Illustration of Fidel Castro and a hand holding a briefcase


The Cuba Watch

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Gwendolyn Yvonne Alexis

As Fidel Castro struggles with what presumably is his last illness, many venture capitalists in corporate America are waiting with bated breath, painfully aware that they are missing out on the first-mover advantage of their counterparts in Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. Entrepreneurs in these steadfast United States trading partners are engaging in lucrative trade with Cuba. The Helms-Burton Act has not convinced many fellow Western democracies to offer up their sovereign autonomy in the name of presenting a unified front against the only nondemocratic regime in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, not all U.S. enterprises are being shackled by the decades-long embargo on trade with Cuba. Alabama’s commissioner of agriculture reports that Alabama farmers alone are selling over $25 million worth of poultry to Cuba annually. And, U.S.-based religious groups have been actively contributing to foreign direct investment (FDI) in Cuba since the early 1990s.

Indeed, during a Cuban visit in March 2005, I was stunned by the myriad assortment of religious communities in a Castro-led Cuba, all thriving through the assistance of U.S.-based affiliates. A massive buildup of social capital has occurred within Cuba’s pubescent religious sector through strategic links with sister congregations and denominational organizations located in the United States. This has enabled the Cuban religious sector to attract FDI to an extent that challenges the traditional business school wisdom that FDI follows democratization, and not vice versa. How have U.S. religious groups been able to circumvent the four-and-a-half-decades-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba? There are three factors that have made this circumvention possible. First, religious groups benefit from lenient exceptions to the embargo established by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the Treasury Department. There are special licensing categories for activities in Cuba by religious organizations, and also for those engaged in “Humanitarian Projects and Support for the Cuban People.” Thus, there are two safe harbor categories providing below-the-radar passage for inflows of capital and human resources to Cuban religious communities.

A wealth of entrepreneurial creativity has led to a wide variety of religious investment taking place in Cuba.

Second, a wealth of entrepreneurial creativity has led to a wide variety of religious investment taking place in Cuba. There are 31 officially recognized denominations in Cuba, and this diversity of religious representation has contributed to the amount of religious “traffic” in Cuba. Outsider trafficking in religion is of three main types: religious pilgrimage, missionary work, and financial assistance to religious communities. Placing an activity squarely within any one of these three classifications is difficult because of the human tendency to multi-task. As an example, I traveled to Cuba as part of a New York Bar Association delegation of 19 lawyers engaged in studying the Cuban legal system. Hence, the purpose of our travel was ostensibly research; but we all packed our suitcases with significant amounts of medical supplies and used clothing that we could leave for the Cuban people. The churches in Cuba were the established drop-off points for further distribution of these donations.

One member of our delegation, an active member of the Greek Orthodox Church, visited the Greek Orthodox Church in Old Havana and left clothing, toiletries, and medicines for the congregation. Four Jewish members of our delegation attended Friday worship services at one of Havana’s three Jewish synagogues, Beth Shalom, and left a large assortment of medical sup-plies at the Patronato (Jewish Community Center) in Havana, which has a pharmacy staffed by a doctor and two pharmacists.

And, finally, there is an unrelenting formation of affiliations between Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Muslim, and nondenominational spiritual groups in the United States and their fledgling counterparts in post-atheist Cuba. The Methodists provide a prime example of the investments of financial and human capital United States religious groups are making. Teams of United Methodist volunteers have traveled to Cuba to work alongside Cuban Methodists in constructing a youth camp with four dormitories, a meeting hall, a dining hall, and a kitchen complex. Moreover, worldwide Methodists have several fund-raising campaigns dedicated to fulfilling the needs of Methodist congregations in Cuba. Under an “EvangeBicy” campaign, 300 bicycles were provided for the missionary pastors of Cuban Methodist house-churches.

Another example is the Havana Jewish community, which has many sister synagogues in the United States organizing “missions to Cuba” to provide support for a Cuban Jewish population of approximately 1,500 (down from 15,000 before the Cuban Revolution). It is with the Jewish faith that we see some of the most creative religious entrepreneurship. In 2000, using a circuitous route through Belgium to avoid the embargo, the U.S.-based B’nai B’rith Jewish Relief Project sent medical textbooks valued at $500,000 to the University of Havana Medical School. This same organization routed a shipment of 280 new wheel-chairs through China in 2004 for eventual distribution through hospitals in Cuba. Over the years, the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project estimates that it has ex-ported over $6 million worth of medicines, Judaica, and other supplies to Cuba.

The watershed year for religious trafficking was 1992, the year that the Cuban government amended Article 54 of the Cuban Constitution to exclude the phrase “scientific materialistic conception of the universe.” As originally enacted, this article effectively declared religion to be a stigmatized relic of Cuba’s prerevolutionary era by endorsing atheism:

Article 54. The socialist state, that bases its activity and educates the people in the scientific materialistic conception of the universe, recognizes and guarantees the freedom of conscience, the individual right to profess any religious belief and to practice, within the confines of the law, the religion of his preference [emphasis added].

Coupled with a 1991 law that allowed Cubans both to belong to the Communist Party and to participate in religious association, the government’s abandonment of its atheist stance served to open up the spiritual floodgates in a nation where at least 70 percent of the population continues to practice Santeria even after becoming affiliated with one of the mainstream Christian faiths.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of an influx of Russian rubles, filling the huge void in the Cuban economy became a top priority for Castro. Removing the barriers to religious FDI, while encouraging religious tourism with his own high-profile visit to the Vatican in 1998, was a brilliant move by Castro and set the stage for a religious renaissance in a nation where the innate spirituality of the people had never been dampened—just driven underground.

Success, of course, has its price. Religious FDI in Cuba has grown to such an extent that it is beginning to garner negative attention from the United States government. On July 10, 2006, the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (a creation of the current Bush administration) issued a report recommending tighter controls on the export of humanitarian aid to Cuba, in order to “ensure that exports are consigned to entities that support an independent civil society” and not to organizations administered or controlled by the Castro regime, “such as the Cuban Council of Churches.”

This disparaging characterization of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC)—an organization originally established in Havana in 1941—was widely criticized by religious groups around the world. In defense of the CCC, the National Council of Churches (a United States organization) posted the his-tory of the CCC on its website, noting that at least half of the numerous Protestant denominations in Cuba and 11 ecumenical bodies, including the Student Christian Movement, are affiliated with the CCC. Yet, the CCC is an understandable target for an administration concerned with plugging up holes in the U.S. trade embargo. The organization has been a magnet for attracting U.S. funds and human resources to Cuba; its operation includes a youth department, a studies center, a women’s department, and a medical commission that organizes donations of medicines to its various health pro-grams throughout the Cuban countryside.

The CCC serves as a prototype of the religious networks that have elected not to wait for a post-Castro regime to get on with their affairs. Indeed, it can be said that the U.S. religious sector has the early-mover advantage when it comes to making direct investments in the Cuban economy. Not content to hold its breath until such time as Castro takes his last, the United States religious sector has played a major role in making religion the growth industry that it is in today’s Cuba.

Gwendolyn Yvonne Alexis is Assistant Professor of Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at Monmouth University Business School in New Jersey. A Harvard Law School graduate (’72), she also has a master’s in ethics from Yale Divinity School.

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