Torres Cuevas, president of the Department of Historic Studies of Cuban Freemasonry at Havana University has announced an international academic symposium on the influence of Masonry in Latin America. Taking place December 5th-8th, researchers from Latin America and Europe will explore the role of the fraternity in the region's independence movement. Speakers will include director of the Center of Historic Studies of Spanish Freemasonry José Antonio Benemelis, and Italian Masonic historian Aldo Mola.
Freemasonry, according to Cuevas, “is a non political institution. It is not religious, but it is ethical, therefore their projection joins together religious and politicians and is the nucleus to understand the intellectual, social, political and cultural world of Latin America.” The goal of the conference is to create a Center for the Study of Latin American Freemasonry.
Freemasonry in Cuba was founded in 1859 by Spanish colonial plantation owners fleeing a slave revolt in Haiti, and the fraternity was quite popular in Cuba prior to the 1959 revolution. After many years of decline and friction with the Castro government, Cuban Masonry has rebounded from a low of 14,000 members to 30,000 today, in 341 lodges.
Masonry occupies a unique position in Cuban society, where most civic groups are closely allied with, or monitored by, the government. They do not take a confrontational stance with authorities, yet they welcome dissidents as members. Mark Falcoff, a Latin American scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said in 2003 that the Masons' non-confrontational approach toward authorities has allowed them to survive independently in a system where most civic groups are affiliated with the government.
"It's a tactic to attract people who do not want to get into trouble but at the same time wish to be free," Falcoff said. "It's an attempt to split the difference."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's principal trading partner, the government eased restrictions on Freemasonry, allowing them limited ability to participate in public ceremonies and to charter the first new lodges since 1967. Still, anything more than holding regular meetings requires government permission. And the publishing of Masonic books and even pamphlets is severely restricted. But what makes Freemasonry unique in Cuba is the role it played in the three decade struggle for independence from Spain between 1868 and 1895, with many Cuban revolutionaries like Joseph Marti, Antonia Maceo and "father of the nation" Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. Those national heros and their Masonic affiliation are hard for Communist authorities to sweep under the carpet. The result is Masonry's unusual ability to straddle the line between an oppressive state and freedom.