The Latin American Diaries |


East of Eden: The Vatican’s Role in Socialist Cuba-United States rapprochement


by Dr Luis Pérez-Simon, Co-Director, Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research, Institute of Latin American Studies

It is a historical fact that Cuba has always punched above its weight in matters economic, political and cultural, especially starting in the latter part of the 20th century.  What may be less evident is that in the last quarter century it has done so diplomatically, and that the Catholic Church has staunchly accompanied it along the way.  In fact, the Church has been a lifeline for Revolutionary Cuba since even before Cuba was revolutionary.


On August 1, 1953 security forces arrested Fidel Castro, six days after he had led an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba.  However, he had not been captured.  He had turned himself in.  His surrender had been negotiated and orchestrated by Santiago de Cuba’s archbishop Mgsr. Enrique Pérez Serrantes, who also personally guaranteed his safety [1].

And although the Church’s fortunes in Cuba have risen and fallen since 1959 [2], its influence on the centre of power and on rebel ideology has been constant.  Besides the obvious connection to Fidel and Raul Castro [3], traces of Catholic doctrine can be found in the socio-political Hombre Nuevo Socialista paradigm, the version of Marxism-Leninism that Cuba fomented in earnest throughout Latin America in the 1960’s and 70’s as part of its political internationalism, and the very idea behind the medical brigades launched in 1963 as part of its support for anti-colonial struggles and now forming the back bone of Cuba’s socio-economic humanitarian internationalism [4].

If the Castro regime sought to legitimise its nascent Revolution and expand its ideological reach, in part, by co-opting Catholic Liberation Theology in the 1970’s, it may yet do so nearly sixty years after the fact —and perhaps prolong it’s reach— by embracing Pope Francis’s ‘Reconciliation Strategy’ for the Americas.

Having reached an ideological and tactical dead-end with military incursions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Cuba has had much more political success with humanitarian and medical missions in the developing world.  Indeed, they have succeeded in fostering international good-will and support while helping to shore up the Cuban economy by providing health and education support internationally: the nearly 600,000 medical missions to over 158 countries have had a direct impact on more than 2 million patients, and its literacy campaign has been exported to more than 28 countries with hundreds of thousands of people being taught to read and write [5].  Beyond the recognition and gratitude of those countries directly impacted by these missions, other international actors –such as the Vatican [6]– have offered their support for what has become the single most resounding diplomatic success of the Revolution.

The moral and political capital gained from this internationalist humanitarian aid has proven invaluable for the Cuban State.  On the one hand, it has contributed in no small measure to a consolidation of support for an end to the US. Economic Embargo [7], likewise fomenting calls for the re-inclusion of Cuba into regional institutions such as the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank.  On the other, it has also had a direct impact on its very relationship with the United States.  And has been widely reported, the Vatican was the fulcrum of the rapprochement negotiations.


The beginning of this latest collaboration between the Cuban state and the Vatican can be traced to 1998.  The juncture of a heavy hurricane season [8], a re-elected Clinton administration [9], and the first papal visit to the island [10] provided the right mix of international good will, of American willingness to spend some hard-earned domestic political capital, and the emergence of a trustworthy and impartial intermediary in the form of the Vatican.

Though the process has been slow, it has been able to overcome several seemingly insurmountable obstacles, namely the transition from Fidel to Raul Castro as head of government and the Cuban Five-Alan Gross imbroglio.  Indeed, it has been the steady support and encouragement by the Vatican that allowed both parties to capitalize on these very challenges to eventually reach a diplomatic understanding. Just as the arrest of the Cuban Five froze any collaboration with the Clinton Administration, the arrest of Alan Gross hindered any Obama initiative at moments when relations had begun to improve.   Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit to Cuba gave both parties new impetus in their gradual rapprochement.  This followed a major overhaul of Cuba’s economic and social model by Raúl Castro [11], and foreshadowed the 2012 Policy shift toward reconciliation with Cuba initiated by the recently re-elected Obama administration [12].

Although normalization will take some time, this moderate pace will benefit both countries. Cuba will be able to ease into a global economy from which it had been excluded while doing its best to remain socialist, whereas the US will be able to advance its overall Latin American policy goals in a climate of international respect and collaboration.  Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to both Cuba and the United States will serve as a further – and very real – bridge between the two countries.  And the Vatican’s diplomatic and political influence will only grow in Cuba and in the rest of Latin America.



[1] A summary execution –likely by firing squad in the very Moncada barracks– would have been a likely scenario if Castro had been captured straight away.  He remained at large long enough for the prelate to become personally involved.  Additionally, in El hombre que no quiso matar a Fidel Castro, its author claims to have been ordered to poison Castro, an order which he refused to carry out in part due to his catholic beliefs (see p. 18-19).

[2] Although the Church sought to maintain its influence by offering a ‘third way’ between opposing ideologies, it was quickly sidelined once the Revolution declared itself Marxis-Leninist.  Within a few years, over two-thirds of all priests had been expelled or had fled the country (including Cuba’s first cardinal, Manuel Cardinal Arteaga y Betancourt) and over 400 religious schools had been shut down.  It wasn’t until 1991 that Catholics were allowed to integrate the Cuban Communist Party, and only a year later was the Constitution changed to forbid discrimination based on religious affiliation.

[3] It is widely known that both Castro brothers attended a Jesuit school and that they had strong ties to Archbishop Pérez Serrantes.  See F. Castro & I. Ramonet, My Life: a Spoken Autobiography.

[4] An interesting case for a revolution and an Hombre Nuevo based in Catholic principles is made by B. Kenrick in A Man from the Interior; the Cuban leader himself discusses at length the Revolution’s support for Liberation Theology in F. Castro, Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology.

[5] see Burke, ed. Health Travels: Cuban Health(care) On and Off the Island and Unesco, Adult and Youth Literacy: National, regional and global trends, 1985-2015.

[6] Msgr. Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Science went so far as to praise Cuba’s medical and educational aid to Latin America, calling it “a gospel of work” during an international conference on globalization and development problems in 2010.

[7] The last major vote by the UN General Assembly condemning the US embargo, in 2013, had full the support of all 190 member countries save for two: the Unites States itself and Israel.

[8] The one-two-three punches of hurricanes Bonnie, Georges and Mitch devastated a large swath of the Caribbean and Central America. Cuba responded by sending medical and humanitarian missions to Honduras, Guatemala and Haiti.

[9] It appears that for the first time since Cuba became a socialist country, Washington addressed the fact that the ‘Cuban issue’ was getting in the way of a Latin American policy that served American interests.  See W. LeogGrande & P. Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba.

[10] The only other Latin American country to have had visits from all three John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis is Brazil.  For an insight into the cultural impact, ideological shifts, and political meaning of JPII’s visit see M. Vázquez Montalbán, Y Dios entró en La Habana.

[11] It must be noted that beyond expanding religious tolerance and equality in the island, the Vatican has been an integral part of Cuba’s entrepreneurial and business administration education having established the first MBA program since the Revolution.

[12] C. Parsons & M. Memoli, in “Obama aides discuss Vatican role in warming relations with Cuba”, LA Times, April 10, 2015, point to a Situation Room meeting where it was decided to take a two-prong approach in approaching Cuba, secretly.


ALBA: an important but poorly understood regional project


by Dr Asa Cusack, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2014-15

As the Institute of Latin American Studies prepares to host the conference Ten Years of ALBA: Progress, Problems, and Prospects on 26 February 2015, stipendiary fellow Dr Asa Cusack considers how economic and political problems in Venezuela currently threaten many of the real achievements of this alternative mode of regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

ALBA_post_SMLVenezuela has an abundance of oil and a lack of doctors.  Cuba has an abundance of doctors and a lack of oil.  On 14 December 2004, the two countries launched the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) precisely to allow the simple, yet innovative, logic of mutually beneficial exchange to solve each other’s problems.  As it celebrated its tenth birthday last month, ALBA’s membership grew to eleven with the addition of Grenada and St Kitts & Nevis (alongside Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua amongst others).  However, intensifying political and economic risks in ALBA’s lynchpin, Venezuela, now threaten this important but poorly understood regional project.

I say ‘important’ because ALBA did not stop at ‘oil for doctors’, nor even with various other international social programmes offering free eye operations, a census of disabled citizens’ needs and literacy training.  Rather it went on to launch wide-ranging economic initiatives aimed at reducing the region’s dependency on the rich world: a virtual currency to remove the US dollar from intra-regional trade (SUCRE), an oil-backed soft-loan scheme to insulate small Caribbean economies from rocketing oil prices (Petrocaribe), a regional ALBA Bank to fund development projects, a new ‘People’s’ Trade Agreement putting people before profit, state multinationals to keep private counterparts honest (‘Grandnationals’), and even a Social Movements Council to give civil society direct input into regional governance.

Yet precisely how important all this has been remains hard to say, because of the ‘poorly understood’ part.  Neither individual ALBA governments nor the organisation’s secretariat provide clear information about the implementation or impact of these various initiatives.  And, since ALBA consciously allows its initiatives to expand beyond its formal borders and into other non-member countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s often hard to define exactly which ALBA we are talking about.  These ambiguities allow commentators to fill in the blanks with the version of ALBA that best fits their particular ideas and interests.

ALBA_cumbre_cropMy own research into ALBA’s implementation within its formal membership suggests that, because ALBA is unevenly implemented, it has had, as one might expect, an uneven impact.  This makes it hard to sum up its nature and value in simple terms.  Key elements such as the People’s Trade Agreement, designed to reverse the neoliberal reforms of earlier decades, have not been institutionalised, and even within broadly successful initiatives, like the SUCRE and Petrocaribe, those elements designed to redress imbalances between member-states remain weak.  This doesn’t mean that ALBA’s role is insignificant, but it does indicate that its role is not as significant as its heads of state tend to claim.

The fact that trade via the SUCRE mechanism has hovered around US$1 billion in recent years (despite having launched only in 2010) and that Petrocaribe has saved the entire Caribbean billions in foreign exchange – averting numerous fiscal crises in the process – are clear signs of ALBA’s material significance.  Here too the macro often obscures the micro, such as the new export opportunities afforded to collectives of small farmers in Ecuador via the SUCRE or the new transfer benefits for the elderly and disabled funded by Petrocaribe savings in Antigua and Barbuda.  Being ‘poorly understood’, these real human benefits of ALBA – and every member-state has its own equivalents – are often overlooked despite being the organisation’s basic motivation.

Indeed, because ALBA cares little for its own formal limits and often strays unnoticed into the affairs of non-members – whether as subsidised petrol in El Salvador or fair-trade deals for Guyanese rice exporters – the geographical spread of its impact is likewise underestimated.  The political, negotiated nature of its inter-state interactions has also meant that it has been able to react with uncommon speed to stabilise regional neighbours hit by external shocks, such as those caused by the sudden suspension of US trade preferences or the collapse of financial institutions.  Since subsidised, ALBA-sourced imports into Venezuela can become part of massive contraband flows into Colombia and Brazil – which lower the cost of living for consumers there – even its role in illicit forms of integration is potentially significant.

In more abstract terms, ALBA has also served as a sandbox for new forms of regional cooperation, with initiatives like the SUCRE and international social ‘missions’ achieving maturity and real utility, even if others have floundered.  This degree of experimentation is the exception, not the rule in regional organisations.  Symbolically, it has served to demonstrate that, even if another world is not yet possible, another regionmay be.  For the same reason, it has served the political end of uniting and channelling disparate forces in their opposition to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the North-South free-trade deals offered in its wake.

ALBA_marchaALBA’s importance to Latin America and the Caribbean is thus greater than often assumed, which makes any threat to its persistence all the more serious.  Unfortunately, the flipside to ALBA’s innovation and flexibility is a lack of prudence and stability.

Despite the (continuing) growth of its membership, ALBA remains fundamentally Venezuela-centric in terms of its governance and financing.  Indeed, because many ALBA programmes are funded off-budget by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, in turn controlled by the Venezuelan presidency, they can be jeopardised as much by political as economic upheaval in that country.  Since massive public spending on domestic social programmes also originates with PDVSA, any further deterioration of these public services would eat into President Maduro’s slim electoral advantage, opening the door to an opposition that sees ALBA simply as ‘giving away the oil’.

So what to do?  While the Venezuelan government officially budgets for an oil price of around US$60, even that is above the current level and it does not cover off-budget spending.  In the past Venezuela has been able to paper over occasional cracks with Chinese credit, but the recent collapse of oil prices raises issues of a different magnitude.  International financial markets are backing away and Venezuela’s cost of borrowing has risen dramatically.  Maduro recently proposed a partial devaluation that could help improve cash flow, but there is no guarantee that this will suffice, and devaluation comes with a political cost at a time when the president’s popularity is already on the wane.  Though sensible for the same reasons, his moves to reduce state subsidisation of domestic petrol consumption are also likely to prove unpopular.

OPEC has shown little sign of lowering production, and the only possible divine intervention would be geopolitical instability involving major producers.  The main problem remains the earthly one of increased shale exploitation in the US, itself only threatened by the same low prices worrying Venezuela.  Maduro will find himself exposed to the possibility of a recall referendum in April 2016, and his ability to continue as president will depend to a great extent on how he deals with these key economic questions.

For ALBA, and for the prospects of alternative regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean, the stakes could not be higher.


(An earlier version was published by SPERI, the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute)

Bringing the Archives Home is on Friday, 9 May!


by Dr Kristine Juncker

Here at ILAS, we are preparing for the second offering of the workshop ‘Bringing the Archives Home’. We will be presenting the workshop here in the Senate House Library in conjunction with colleagues from the British Library and the Warburg Institute.

As a result, you can find me this week sorting through my digital image files and trying to determine which of these provide the best examples of what to do (and what not to do) as we bravely forge ahead with digital technologies in the realms of research, writing and public presentation. Continue reading →

Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería


By Kristine Juncker, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow

Recently, the University Press of Florida posted information online about my first book, Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería. I began working on the book more than a decade ago. I was drawn to these materials, and particularly the four women about whom I write, because of the ongoing absence of histories of women who shaped the international character of modern and contemporary Latin America. Continue reading →