More Freedom But Not Free
Fifty years after the Cuban Revolution, the Communist government has virtually erased illiteracy and established universal health care. It also has a reputation for jailing dissidents and limiting religious expression.
Long gone are the days when the government sent pastors to labor camps and attempted the "elimination of religious belief through scientific materialistic propaganda." Since Cuba officially moved from being "atheist" to "secularist" in 1992, Cuban evangelicals report that persecution has ceased and discrimination is easing. In June, however, police arrested 30 pastors from an unregistered Pentecostal group in coastal Camagüey for organizing a 200-person worship service.
In June, shortly after Cuba agreed to direct talks with the U.S. on migration and mail service, the Organization of American States lifted its 1962 suspension of the Cuban government. In April, the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban-Americans, but insisted on more democratic reforms before easing the trade embargo.
Religious freedom observers commend Cuba for President Raul Castro's 2008 signing of two United Nations human rights conventions: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. But most continue to give Cuba negative marks for human rights:
- Independent research institute Freedom House again listed Cuba as one of its 42 "Not Free" countries in its 2009 report.
- Cuba was ranked 33rd of 50 countries on the 2009 Open Doors World Watch List of religious freedom, falling into the Christian organization's "Some Limitations" category for ongoing surveillance and social controls.
- The 2009 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom put Cuba on its watch list of 11 countries being monitored for religious freedom violations. (That is not its most serious designation.)
- In its 2008 religious freedom report, the U.S. State Department said the Cuban government continues to "exert control over … religious expression." Religious groups still have no free access to media or publishing. Travel and building permits remain limited, and employment discrimination lingers. The report was rebutted by the Cuban Council of Churches as "based on disinformation and a lack of knowledge of the Cuban reality."
Cuban pastors report episodes of surveillance, harassment, and entrapment. "It's like a cold war. It's a psychological bombardment," said one Cuban pastor. "They know throwing people in jail is not the right way to do it anymore. The better way is by taking away some of their freedoms."
Cuba lacks a national ley de culto ("freedom of worship" law) that would set standards for what churches can and cannot do. Thus, the church-state relationship today can vary from town to town.
Observers suggest that discrimination against Christians stems not from antagonism toward religion but from government fear of organized groups of any kind. Another source of suspicion are the many churches that receive funding from U.S. churches, especially after a 2004 State Department report encouraged American churches to do more humanitarian relief work on the island in order to encourage Cuba's transition to democracy.
Evangelical leaders counsel patience in their context. Many even believe the Cuban church can grow more now than it could if open democracy and capitalism came. Some leaders suspect that a rapid influx of outside money and ideas would trigger a crisis for the indigenous Cuban church. "We are faithful to remain here, advancing the gospel to turn the people of Cuba into salt and light," said an evangelical leader in western Cuba—"and we are willing to pay the price for that."
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Bearing the Cross: Freedom's Wedge |What you can do to help persecuted Christians. (October 7, 2002)
Cuba: After Castro | Church leaders worry that aid chaos will follow dictator's death (October 1, 2001)
Cuba's Next Revolution | How Christians are reshaping Castro's Communist stronghold. (January 12, 1998)