Life in Cuba under the Castros

This post has been edited for clarity. For the Spanish translation click here. [Se puede ver la traducción en español, aquí]

Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso is a prominent Cuban Baptist pastor and human rights activist from Cuba. In the following interview with CSW, he shares his perspective as a Cuban national, on the recent death of Fidel Castro and the potential impact this could have on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) on the island.

What is the symbolic significance for Cubans of the death of Fidel Castro?

Many years ago, the Cuban people collectively resolved to accept that nothing would really change until Fidel Castro died. In this sense, the objective which the Cuban people have themselves imposed, has been fulfilled; Fidel Castro treated Cuba throughout all of his time in power as if it was his own land. Undoing the legacy of destitution which this man brought to Cuba in every way will not be easy. To sever the ties of his relatives and accomplices will be an even bigger challenge. However, we all know that an era has ended for the Cuban people and that from now on, the string will begin to unravel. With the death of Fidel Castro, it is as if the curse has been broken.

What was the relationship between Fidel Castro and religious freedom/religious groups in Cuba?

From the time Fidel Castro announced his alliance to the Stalinist regime in the early 1960s, he adopted an adversity to anything religious. Although his aim was to get rid of every trace of religion in Cuba, he didn’t achieve it. Executions, concentration camps, prison sentences, were some of the extreme methods adopted by his regime in the first years of his oppression. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the fall of this socialist regime, Castro had to change his policy from open persecution to a form of tolerance. The most relevant change was the constitutional reform of 1992 which stated that the Cuban State would shift from atheism to a secular state. In this case, Castro’s policy went from trying to destroy religion to manipulating it and religious groups. The clearest expression of this is the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) of the Cuban communist party, an entity with great power dedicated to deciding what to allow and what to abolish [regarding religion], in line with the political interests of the Castro’s, on religious topics.

What is the current situation of religious freedom in Cuba and are you expecting this to change in light of the recent death of Fidel Castro?

A lot needs to change in Cuba, and not only in the area of religion. The implementation of a religious law, which guarantees religious freedom in a fair-handed way, and the elimination of the ORA with its current agenda, will be the biggest challenges. As a consequence of the current policies, 2016 began with the demolition of various places of worship which have been denied legal status for many years, despite the processes carried out in the Registration of Associations within the Ministry of Justice. Up until today, all existing religious groups in Cuba, both legal and illegal, lack access to the means of spreading their religion; Fidel Castro illegally removed this right at the beginning of the 1960s. None of the theological seminaries belonging to religious organisations in Cuba are recognised by the Ministry of Education. No religious organisation can participate in the education system, which remains solely in the hands of the state. These are but a few of the restrictions which exist as part of the current religious panorama in Cuba. The challenges are huge. However, the one who is fundamentally responsible for all of these religious freedom violations in Cuba – the commander and chief, Castro – is no longer with us.

Explain the period of national mourning and in what ways religious groups are affected by this? What has their response been to this?

A fanatic and ridiculous period of mourning has been imposed on the people of Cuba by the Cuban state. Coercive methods [to enforce the period of mourning] include not being allowed to say ‘good morning’ through any form of media under state control and the churches in Cuba are being obliged to comply with a curfew. Although a public order has not been disseminated, many religious leaders and churches have been summoned by representatives of the communist regime to suspend all of their activities during these nine days, or at least to forgo the use of music which is normally used in services. There have been some reports of forceful measures adopted against religious leaders who, according to the regime, have dared to break the compulsory mourning as a result of the death of the commander in chief. Between these measures, we now know of arrests, fines and threats on behalf of the political police.

Analysis by CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer

Fidel Castro’s death, on 25 November 2016, marks the end of a significant period of Cuban history, the effects of which will be felt for years to come. The question many are asking is if his passing will bring much needed change to the island.

As Mario Felix suggests in his responses, many Cubans are hopeful that the death of Fidel Castro could bring such change for the Cuban people; change, which they believe would have been impossible whilst the founder of the Cuban revolution and symbol of the communist regime was still alive.

However, while a symbolic figurehead, Fidel represented but one cog in the State’s governance of Cuba. Indeed, one huge remaining obstacle towards freedom for Cuban citizens, as mentioned by Mario Felix, is the ‘severing of ties with his relatives and accomplices’.

Without reforms restrictions to freedom of religion or belief will remain

Fidel was no longer the leader of Cuba. After falling ill in 2006, his brother Raul was appointed as temporary president of Cuba. Raul then went on to formally assume the presidency in 2008 as Fidel declared that he was stepping down. Following this transfer of power, we did not see the much-needed structural changes put in place to allow for FoRB in Cuba; instead we saw an increase in reported violations of religious liberty. For example, as described in the interview with Mario Felix, the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), an arm of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, is still very much active and is almost entirely focused on controlling and restricting public and private manifestations of religious faith. The ORA still has the power to decide whether religious groups and associations can register, which is essential to be able to operate legally in Cuba.

Therefore, Christian Solidarity Worldwide continues to call for the abolition of the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the adoption of legislation that facilitates the registration process and protects FoRB for all. CSW also urges the reformation of Legal Decree 322, which has been used to arbitrarily expropriate property, including property belonging to religious associations. Without these alterations, amongst others, real change for the Cuban people cannot take place.

Cuba’s international relationships are key in pushing for such policy changes. The Cuban economy is suffering. It is clear that isolationism did not cause economic growth and wellbeing on the island and there is a need for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Although many may see Cuba as becoming more open to building international relationships, especially as the EU-Cuba dialogue negotiations are reaching an end and a Cooperation Agreement is being formed, it is important that we remember that this in no way means that the Cuban government is moving towards a more politically open society or that the Cuban people, including religious groups, are enjoying more freedom. We would also urge the US President Elect to raise violations of FoRB with Cuba at every opportunity and establish specific criteria for the Cuban authorities to meet in order to measure progress more effectively in regard to human rights and democratic reform.

Whatever the future holds for this country, Christian Solidarity Worldwide will continue to advocate for the full realisation of Freedom of Religion and Belief on the island.