RELIGIOUS REPRESSION IN CUBA:
Its Evolution and Present Status
Juan Clark, Ph.D.
Miami-Dade Community College
Although it is a well known fact that religion has been seriously curtailed in Cuba since the early 1960's, little is known about its modus operandi, judging from the dearth of assessments in the academic literature and the media on this matter.
More than persecution in the traditional sense, tinted with violence, religion has been seriously repressed through various direct and indirect means. All religious groups have been seriously affected. The Catholics, as the largest religious group in Cuba, have been the most severely impacted, while the Jehovah's Witnesses have been the most directly repressed, with all their temples shut down.
In 1960, after initially supporting the revolution, the Catholic Church valiantly confronted the Castro regime. Indicators of at least a new dictatorial trend were visible, shrouded though by populist policies. Among these signs were the arbitrary executions and trials that started early in 1959; the government's shrewd takeover of student, labor and professional organizations, along with the increased placement of communists or unconditional pro Castro sympathizers in key government and military positions; the progressive and arbitrary confiscation of private property and, finally, the complete elimination of the free press. The Church alerted the people about the evils that would result from the trend towards Communism. The strong pastoral letter of August 1960, alerting on this matter, only increased the regime's antireligious actions.
Many lay believers, following Church teachings, decided to confront the regime. They fought with good reason and bravely, trying to implement the ideals of democracy promised by Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Many paid with their lives or long years in prison for this "crime."
Anticipating the confrontation with the Church, by early 1959 Castro secretly attempted to create a national Church. It failed due to lack of support from the clergy. Later in 1960 he launched a public campaign against the Catholic bishops. By late 1960, mobs organized by the government began to harass church services and other religious meetings. The botched April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion led to a more open and direct repression, with mass arrests of clergy, some bishops, and the desecration of churches. In May, 1961, the government confiscated the vast private school system and many seminaries, in an attempt to deeply hurt religion. In September of that year, the traditional procession in Havana honoring Cuba's patroness, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, in the church of the same name, was violently repressed, resulting in the death of one of the Catholics. Incredibly, the government portrayed the victim as a martyr of the revolution... That incident prompted the immediate forcible expulsion of 131 clergy on board the Spanish ship Covadonga, including an outstanding young bishop, Boza Masvidal, and Father Goberna, a renown hurricane expert.
Direct repression reached its climax at this time. Many religious personnel were forced into exile through coercion, intimidation or the inability to practice their teaching trade. Four priests were sentenced to prison for serving as chaplains to the opposition's guerrillas. To further hurt the Church, in 1966 a dynamic young Cuban Franciscan priest, Miguel Loredo, was, falsely accused and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, --the same amount of time Castro received in 1953 after leading the assault on the Moncada barracks-- for allegedly harboring a suspect in a failed skyjacking attempt. He served ten of those fifteen years, a unique case in this hemisphere. This opportunity further served to confiscate the Church's only printing shop as well as the San Francisco convent.
Many Evangelical ministers were also imprisoned during this time, some for long periods. It must be pointed out that these actions were always undertaken using a nonreligious pretext, as in the Loredo case.
In this context, late in 1965, many ministers and seminarians, Catholic and Evangelicals were sent to the newly created UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) labor concentration camps. Among those confined were the present cardinal Jaime Ortega and the current bishop Alfredo Petit, along with many lay people. Among the UMAP inmates were homosexuals and others the regime considered "social scum." The Jehovah's Witnesses were especially mistreated at the UMAP's, which closed in 1968 due to international pressure. The purpose was to terrorize the religious community.
Indirect repression also started in the early 1960's along with the totalitarian transformation of the country. This was based on the educational takeover, as well as on the substantial control of the economic structure, which reached its peak in 1968 with the confiscation of the remaining small businesses
Indirect repression followed Castro's anti religious orientation of "making apostates not martyrs," and thus began the slow process of gradually attempting to choke off the religious community. This less visible but very effective form of repression used education and the work place as its main vehicles. It begun as early as grammar school with simple questions posed to schoolchildren practicing their faith, in an attempt to ridicule them in front of their classmates. Students have a Cumulative Academic Record that supervises their "ideological integration" and their religious involvement as well as that of their parents. This involvement would constitute a "demerit" on their record, and would be used to deny access to the university or to careers with social impact, to those who had that "blotch" in their record.
Indirect repression has also impacted the individual through the work place. The government's economic monopoly, whereby the state owns all means of production, implanted discrimination against those who practiced their faith. "Being religious" has constituted a stain on the worker's Labor Record preventing occupational advancement, and affecting the person's standard of living, since the government used to distribute important consumer goods through the work place where "ideological integration" played a role. As with education, the "religious" have been forced to give up opportunities for promotion, becoming second class citizens. This became, in practice, an ideological apartheid.
Religious ministers have also suffered strong repression. Defamatory letters, instigation of rumors, constant spying through infiltrators in the communities have been routinely employed. Harassing phone calls and blackmail, mostly through sexual entrapments, have been used to psychologically destabilize them, aimed at promoting their departure from Cuba. Foreign clergy have also been repressed. Some have been openly expelled from Cuba, while others have had their visa renewal rejected as was the recent 1996 case involving Sister Ligia Palacio, a Colombian nun who dared to write on human rights in Cuba in Vitral, the modest (only over 1000 copies are made by photocopy procedure) but outstanding publication of the Pinar del Rio diocese. Other foreigners have suffered an equal fate. After the Pope's visit, Father Patrick Sullivan had to leave following the same procedure, as well as two Italian Third Order Franciscans.
After his release from prison in 1976, Fr. Loredo continued to be a persona non grata. He, along with many of his parishioners were constantly harassed. This culminated in a mysterious, near fatal car accident in 1982 in which he was a pedestrian. The Church finally promoted his "voluntary" exit from the island in 1984. A rather similar case occurred in 1995, when small-town priest from Eastern Cuba, Fr. Jose Conrado Rodriguez, wrote a letter which courageously but respectfully criticized Castro and his regime. This increasingly popular priest had to leave the country in 1996 "to conduct studies abroad."
The government has also used its complete control over the entry of foreign religious personnel, as well as its control over the purchase of equipment and materials for religious activities, as another form of indirect repression. The clergy has also been victims to repeated attacks through Cuban television and movies, and still are through the former. Catechism classes have also been the target of harassment in many ways, particularly through the so called "street plans" (planes de la calle) designed to interrupt the attendance of children. Meanwhile their parents have been intimidated in other forms. This type of street activity against catechism has subsided, but it is still reported to have been used to harass religious celebrations in some places.
Another repressive method has been the sabotage of religious holidays like Holy Week. The government has forced to coincide the celebration of the Giron Beach Victory in April, with this holiday (accompanied with mobilizations of workers), to prevent attendance of those religious services and national holidays. Furthermore, Christmas as a holiday, was taken away from the Cuban people when Castro ordered its cancellation in 1969 to prevent work shortages in an attempt to reach the failed 10 million ton sugar harvest of 1970. This is unprecedented in the Western world, where even former communist Eastern Europe observed this Christian tradition. It appears that it was restored as a holiday only for 1997 as a conciliatory gesture towards the pope after the discovery of an electronic bug in a room His Holiness would use in his visit.
Evangelicals have been especially repressed, since the government considers them officially associations and not religious denominations, and thus are subjected to great scrutiny not used with the Catholic Church.
Religious organizations have been denied access to the mass media since 1960. But it is noteworthy that the government has been, in a subtle way, constantly promoting Santeria, the sincretism between the Afro and Catholic beliefs, which lacks a strong moral code, and is more pliable to the government control effort. Santeria has been portrayed in the media, fully in governmental hands, as Cuba's majority religion, in an effort to undermine the traditional Christian denominations. Some religious broadcasting have been permitted recently to some evangelical denominations that have shown a more pliable "good" behavior, affiliated to the National Council of Churches.
By the end of the 1980's, and after the publication of the book Fidel Castro and Religion (Fidel Castro y la Religion), with Frei Beto, where Castro projected a rather sympathetic view of religion, there was a certain degree of relaxation of repression for reasons of tactical convenience. People began to attend religious services in greater numbers. Educational as well as labor discrimination for reasons of religious practice have diminished. However, the Cumulative Academic and Labor Records still exist as a "Damocles Sword," and totalitarian power can demolish any religious effort or individual considered potentially "dangerous."
The 1989 demise of the USSR contributed to the promotion of a certain convenient opening towards religion and to further growth in religious participation, especially among the youth. Castro agreed in 1992 to let believers participate in Cuba's Communist Party. Paradoxically, the opposite has happened. Many young people are looking to fill their spiritual void and live another reality of true human solidarity within the religious lay communities. In these groups, a true sense of fraternity and desire to serve others is apparent. In general, the traditional fear to openly participate in religious activities seem to be disappearing.
Also noteworthy is the work displayed by Caritas, the Catholic charities organization, which has tried to mitigate the growing material needs endured by the people, using the international help in kind and the much desired dollars. Caritas has donated large amounts of medicine to government centers (about 80% of what they receive) while they are allowed to distribute the rest directly. One type of help has been buying powdered milk and other food products purchased at wholesale prices at the dollar stores (the "Shopping" as they are popularly called by the people) that now sell to anyone having dollars or its equivalent in covertible pesos. Caritas distributes freely what they buy, mostly among the elderly. This sector of society is the most affected by the huge inflation generated by the governmental policy of selling vital goods in the "shopping" stores (a bottle of cooking oil, practically available here only, costs about half the average monthly salary in pesos). It appears that upon realizing the positive effect of Caritas on the population, the government has tried to undermined their effort by demanding that Caritas had to buy at retail prices, thus making those purchases prohibitive.
Some religious centers that become particularly popular have been harassed, and if possibly, eliminated. Such was the case of the Pentecostal Bible Institute at Cifuentes, in central Cuba, that was attracting many young people to special retreats. This institute was closed in 1995 through a legalistic subterfuge. Something rather similar appears to be happening with the Civic-Religious Center of Pinar del Rio. Outstanding lay leaders are also harassed. This has been the case of Catholic agricultural engineer Dagoberto Valdes director of that Pinar del Rio Center, who was professionally demoted to "tecnico de yaguas" (palm tree technician) and his family life seriously disturbed. Another, Osvaldo Payá, has had his family harassed and his house defaced to the point of being forced to evacuate it.
The religious rebirth in Cuba has had to face a great obstacle: the lack of churches. No new churches have been built since
1959 due to governmental restrictions. Yet, many churches in Havana and important cities in the interior have been repaired, paying in dollars by the Church and as a tourist convenience. But many, particularly in the interior have had their roofs fallen due to disrepair resulting from the absolute control of materials exercised by the government. On the other hand, the number of priests is about the same as in 1961, after the expulsions. The dearth of churches has led the people to conduct religious services in private houses, mostly in the interior. The regime has been curtailing this practice. Many have been closed. A very popular Pentecostal minister, Orson Vila, went to prison in connection with this ministry. Indeed the distinction between freedom of worship (not entirely the case here) and freedom of religion (seriously curtailed due to the multiple controls) is a very valid one in Cuba today.
Although the Castro government, out of tactical convenience, has made some concessions to religion in the recent past, and has relaxed some of its most overt repressive policies, the essence of its antireligious policy appears to remain unchanged. The recent Pope's visit was plagued with conflict ranging from the extent of the media coverage, the transportation means, to planting a spying device in the Pontif's room. That visit indeed served to strengthen the faith of the believers in general, who are increasingly losing the fear instilled over the years, but has achieved little else, besides the usual token gesture by Castro to important visitors, such as freeing some political prisoners who were pressed to leave the country, something not wanted by the Pope. The world has been opening to Cuba as the Pope suggested, but Castro's Cuba has done little to open to the world and much less to Cubans themselves.
On the fundamentals of religious freedom there is no indication that the churches are regaining the right to have their own educational system, nor the possibility of using freely the media, or being able to buy without restriction the necessary equipment (duplicating and transportation) to perform their work. There is no indication either about allowing the free entrance of religious personnel. Thus, we have to conclude that religious repression remains, not with the harshness and directness of the early 1960's, but its intention and mostly indirect actions are very much present. As a religious authority from Cuba put it to us, religious repression still is like "an iron fist in velvet gloves."
Dr. Juan Clark is a sociology professor at Miami-Dade Community College. He has researched the issue of Cuban living conditions for over 25 years and has published extensively on this subject.