Pope John Paul II, Homily in Santiago, Cuba, January 24, 1998
...The Cuban people cannot be deprived of links to other peoples that are necessary for their economic, social, and cultural development, especially when the isolation provokes indiscriminate repercussions in the population, exaggerating the difficulties of the most weak in basic respects, as with food, health, and education. Everyone can and should take concrete steps for a change in this respect.
Pope John Paul II, Farewell Address at the José Martí International Airport, Havana, January 25, 1998
Pope John Paul II's January 1998 visit to Cuba sparked hope that the government would ease its repressive tactics and would allow greater religious freedom. The papal visit provided unprecedented opportunities for public demonstrations of faith in a country that imposed tight restrictions on religious expression in 1960 and was officially atheist until 1992. Although Cuba refused visas to some foreign journalists and pressured some domestic critics, the pope's calls for freedom of religion, conscience, and expression created an unprecedented air of openness. But while Cuba permits greater opportunities for religious expression than it did in past years, and has allowed several religious-run humanitarian groups to operate, the government still maintains tight control on religious institutions, affiliated groups, and individual believers. Since the exercise of religious freedom is closely linked to other freedoms, including those of expression, association, and assembly, Cuban believers face multiple restrictions on religious expression.
Cuba's reluctance to lift additional bars on religious expression likely stems from the status of Cuban churches as among the country's few nongovernmental institutions with national scope. The Catholic church, which claims as adherents some 70 percent of Cuba's population—although only a small portion of these are practicing Catholocism—stands as the largest, best organized, national,nongovernmental institution.77 Practicioners of Afro-Cuban faiths, including Santería and La Regla de Ocha, are believed to be second to Catholics in numbers, while Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jews comprise smaller denominations.78 Despite substantial impediments to religious expression, which are detailed below, Cuba's faithful have made progress in recent years. For example, Cuba apparently has improved its treatment of the nation's approximately 80,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, who previously encountered government harassment due to their religious opposition to military service and participation in pro-government organizations. At a December 1998 international conference of Jehovah's Witnesses in Havana, a member of the religion's governing board praised the Cuban government, saying that it "clearly sees that Jehovah's Witnesses form an integral part of the society in which we live."79 Believers from distinct faiths are holding services, forming community groups, in some cases producing publications—albeit with limited distribution—and offering significant humanitarian assistance to the population.80
Yet, Cuba apparently keeps religious groups,
particularly the Catholic church, under surveillance. One former Interior
Ministry official who reportedly was responsible for questions of national
security told the Miami Herald, that "The church was always seen
as a danger because it is the only force inside the country capable of
bringing people together and even organizing a subtle form of
resistance." This official and two other high-ranking former Cuban governmentofficials said that Cuba assigned between ten and fifteen intelligence officials to spy on religious institutions.81
Cuban law claims to ensure religious freedom, and has allowed for broader religious expression in recent years, yet simultaneously restricts it. In 1992, reforms to the 1976 constitution decreed that Cuba was no longer an atheistic state and that religious freedoms would be guaranteed if they were "based on respect for the law."82 But Cuba's constitution and other laws create impediments to the freedoms of association, expression, and assembly, all essential aspects of religious expression. Cuba's Criminal Code penalizes "abuse of the freedom of religion," which is broadly defined as invoking a religious basis to oppose educational objectives or the failure to take up arms in the country's defense or to show reverence for the homeland's symbols.83 While Human Rights Watch does not know of any recent prosecutions for this crime, Cuba's failure to rescind it calls into question the government's commitment to protecting religious rights.
Cuba grants the Department of Attention to Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Departamento de Atención a los Asuntos Religiosos del Comité Central del Partido Comunista) a prominent role in overseeing religious institutions. Not surprisingly, religious leaders who support the government face fewer impediments to their activities than do believers who find themselves at odds with the ruling party. At the 1991 Communist Party Fourth Congress, the party decided that religious belief would no longer pose an obstacleto membership.84 In the wake of this decision, some religious figures are now members of the Communist Party or even political leaders themselves, such as Pablo Odén Marichal, the president of the Cuban Council of Churches (Consejo Cubano de Iglesias), who is a deputy in Cuba's National Assembly. Baptist Minister Raúl Suárez Ramos, with the Cuban Council of Churches, also is a deputy in Cuba's National Assembly, and heads the Martin Luther King Memorial Center, a nongovernmental group with close ties to the government.85 Suárez Ramos earned government acclaim in 1990 when he lauded the revolution as "a blessing for our poor people" and criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba as an "economic, political, radio, and television aggression."86 Both deputies often travel internationally and participate in conferences on religion in Cuba. But the party treats distinctly those who do not share its political views. The current head of the party's religious affairs office, Caridad Diego, criticized an American Catholic priest who had worked in the Villa Clara area for supporting "counterrevolutionary groups."87 The priest, Patrick Sullivan, had posted copies of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in his church and had urged his parishioners to defend those rights. In April 1998, facing increasing government pressure, Sullivan chose to leave Cuba. Although Cuba and the Vatican had agreed that the pope would visit Cuba in 1989, the Catholic church's failure to condemn the U.S. embargo at that time apparently contributed to the several-year delay in finalizing the visit.88 When the pope did travel to Cuba in early 1998, the Cuban government trumpeted his criticisms of the U.S. embargo.
Pope John Paul II's Visit to Cuba
On a positive note, the government allowed massive public demonstrations of faith during the pope's January 1998 visit to Cuba. The pope presided over four open-air Catholic masses, in Santa Clara, Camagüey, Santiago, and Havana. Tens of thousands of Cubans attended, hearing the pope's exhortations for freedom of religion and conscience, which also were broadcast on Cuban state-controlled television. In a remarkable visual display, Cuban authorities allowed a huge mural of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to rise in the Plaza of the Revolution, where it stood for the papal mass between statues of Cuban heroes Ernesto "Ché" Guevara and José Martí. The government not only allowed citizens to attend papal masses, but encouraged them to do so, calling on the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and other mass organizations to turn out as well. However, government agents reportedly notified some dissidents that they should not attend the papal events. At the papal mass in Havana, some government supporters reportedly attempted to drown out the cries of "liberty" from the crowd. Two men and one woman who criticized the government reportedly were arrested at the same mass, one by state security agents and the other by men wearing Cuban Red Cross uniforms.89 Cuba also had failed to grant dozens of foreign reporters and some international human rights activists permission to travel to Cuba for the papal pilgrimage.90
In his speeches and homilies, Pope John Paul II urged respect for human rights and called for the unconditional release of political prisoners. At the mass in Havana, the pope stated that liberation "finds its fullness in the exercise of the freedom of conscience, the base and foundation of the other human rights."91 Of the Cuban clergy, Archbishop Pedro Meurice of Santiago received public acclaim when his welcoming remarks for the Santiago papal mass included the statement that, "our people are respectful of authority, and want order, but they need to learn to demystify false messiahs."92 Following the papal visit, Cuba released some one hundred political prisoners, but most of these had served the majority of theirsentences, and police required them to agree to refrain from opposition activities. Cuba freed seventeen of these prisoners on the condition that they accept exile in Canada, violating their right to remain in their homeland and setting aside the pope's request for the reintegration of prisoners into Cuban society.93
Restrictions of Religious Expression
The Central Committee of the Communist Party's Department of Attention to Religious Affairs reportedly reviews religious institutions' requests to build churches, hold marches, print materials and obtain printing presses, import vehicles or other supplies, receive and deliver humanitarian aid, obtain entry or exit visas for religious workers or operate religious schools. Cuba's heavy-handed measures against religious institutions on these matters impede religious freedom. For example, the department's director, Caridad Diego, stated that her office had no intention of approving religious schools. Diego gave a vague response when asked about 130 pending visa applications for foreign clergy, saying only that they were "not a closed issue."94 Since Cuba expelled most foreign priests and nuns shortly after the revolution, there are now some 900 Catholic clergy in Cuba, half of them Cuban. Cuba had approved some twenty entry visas for foreign clergy shortly before the papal visit. As of December 1998, Cuba had approved entry visas for forty additional foreign Catholic priests and nuns.95 Cuba pressures Cuban religious workers by denying them exit visas. The government reportedly denied a Baptist pastor, Rev. Roberto Hernández Aguiar, permission to travel outside Cuba in September 1998.96 Churches hoping to expand operations in Cuba also are slowed by the government's refusal to permit church construction and a ban onservices held outside of churches, in "house churches."97 From the revolution until 1990, Cuba reportedly only allowed the construction of one church, a Protestant one in Varadero. In 1997 and early 1998, Cuba granted the Catholic church permission to build one seminary and one church.98
In June 1998 the Communist Party reportedly refused permits for religious processions in Arroyo Naranjo to celebrate the feast day of Saint Anthony, and in Calabazar, in the municipality of Boyeros, to celebrate the feast of Saint John the Baptist. When the priest requesting the permits tried to go to the municipal authorities for permission, as would other nongovernmental institutions, those authorities insisted that the Communist Party review the request.99 On September 7, 1998, Cuban authorities allowed approximately 1,000 people to take part in a religious procession honoring the Virgin of Regla in Havana.100 But on the next day, the feast of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, seven activists could not attend the festivities because they were under arrest, while state security agents prevented thirty others from attending by not allowing them to leave the Havana home of Isabel del Pino Sotolongo of the Christ the King Movement church.101
Cuba allowed unprecedented access to its national airwaves during the papal visit, but has provided little opportunity for religious institutions to broadcast their message since that time. Cuba has no independent radio or television stations. While the government maintains tight control over the printed word, a few churches have been able to publish religious newsletters with limited circulation in recent years. Protestants and Catholics, in particular, continue to push for furtheraccess to the state-controlled airwaves.102 On December 25, 1998, Cuba permitted Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of Cuba's Catholic church, to deliver a Christmas message on the government's national music radio station, which reportedly has a small listening audience.103
One of Cuba's most prominent dissident organizations, the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), under the direction of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, has been trying for a few years to get 10,000 signatures on a petition for political reform, in the hope that it would lead to a referendum. Payá Sardiñas has been outspoken in his calls for religious rights, such as the freedom to build churches and offer religious education, as well as related rights, such as forming independent associations and releasing political prisoners.104 The MCL's activities have resulted in government pressures. In February 1997, a Cuban court convicted MCL member Enrique García Morejón, who had been gathering signatures for the petition, of enemy propaganda and sentenced him to four years in prison.105 Cuban government officials have denied several requests from Payá Sardiñas to leave the country for MCL-related events, most recently in October 1998, when migration authorities refused permission for him to attend a human rights conference in Poland.106
Impediments to Humanitarian Aid Programs
Religious institutions such as the Catholic organization Caritas have assumed increasingly important roles in the provision of humanitarian aid to the Cuban population. The Martin Luther King Center, which maintains close government ties under the direction of Raúl Suárez, a Baptist pastor and member of Cuba's National Assembly, also undertakes humanitarian aid projects.107 In October 1997,Religious Affairs Director Caridad Diego notified religious groups carrying out humanitarian work that the Commerce Ministry had passed Resolution 149/97 (on August 4, 1997), which created restrictions on institutions' purchases from Cuban government stores.108 The resolution bars wholesale purchases from any entity but the government's EMSUNA Corporate Group (Grupo Corporativo EMSUNA). Diego apparently told some religious leaders that the restrictions were in response to churches allegedly having acquired illegal products, having abused their right to buy from state stores, and having trafficked materials on the black market.109
The resolution bars religious institutions from purchasing fax machines, photocopiers, and other electronics.110 Since Cuba criminalizes clandestine printing and enemy propaganda, and the government has seized computers, faxes, and photocopiers from dissident groups, this measure appears designed to impede religious groups freedom of expression.111 The law also creates cumbersome notification requirements. Institutions planning purchases from the government must provide sworn statements, signed by "accredited and recognized authorit[ies]" in the institution, detailing what each product will be used for and confirming that they will be used only for that purpose and will not be given to any other church entitity.112 Since many religious groups operate without official government recognition, such as the Catholic church's human rights group, the Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Justicia y Paz), they would not be able to make any purchases under this provision. Humanitarian organizations cannot make any food purchases without giving the government thirty-day advance notice.113 In order to buy personal hygiene products for homes for the elderly, children, and the physically handicapped, sanatoriums, and residences for those suffering fromleprosy, the resolution requires the religious group to provide sworn declarations of the number of persons residing in each site.114
While Cuba can legitimately exercise its right to ration essential supplies, these restrictions impede free expression and create unreasonable limits on the capacity for religious institutions to carry out humanitarian efforts. One lay activist said that "'the message of the new regulations is that the churches...were doing too much, they were too active.'"115
Restrictions on Religious Visits to Prisons
The government's restrictions on pastoral
visits to prisoners are detailed above, at General Prison Conditions:
Restrictions on Religious Visits.
77 Tim Golden, "After a Lift, Cuban Church has a Letdown," New York Times, September 13, 1998.78 There is some cross-over in the numbers of Catholics and believers in Afro-Cuban rites, since the Afro-Cuban religions often require believers to be baptized as Catholics. Practitioners of Afro-Cuban rites faced serious impediments to practicing their faith in the aftermath of the revolution. However, in 1978, the government apparently began promoting several Santería priests-called babalowas-who one expert referred to as "diplo-babalowas," as a tourist draw. Juan Tamayo, "In Cuba Clash Between Religions: Afro-Cuban Creeds, Catholics at Odds," Miami Herald, January 12, 1998. 79 "Se Abre Espacio para Testigos de Jehová," Reuters New Service printed in El Nuevo Herald, December 26, 1998.80 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Damian Fernández, Ph.D., professor of international relations, Florida International University, Miami, July 15, 1998. Gillian Gunn, Ph.D., "Cuba's NGOs: Government Puppets or Seeds of Civil Society?" Cuba Briefing Paper Series: Number 7, Georgetown University Caribbean Project, February 1995.81 Juan O. Tamayo, "Cuba has Long Spied on Church," Miami Herald, January 21, 1998. One of the defectors, Dariel Alarcón, a former army colonel, told the Miami Herald that he had helped frame a Catholic priest accused of assisting an anti-Castro hijacker who had killed a flight attendant in 1966. Alarcón said that Father Miguel Laredo, who served ten years in prison, was innocent. The government's intelligence-gathering methods are further discussed above, at Routine Repression. 82 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba (1992), Articles 8 and 55. The constitution and Criminal Code provisions on religion and other fundamental freedoms are discussed in detail above, at Impediments to Human Rights in Cuban Law: Cuban Constitution and Codifying Repression. 83 Criminal Code, Article 204. This provision is discussed above, at Codifying Repression.84 For a detailed discussion of this decision, see Roman Orozco, Cuba Roja (Buenos Aires: Información y Revistas S.A. Cambio 16 - Javier Vergara Editor S.A., 1993), pp. 587-590. 85 Frances Kerry, "Spirits in Soup Tureens Await Pope in Cuba," Reuters News Service, January 15, 1998; and Homero Campo, "El Gobierno les Ve con Recelo y las Somete a Estrictos Controles," Proceso, May 18, 1997.86 "Pese a sus errores la Revolución ha Sido una Bendición," Granma, April 15, 1990, as cited in Orozco, Cuba Roja, p. 599.87 Tim Golden, "After a Lift, Cuban Church has a Letdown," New York Times, September 13, 1998.88 Orozco, Cuba Roja, pp. 594-596.
89 Herald Staff Report, "Cuban Security Ever Vigilant," Miami Herald, January 27, 1998.
90 "Argentina: Argentina Complains to Cuba Over Reporters' Visas," Reuters News Service, January 9, 1998, and Liz Balmaseda, "The Sound of Castro's Silence," Miami Herald, January 21, 1998.
91 Pope John Paul II, Homily, Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, January 25, 1998.
92 Archbiship Pedro Meurice, Welcome to Pope John Paul II, Santiago, January 24, 1998.
93 The releases are discussed above, at Treatment of Political Prisoners: Political Prisoner Releases.
94 Golden, "After a Lift, Cuban Church Has a Letdown."
95 Mark Fineman, "New Freedoms in a More Open Cuba," Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1998. At least five of the foreign priests granted visas will be taking the place of priests departing Cuba. "Cuba: Cuba Approves Entry of 19 More Catholic Priests," Reuters News Service, November 18, 1998.
96 Luis López Prendes, "Niegan el Partido Comunista Permisos a Pastor Bautista," Buró de Prensa Independiente de Cuba, September 17, 1998.
97 Douglas Farah, "Church Resurrected in a Changing Cuba: Pews Fill Amid Dialogue Initiated by Pope and Castro," The Washington Post, January 28, 1997.
98 Serge Kovaleski, "Cuba Seen Ready to Issue More Work Visas to Clergy," The Washington Post, January 27, 1998.
99 Oswaldo Paya Sardiñas, "Coartan Autoridades Cubanas Derecho a Procesiones," Infoburo, June 29, 1998.
100 Juan O. Tamayo, "Cuban Authorities Mix Tolerance, Repression," Miami Herald, September 9, 1998.
101 Ariel Hidalgo and Tete Machado, "Nueve Disidentes Detenidos Durante una Redada," Infoburo, September 9, 1998. These detentions are detailed above, at Routine Repression.
102 April Witt, "Religiosos de EU Viajarán a Cuba," El Nuevo Herald, May 29, 1998.
103 "Cuba Agrees to Let Catholic Leader Broadcast Christmas Message," Associated Press printed in the Miami Herald, December 26, 1998.
104 Oswaldo Paya Sardiñas, "Cuba Hacia El 2000," Infoburo, September 21, 1998.
105 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Odilia Collazo, Pro Human Rights Party, Havana, October 13, 1998.
106 "Niegan Permiso de Viaje a Disidente," El Nuevo Herald, October 15, 1998.
107 Gillian Gunn, "Cuba's NGOs," The Cuba Briefing Paper Series, February 1995.
108 Resolution 149/97, second section.
109 Juan A. Tamayo, "Cuba Impone Restricciones a las Iglesias," El Nuevo Herald, October 18, 1997.
110 Resolution 149/97, Annex 1.
111 Cuban Criminal Code, Articles 210 and 103. These provisions are discussed above, at Codifying Repression.
112 Resolution 149/97, fourth section.
113 Ibid., sixth section.
114 Ibid., fifth section. The resolution also limits the hygiene products that the religious group can buy for these individuals, allowing four rolls of toilet paper, one tube of toothpaste, one container of deodorant, and one container of shampoo per resident per month. Ibid., Annex 2.
"Cuba Impone Restricciones a las Iglesias," El Nuevo Herald, October
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