An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
19 December 2016
On 25th November this year, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz passed away at the age of 90. The news was met with a passionately divided response; with comments ranging from “Good riddance,” all the way through to expressions of “deep sorrow.”
This article is not concerned with adding an extra voice to either side of that debate, but rather it suffices to say that Fidel Castro – like him or loathe him – was at least a truly remarkable man. When he stepped down from the presidency in 2006, Castro ranked as the longest-serving non-royal leader in the world; he’s credited with the lengthiest political speech on record, at 7 hours and 10 minutes duration; he claimed to have survived 634 assassination attempts, largely credited to the CIA; and before any of that he had successfully overthrown the previous Cuban regime after arriving on the island with a force of just 82 men (in 1961, the US attempted something similar with a force of 1,400 paramilitaries. They failed).
For better or worse, Castro was one of a kind – an utterly unique figure in 20th century history – and of all the colourful, curious stories told about this man, not least extraordinary is the theory connecting Cuba’s communist leader to the Freemasons.
Hammer, Sickle, Square & Compass
The first thing you should know is that Freemasonry is a big deal in Cuba.
I was on a bus when I first began to notice it, somewhere on the road between Aguada de Pasajeros and Santa Clara. It was a hot, dusty day, and as the antique vehicle chugged along I was gazing out the window – watching a rolling landscape of yellowed grass and palm groves, unfinished buildings and the occasional flag-flying monument to the revolution. We passed through a village, its wide streets lined in the usual cocktail of Soviet-era concrete and colourful, crumbling Spanish Colonial architecture. Suddenly my eyes landed on one building that stood out from the rest; a burst of turquoise, red and gold, more elaborate than anything else on the street. As the bus rattled past, I noticed the emblem carved in bold strokes above the front door… a square and compass, framed in a glorious golden starburst.
The sign immediately distinguished this as a Masonic lodge; which was strange, I thought, as usually such places do little to announce their presence. In Western Europe, Freemasons’ lodges tend to be more conservative affairs. They are grand buildings, very often, but discrete enough that their function wouldn’t typically become apparent until one was close enough to make out their symbols, plaques and carvings. This Cuban lodge – or ‘logia’ – on the other hand was the most garish, colourful thing in town.
It was at that point I remembered I was travelling through a communist state, and my brain did a somersault… because as far as I knew, Freemasonry had been outlawed by virtually every communist party of the 20th century.
For example: the Grand Lodge of Yugoslavia was “put to sleep” for the period between 1940 and 1990. In Bulgaria, Freemasonry was banned by the 1940 ‘Act for the Defence of the Nation,’ and under the subsequent People’s Republic of Bulgaria, active and even past Freemasons were frequently sentenced to death as “agents of foreign intelligence services.”
Freemasonry was completely outlawed in the Soviet Union, too; and while some of the leading communist revolutionaries had been members of Masonic lodges, they would later come to denounce the Craft after seizing power in Russia. In his autobiography My Life, Leon Trotsky writes: “I discontinued my work on freemasonry to take up the study of Marxian economics. The work on freemasonry acted as a sort of test for these hypotheses. I think this influenced the whole course of my intellectual development.”
The general consensus seemed to be that a system of secrets and secret hierarchies was incompatible with the new mode of equal, Marxist society. Looking out the window of that humid, rattling bus however, it seemed as though Cuba disagreed.
That roadside carnival of a lodge was no exception to the rule, either, as I’d discover throughout the rest of my stay in Cuba. Now that my eyes were open I began noticing them everywhere: collecting them, even. I spotted the ‘Logia Luz del Sur,’ and ‘Logia Aurora del Bien,’ in Trinidad on the south coast of Cuba; ‘Logia José Jacinto Milanés’ in Matanzas, ‘Logia Hermanos de la Guardia’ in Cifuentes and ‘Logia Asilo de la Virtud’ (the ‘Asylum of Virtue’) in Cienfuegos.
They dominated town squares, they burst in colourful formations of pillars and plaster facades out of otherwise plain village streets. Far from outlawing Freemasonry, Cuba appeared to celebrate it; so I decided to do some digging and find out why.
Luz Del Sur: A Brief History of Freemasonry in Cuba
Cuba is home to a flourishing Masonic community. In 2010 it was reported that the island had 316 Masonic lodges, and more than 29,000 active members. According to Christopher Hodapp, author of Freemasons For Dummies, Freemasonry first appeared in Cuba in 1763, travelling by way of English and Irish military lodges. Numbers further increased with the influx of French Masons fleeing the Haitian Revolution of 1791.
The first part of this story is nothing peculiar: the former colonies of the Caribbean have long been a hotbed of Masonic activity, as I previously noted in an article for Atlas Obscura. But the Grand Lodge of Cuba, recognised as regular and correct by the majority of mainstream lodges around the world, is nevertheless remarkable in that it continues to thrive under a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. One of the popular explanations that has been offered for this puzzle posits that Castro himself was a Freemason.
When the revolutionaries landed on Cuba in 1956 – the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and the rest, all 82 of them squeezed onto a 12-berth yacht named Granma – the island was under the tyrannical rule of Fulgencio Batista. The story goes, that Fidel and his brother were hidden from Batista’s forces by a small Masonic lodge in the Sierra Maestras. It was from this lodge that Castro laid the foundations for his 26th of July Movement, which in 1959 would ultimately lead to a socialist revolution in Cuba.
Some say that Fidel Castro himself was initiated as a Mason during that time. Other stories suggest that it was only Raúl Castro who joined, or some of the other revolutionary fighters. Either way, the kindness and support allegedly given to Castro during those years by a remote Masonic community offered a popular theory for the tolerance Castro’s regime would later show towards the practitioners of Cuban Freemasonry.
It’s certainly a good story, though perhaps the truth might be simpler; after all, Cuba already owed a great debt to its Freemasons. During the island’s struggle for independence from Spain, from 1868 to 1895, many of Cuba’s leading revolutionaries were proud Masons – including Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Antonia Maceo and also the poet, journalist and revolutionary philosopher, José Marti. It would have been exceedingly difficult for the communist regime to separate the memory of Cuba’s national heroes from the ideas that they had openly celebrated. Perhaps they decided it was better to control Freemasonry, than to fight it.
“Afro-Cuban faith and Freemasonry … both played a role in consensus building in Cuba after the Revolution,” writes the folklorist E. C. Ballard. “The first was useful to gain support from the largely Afro-Cuban population of the island who remain poorly represented in the government. The second ensured the sympathy of the Latin American left.”
As a result Freemasonry in Cuba remained legal, though it was carefully monitored by the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. It has also been claimed that the Cuban government plants agents in lodges to act as informants for the state; according to Miami-based Manuel Olmedo, President of the Federation of Cuban Masons in Exile, “All the Lodges are infiltrated, and whenever they have a meeting, the next day the government already knows what was discussed.”
Membership numbers rose after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Castro’s government further eased restrictions on the Craft: opening new lodges, and even permitting Masons to participate in public ceremonies dressed in full regalia. Nevertheless, the rules governing Cuban Freemasonry are still a confusing mass of contradictions. “The publishing of Masonic books and even pamphlets is severely restricted,” writes Christopher Hodapp; yet they seem to operate their own lodges with very little intervention, and even “welcome dissidents as members.”
More than a third of Cuba’s Freemasons are based in Havana, where the impressive Grand Lodge building dominates an entire city block with its plaster facade daubed in esoteric symbols. This is the nucleus of Cuban Freemasonry, its public face, its archive, the nerve centre from which all 316 Cuban lodges are regulated; and after my week of road-tripping through the cities of the south, I was hoping to stop by and pay them a visit.
Gran Logia de Cuba
Back in Havana, I spent a morning wandering the city’s main cemetery, Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. Row upon row of polished marble, the necropolis was founded in 1876 by the Spanish – and as I wandered the endless parade of bleached-white stone, I found a mass of esoteric epitaphs amongst the grave markers. Lodges gathered their dead together, wrought iron fences separating the deceased into memorial plots according to Masonic fraternity. The graven symbols of the Craft were rarely discreet.
In the afternoon I set out for the Grand Lodge of Cuba, at no. 508 Avenida Salvador Allende: a towering eleven-storey building that, before the appearance of a new wave of tourist hotels in the capital, was once claimed as the second tallest building on the island. (The avenue itself meanwhile was named after the 30th president of Chile; a Marxist, a Freemason, and a good friend of Fidel Castro.)
I spotted the Gran Logia de Cuba almost the moment I turned onto the avenue. I had cut through the backstreets on my way there – past a burnt-out car on Calle San Francisco, under washing lines and spiderwebbed telephone cables, where children played baseball in the street – and then suddenly there it was. Pontiacs and corvettes puttered up and down the avenue while at the far end, rising clear of the colonial blocks and arches, a yellow titan broke the horizon. It was every bit as subtle as the village lodges I’d seen, eleven floors of budget Art Deco capped off with a globe, a square and compass.
Opened in 1955, Havana’s Masonic headquarters contain the office of the grand secretary, a museum, a home for elderly Masons and an extensive library (though according to rumours, the Cuban government has since commandeered most of the floors for its own use). It was the library I was aiming for, since I’d heard that the place was allegedly open to regular layfolk too. I got close – close enough to admire the zodiac clock set into the building’s facade – but I wouldn’t get inside.
A black gentleman in suit and glasses stood between the doors, and greeted me with a quizzical smile. He asked a question in Spanish. I didn’t understand and so I asked him, “Biblioteca?” He shook his head, still smiling. No library for me. I gestured past him, towards the innards of the building, and said Please in Spanish along with the best smile I could manage; but I was answered with a motion of genteel refusal.
By all accounts, the building is quite extraordinary inside. E. C. Ballard calls it the best-kept building in Cuba, full of leather couches and luminous globes, its walls hung with medals and swords. While I may not have seen that for myself, however, I did find an illuminating account of another visitor’s experience.
In his Travel Diary of a Freemason in Cuba, the Italian Brother Luca Scarparelli describes a visit to the Grand Lodge of Cuba, during which he was permitted to join a meeting. “The Temple is a large room well furnished, but the temperature is really hellish,” he writes, “One brother goes around the lodge distributing fans (with the stamp of the Lodge) and everyone flaps away to mitigate the heat.” During the opening ceremony, “the national anthem is played on an old tape recorder and all our Cuban brethren salute the Cuban flag.”
The Craft of Cuba is unique, and seems as though tailored to the reality of its citizens’ lives. The tradition of dining together after a meeting is skipped, says Scarparelli, “because none of the Cuban brethren can afford to go to a restaurant, even a modest one.”
The dress code amongst Cuban Masons also seems to be somewhat more relaxed. In place of suits and ties, Scarparelli comments that, “some wear shirts that we would only wear to the beach.”
In one particularly fascinating twist, he reports that women are sometimes admitted to Cuban Masonic lodges too. American folklorist E. C. Ballard speculates how such an adaptation “is welcomed generally in a society which formally eschews bias and discrimination of any kind”; and it certainly shows a more progressive outlook than the patriarchal traditionalism practised by Masonic lodges in almost every other country in the world.
After my firm yet friendly refusal at the Gran Logia de Cuba, I crossed over the road; strolling through the Parque de La Santa Varela, where a woman washed clothes in a bucket on the grass, and children played barefoot around the open spaces. The back wall of the plaza was engraved with a contoured bust of Karl Marx, beside the words: “PROLETARIOS DE TODOS LOS PAISES UNIOS!”
Workers of the World, Unite – carved in bold strokes beneath a towering square and compass.
I was just taking another photograph of the building when a voice in my ear said, “You want to know about the Masons?”
The man stood beside me was sixty, perhaps, with a sun-weathered face but the wiry body of a farm worker. I’d noticed him as I arrived in the park, raking leaves while puffing on a cigar. “Hector,” he said with a mischievous smile, as he shook my hand.
What happened next was a story in itself, though it followed a script I was already familiar with. Hector told me that his brother worked at a cigar factory. He had the good stuff, very cheap, and if I came to his house he could make me an excellent deal. In Cuba, it sometimes seems like everyone has a brother who works at the cigar factory. Hector’s scam came with an irresistible hook though: “You come, and I’ll tell you everything about the Masons.” So I did.
Hector’s home was a few blocks away, past the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús and down a series of narrow streets beyond. It was simple, but comfortable inside. Hector set a wooden chair for me at the table, and poured a glass of sugary lemon drink; he lit a cigar, then passed me one too. After that he presented a wooden cigar box and began his sales pitch. I reminded him about the Masons, but all he’d do was smile and push the box at me. So I bought the cigars (they’d turn out to be low quality, nothing like the free sample, and a week later I’d offer them as a gift to the loa at a vodou shrine in Haiti) and I tried to steer back to the conversation he’d promised.
Hector suddenly seemed tired though, no longer as chatty as before. He mostly answered my questions with smiles and shrugs – told me nothing I hadn’t already read – and so I decided to go nuclear: “Is Fidel Castro a Freemason?” I asked him. He laughed.
“Perhaps,” he said, blowing a cloud of smoke. “Who knows? Raúl certainly is.”
And then a thought crossed my mind.
“Hector,” I said, “are you a Freemason?”
Hector puffed thoughtfully on his cigar for a moment, his head half lost in the clouds. “If I am not, I would tell you No,” he replied. “But if I am, I would also tell you No.” Then he laughed, quite enigmatically, and I decided to leave it at that.