NGOs: The New Missionaries

What NGO workers embroiled in scandal in Cairo could have learned from the trials of early 20th-century Cuban missionaries.

But while the Protestant missionary enterprise had undeniable success on the island, Cubans and their Catholic leaders did not assent to every American idea. During a controversy over an interdenominational Protestant movement’s plan to erect a “great educational plant” in Cuba, one Havana newspaper’s headline questioned the association’s true motive: “Evangelization or Americanization?” Roman Catholic Cubans came to learn that these self-proclaimed Protestant saviors brought with them more than just their King James Version of the Bible and Sunday School curricula. These unappointed American ambassadors brought America, in all its capitalistic, individualistic, democratic and anti-Catholic glory. Not surprisingly, Cubans, who were then struggling with their newfound independence from Spain, had every reason to object to the sudden imposition by those whom they feared were positioning themselves to become their next imperial overlords.

These forebodings plagued U.S.–Cuban relations until the arrival of Fidel Castro in 1959, at which point the cessation of diplomatic ties pushed aside whatever lingering doubts either nation had as to the other’s intentions. Fifty years later, Americans can only look back wistfully at these little-studied interactions between American missionaries and their foreign neighbors ninety miles to the south. As the United States ventures further abroad in the idealistic hope of spreading democracy and building nations, it ignores the valuable lesson its fervid Protestant predecessors learned just a stone’s throw from Florida: revolutionary cultural change does not always accord with the American national interest.

Mark G. Brennan is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Under the supervision of Bruce Kuklick, Walter McDougall and Jonathan Steinberg, he is writing his dissertation on the activities of American Protestant missionaries in Cuba between 1898 and 1950.

Image: cristee12

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