RELIGIOUS REPRESSION IN CUBA
At the Time of the Pope's Visit to the Island
Juan Clark, Ph.D.
What will Pope John Paul II find during his visit to Cuba? It is well known
that religion has been severely repressed by Castro, but what has been the
nature of said repression and what is its current status? What can be expected
as a result of the pope's visit? Over two decades of experiential study of
Cuban social reality allow us to explore this issue. Let us make a brief
More than persecution in the traditional sense, 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 in terms of material losses, while
the Jehovah's Witnesses have been the most directly repressed. All their
temples were shut down.
In 1960, after initially supporting the revolution, the Catholic Church
valiantly confronted the Castro regime. Indicators of a new dictatorial trend
were visible, though shrouded by populist policies. Among these signs were the
arbitrary executions and trials that started in 1959, the government's shrewd
takeover of student, labor and professional organizations, along with the
increased placement of communists or their sympathizers in government and
military positions, the progressive confiscation of private property and,
finally, the complete elimination of the free press. The Church alerted the
people about the evils that would come from the turn towards Communism. The
strong pastoral letter of August 1960 only increased the regime's
Many believers, following the Church's teachings, decided to confront the
regime. They fought justly and bravely, trying to the implement of the ideals
of democracy promised by Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Many paid with their
lives or long years in prison for this "crime."
In response to this confrontation, Castro launched a campaign against the
Catholic bishops and attempted to create a national Church. By late 1960, mobs
organized by the government began to harass church services. The botched Bay
of Pigs invasion led to a more open and direct repression, with mass arrests
of clergy and desecration of churches. In May, 1961, the government
confiscated the vast private school system and many seminaries in an attempt
to deeply strike at religion. In September, the traditional procession in
Havana honoring Cuba's patron, the Virgen de la Caridad, 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 expulsion of 131 clergy on
board the Spanish ship Covadonga, including an outstanding bishop, Boza
Masvidal and Father Goberna, a renown hurricane expert.
Direct repression had 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, a
dynamic young Franciscan priest, Miguel Loredo, was, in 1966, 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
harboring a suspect in a failed skyjacking attempt. He served ten of those
fifteen years... 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, some for long periods. It must be pointed out
that these actions were always undertaken under a nonreligious pretext, as in
the Loredo case.
In this context, many ministers and seminarians, Catholic and Evangelicals
were sent to the newly created UMAP labor concentration camps in 1965. Among
those confined were the present cardinal Jaime Ortega and the current bishop
Alfredo Petit, along with many lay people. Among these in the UMAP were
homosexuals and others the regime considered "social scum." The Jehovah's
Witnesses were especially mistreated at the UMAP's, which closed in 1968. The
purpose was to terrorize the religious community.
The 1960's also saw the dawn of a more subtle, but very effective, indirect
repression. This less visible 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 "ideological integration" and the religious
involvement of students and 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.
This indirect repression followed Castro's religious policy of "making
apostates not martyrs," and thus began the slow process of gradually
attempting to choke off the religious community.
Indirect repression also impacted the individual through the work place. The
government's economic monopoly, whereby the state owns all means of production
promoted discrimination against those who practiced religion. "Being
religious" constituted a stain on the worker's Labor Record preventing
occupational advancement, and affecting the person's standard of living,
since the government use to distribute important consumer goods through the
work place where "ideological integration" played a role. As with education,
the "religious" were forced give up opportunities for promotion, becoming
second class citizens. This has been, in actual practice, an ideological
Religious ministers have also suffered strong repression. Defamatory letters,
instigation of rumors, and constant spying are routinely employed with special
cases. Harassing phone calls and blackmail, mostly through sexual entrapments,
are used to psychologically destabilize them and promote 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
case involving Sister Ligia Palacio, a Colombian nun who dared to write "too
harshly" concerning human rights in Cuba in Vitral, a 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 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 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 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 equipment and materials for
religious activities, as a form of subtle repression. The clergy has also been
victim to repeated attacks through Cuban television and movies. 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.
Another repressive method has been the sabotage of religious holidays like
Holy Week. The government has forced it to coincide with the Victory at Giron
Beach celebration in April (accompanied with mobilizations of workers), to
prevent attendance at these religious services. Furthermore, Christmas 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 for 1997 as a conciliatory gesture toward
the pope after the discovery of an electronic bug in a room His Holiness will
use in his upcoming visit.
Evangelicals have been especially repressed, since the government considers
them officially associations and not religious denominations, and thus are
subjected to greater scrutiny.
Religious organizations has been denied access to the mass media since 1960.
But it is noteworthy that the government has been, in a subtle way, constantly
promoting the sincretism between the Afro and Catholic beliefs called
Santería, which lacks a strong moral code, and is more pliable to the effort
for control. Santeria has been portrayed in the media, which is fully all in
governmental hands, as Cuba's majority religion, in an effort to undermine the
traditional Christian denominations.
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 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 and totalitarian power can
demolish any religious effort or individual considered potentially
The 1989 demise of the USSR contributed to the 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.
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 with international help and obligatory payment in dollars.
Caritas has donated large amounts of medicine to government centers and has
been buying powdered milk and other food products at wholesale prices at the
dollar stores that now sell to anyone having that currency (the "Shopping" as
they are popularly called by the people) to be distributed freely, mostly
among the elderly. This sector of society is the most affected by the huge
inflation generated by the government which only sells certain vital goods
only in stores using that currency (a bottle of cooking oil, practically
available here only, costs about half the average monthly salary). Upon
realizing the positive effect of Caritas on the population, the government has
undermined their effort by demanding that they buy at retail prices, thus
making those purchases prohibitive.
The religious rebirth in Cuba has had to face a great obstacle: the lack of
churches. No new churches have been built since 1959, and 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 people have resorted to conducting religious services in
private houses, mostly in the interior. The regime has curtailed this
practice. Many have been closed. A very popular Pentecostal minister, Orson
Vila, was 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 very
valid in Cuba today.
Religious centers that become particularly popular are 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 legalistic subterfuge.
Outstanding lay leaders are also harassed. This has been the case of Catholic
agricultural engineer Dagoberto Valdes from Pinar del Rio, who was
professionally demoted and his family life disturbed. Another, Osvaldo Payá,
had his house defaced and was forced to evacuate.
News from Cuba suggests a governmental attempt to undermine the papal visit
despite their claims otherwise. The international press has reflected this in
connection with the curtailment of TV coverage, the availability of
transportation (very little is in private hands), and the intimidation
experienced by some attending preliminary religious events, like the open air
Masses. Some believe that Castro is quite concerned about possible negative
internal repercussions for his regime. Which leads us to predict that Castro
will try to minimize the positive impact of the visit upon the people by
undermining the effort in various subtle ways. Regardless, there is great
expectation among the people. John Paul's visit could do a lot to advance the
cause of human rights and the promotion of a true civil society. But we must
be alert about harboring excessively high expectations for this visit in the
short run, due to the sophisticated nature of the prevailing repression.
Indeed, the pope will not find a Solidarity movement in present-day Cuba.
In any event, it may be worthwhile to remind His Holiness that in comparative
terms, Poland's Jaruzelski was an apprentice when measured against Castro's
repressive experience. Religious repression has been stronger and more cunning
in Cuba than in Poland and Cubans lack the religious militancy of the Poles.
Nevertheless, this visit may provide a strong injection of faith, hope and
valor... We must not forget that although the overt religious repression of
the 1960's has abated, it continues to be "an iron fist in velvet glove" as
expressed to me by a very knowledgeable person on religious matters who
resides in Cuba.