Before the arrival of the Spaniards, Cuba was inhabited by the indigenous people. The Spanish conquest and colonisation resulted in the virtual decimation of the indigenous population. They were nearly wiped out by the outbreak of infectious diseases such as chicken pox and measles, brought by the colonisers, against which they had no immunity.
Slavery became a massive public institution with the transatlantic slave trade. Between the early 16th century and the middle of the 19th, an estimated 12 million people from Africa were captured or bought and forcibly transported to Brazil and the Caribbean, where they were sold at auction and taken to the New World. Thousands died during the perilous journey due to disease or exhaustion or wounds. Most of the slaves brought from Africa were made to work on cotton and fruit plantations and rice farms. Following the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas in the 15th century, the indigenous people were treated in the most inhuman manner. This provoked a fierce debate among Spanish intellectuals and the clergy. Some of them argued that the Amerindians had no souls and therefore could not be entitled to the rights enjoyed by civilized Europeans. Juan Gines Sepulveda (1489-1573), a Spanish Catholic theologian, justified the enslavement of the Indians on the grounds that they were “natural slaves.” By the mid-18th century, Spanish colonisers held some 50,000 slaves.
Cuba is a developing country. The economy is sustained by the import of sugar, tobacco and coffee. In the Middle Ages, Muslim and Christian traders were drawn to Mexico on account of its abundant production of sugar.
In many Latin American countries, racial miscegenation between Spanish and Portuguese colonisers and the indigenous population produced a hybrid population category known as mestizo. Mestizos constitute the largest population groups in Brazil, Guyana, Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Line most Latin American countries, Latin Cuba is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic nation. Centuries of colonisation and slavery resulted in considerable miscegenation. The population consists of Whites (64.1%), mestizos (26%) and Blacks (9.3%). About 65% of the population is Catholic while a quarter of the population has no religious affiliation. The beliefs and ritual practices of nearly three-fourths of Cuba’s population are a curious mixture of Catholicism and African and indigenous forms of animism. Spanish is the most widely-spoken and national language.
Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, atheism was declared the state ideology and restrictions were placed on religious practices. However, these restrictions were relaxed in the course of time. Freedom of religion is protected under the law and discrimination on grounds of religion, race or colour is prohibited.
Islam in Cuba
Islam was brought to Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s by Muslim students from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Chad, who came to Cuba to study medicine. The medical schools at the University of Havana and the University of Santiago de Cuba and at Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (Latin American School of Medicine) ae internationally recognised for excellence in medical education.
The current population of Muslims in Cuba is around 10,000, which accounts for less than 0.1% of the population. Most of the Muslim population consists of converts. One of the first converts was Pedro Lazo Torres, now Yahya, who embraced Islam in 1988. Lionel Diaz, who goes by the Islamic name of Mohammad, converted at the age of 73. Yaquelin Diaz, who has adopted the Islamic name Aisha, converted to Islam in Spain, where she lived for 8 years.
Muslims in Cuba are faced with several problems and challenges, including deeply entrenched prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. Media reports which highlight the disproportionate involvement of Muslims in terrorist activities in many parts of the world have fuelled and reinforced these prejudices and stereotypes.
One of the biggest problems facing the Muslim community is the lack of proper and spacious mosques. Permission for the construction of mosques is routinely denied by the Communist rulers. Cuba is the only country in Latin America which has no proper mosques.
Muslims generally offer prayers in their homes or in some rented apartments, which serve as makeshift mosques. In Havana’s old quarter, an old colonial-style building is used as a mosque for congregational prayers. The mosque has a small, slender green and white minaret and the walls of the prayer hall are decorated with Arabic calligraphy.
The only place where the Friday prayers are conducted in public is Casa de Los Arabes (“The Arab House”) in Havana. The Arab House, which reflects a distinct Andalusian architectural style, was built by a wealthy Arab merchant, who had lived in Cuba in the 1940s. The Arab House has a museum, an Islamic restaurant and a sort of a “mosque” for Friday prayers for Muslim diplomats. There are 16 Arab diplomatic missions in Havana. Qatar’s royal family has donated $40,000 for refurbishing the premises. The “mosque” is open only on Fridays for three hours.
In June 2015, a museum in Call Officios in Old Havana was converted into a prayer hall with the approval of the Office of the Historian, a body responsible for the restoration of central Havana. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered funds for the construction of a mosque, and the construction is underway.
Shaykh Muhammad bin Nasir al-Aboudy, Assistant Secretary-General of the Makkah-based Muslim World League, recently led a delegation to Cuba, where he met with the authorities and requested them to grant permission for the establishment of an Islamic organisation in Cuba, which could take care of the religious and cultural needs of the Muslim community in the country. So far there has been no positive response from the government.
Conversion to Islam marks a radical departure from the culture and conventional lifestyle of the Cubans. Cubans are extremely fond of rum and pork products. Partying and dancing are an essential part of the lifestyle of Cubans. It is extremely difficult to get halal meat in the country. During Ramadan, the Saudi embassy in Havana supplies dates and halal meat to local Muslims. Some supermarkets are now importing halal meat from Brazil. There is no shop in the country where Muslim women could buy the headscarf and other appropriate Islamic clothing. Muslim women who wear the headscarf sometimes experience stigmatization and discrimination at the university and the workplace.
However, Cuban Muslims remain undaunted by these problems and challenges.