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Forget Fidel, just give me the secret handshake, senor

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The Age

Forget Fidel, just give me the secret handshake, senor

By David Gonzalez

May 1, 2002

Cuba's capital has a sovereign grand commander who wears a uniform, is privy to secrets and partial to symbolism. But he is not Fidel Castro. His name is Jesus Armada Pena, and he is a 33rd degree mason who presides over Cuba's Supreme Council at an imposing, if age-worn, Scottish Rite Masonic temple in central Havana.

Long discouraged and distrusted by the authorities, Cuba's masons have seen their ranks more than double since the 1980s, to 29,000 members in more than 316 lodges across the island. Earlier this year, the Cuban Government gave permission for two new lodges, the first since 1967.

Along with other fraternal or mystical groups, like the Oddfellows and the Rosicrucians, the Masons have been attracting men searching for more enduring answers than those offered by communism, the only system generations of Cubans have ever known.

Once shrouded in secrecy, the fraternal groups - which exist in many countries and have origins as old as the Crusades - shun specific religions and ideologies and say their purpose is to foster brotherhood and search for truth.

The Masons, the largest of Cuba's brotherhoods, meet weekly to celebrate rituals in rooms with flaked murals of the heavens and tarnished swords on pedestals. They sit, wearing threadbare ceremonial aprons, in high-backed wooden chairs.

Members visit the sick in hospitals and help out their families. Armada's masonic temple distributes medicine and vitamins donated by lodges in the United States and Europe. The brotherhoods are creating a mutual aid network that seeks - very cautiously - to provide what Castro's government does not or will not.

"We have always existed in Cuba," Armada says. "But after the revolution there was a decrease in membership. So many left the country, while others thought the Masons no longer had a reason for being because our principles and foundation as an institution were overtaken by the political process.

"Now we have found an echo among the young. They are looking for answers to their worries, which the state could not give them."

What the state has long given the masons is trouble, going back to the rule of Spain in the 1800s. The first lodges were founded by French settlers who fled the slave revolt in Haiti. Cuba's Grand Lodge and the Supreme Council were created in 1859, and attracted many men who would go on to fight Spanish colonial rule.

Pointing to a portrait on his office wall of Benito Juarez, the mason and Mexican hero, he said the fellowship has had a strong appeal to nationalists. Even Jose Marti, the fabled apostle of Cuba's fight against Spain, was said to have been a mason.

"The mason is imbued with the ideals of the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the philosophical currents of the time, like Rousseau," Armada says.

But when the communists came to power in 1959, the masons' ideas were seen as a threat. Membership plummeted from 39,000 to 14,000 by 1980 as the group was treated as a clandestine counter-revolutionary sect.

Recently the government has given a little more leeway, even allowing some masons to travel to conventions overseas. Members are careful not to overstep their bounds, and they give the government reports on their meetings.

Lately, they have been allowed to conduct wreath-laying ceremonies in public parks. But they cannot hold street processions with unfurled banners.

"There is a great vacuum after the fall of the socialist bloc did away with any hope for people to develop themselves," says Raul Rivero, an independent Cuban journalist. "So people sought refuge in those groups looking for solidarity. For these fraternal groups the loyalty is to the human being. For the government, solidarity is conditioned on political principle."

Officially, the government now says the masons are linked to some of the nobler moments of Cuba's past. Privately, masons complain that they are infiltrated with government agents and sometimes receive veiled warnings about their meetings with foreigners, including American diplomats.

Those diplomats are watching the growth of the fraternal orders with interest.

"They loosen the bonds of the state by showing that services and resources can be provided by people themselves," said Vicky Huddleston, the head of the US Interests Section in Havana. "For a communist system, that is a dangerous idea."

Masons insist that Cuban politics, like race, are not discussed inside the temple's thick walls. But they say their talks are free-ranging, covering everything from democracy to the human genome project.

The masons do have their secrets, like the phrases and signals they use to identify one another. But they openly proclaim their principles - indoors. Inside the temple's entrance is a huge framed copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In recent years, rights advocates who tried to distribute the document in public were arrested, and the issue is sensitive now after the United Nations voted this month to criticise Cuba's human rights record.

"What are human rights in the context of a nation or a person?" Armada muses. "Say I am a head of state and I ruin the country. Thousands of people suffer the consequences of my error. Have I gone against human rights?"

Then, with a smile, he adds a quick coda: "That was hypothetical."

- New York Times

Further Reading

Freemasonry in Cuba