of the fastest growing segments of Cuban society today.
In what Protestant pastors and leaders alike describe as an ``appetizer,'' a massive interest in Christianity raged across this Caribbean island beginning in late 1987, drawing a documented hundreds of thousands into Protestant churches designed for small congregations of several hundred at most.
For example, in the case of a Pentecostal church in Madruga, just west of Havana, some 100,000 non-believers streamed through this 60-member church over a six-month period. Fueling this heightened interest in spiritual matters were the accompanying reports of widespread miraculous healings. Such was the impact of these sensational healings that in some cases, patients actually left hospitals to seek prayer and healing within the Christian community.
At first the Cuban media vilified evangelists, calling them sorcerers. One evangelist, who was arrested for performing healing services, was charged with ``practicing medicine without a license.'' He was soon released, but press notoriety brought the wave of spiritual revival to the attention of all Cubans. This, according to pastors, dispensed with the ``myth that God does not exist.''
Prior to 1988, Protestant believers numbered an estimated 100,000 to 250,000. Today, church attendance could be as high as 1 million according to unofficial church estimates.
But if, as church officials say, this is just an ``appetizer,'' Castro could very well have to contend with much to maintain control over one of the last holdouts of applied communism.
Believers say they have made inroads at all levels of society, including many converts within the ranks of Communist Party members who remain ``secret believers.'' To accommodate these and many others who still associate a certain stigma with church attendance, pastors say they have initiated home fellowships or house churches to minister to their needs.
According to one Cuban church expert, house churches could number 6,000 by the end of 1991. Though any religious activity taking place outside the church structure is illegal, pastors say local party cadres are just ``looking the other way.''
This unlikely rapprochement between the Castro government and the church comes as Castro faces dwindling support within Cuban society. In mid-November, a rumor that a military officer had fired off shots at Castro during an official function stimulated a rash of speculation around Havana over how and when Castro will be removed from power.
Resentment over acute shortages of food, fuel, and many other basic necessities, as well as an alarming reduction in public services, has raised the level of discontent. Anti-Castro graffiti is scrawled on city streets and bare walls; a once jovial people now scowl at each other on city buses and jostle for positions in lines at government food depots.
But within the Protestant community, the mood is far different. In fact, the level of expectation is so high that pastors are working to prepare the Christian community for what they expect will soon be a tidal wave of new believers flooding the church.
Perhaps had Romania's late dictator Nicolae Causescu not been toppled by the spark of revolution lit by a Protestant pastor, it would be difficult to imagine a tidal wave of spiritual resurgence in the twilight of Castro's Cuba. And perhaps that is why Castro is making an overt effort to placate the church with gestures it no doubt appreciates. What Castro will ask for in return, however, is still to be determined.