In most countries around the world, 2020 saw the suspension of at least some communal religious activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuba was no exception. For several months, religious groups were unable to gather in public spaces and house churches, and the Ladies in White protest movement suspended their weekly marches after Sunday Mass.
Restrictions on aspects of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) such as these are permitted under Article 18 of the ICCPR, provided they are “prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” However, what is particularly concerning in Cuba’s case is that, even with the permitted activities of religious groups severely curtailed, the authorities continued to target such groups with routine and systematic violations of FoRB.
Business as usual amid unprecedented circumstances
CSW’s latest report on the situation of FoRB on the island finds that “despite social unrest and economic crisis during an unprecedented global pandemic, the government continues to target members of the religious sector and abuse human rights.”
Examples of violations documented in 2020 are broadly in line with previous years, with religious leaders and adherents, as well as those working to defend FoRB, facing regular threats, harassment, intimidation, and even arbitrary detention. Church properties continued to be targeted, including with vandalism, threats of forced closure, and demolition.
In one particularly egregious case on 30 October, authorities reneged on months of negotiations and demolished a church belonging to the Assemblies of God denomination in the Abel Santamaría district of Santiago de Cuba. The church had been under threat since 2015, and authorities subsequently attempted to pressure the church’s pastor, Faustino (Fausto) Palomo Cabrera, into signing an agreement stating that the demolition was legal.
A new tool of repression
Also concerning is the fact that not only did the pandemic fail to stop the Cuban Communist Party (CCP)’s severe repression of FoRB, but at times it actually provided the government with a fresh tool they could exploit to legitimise their actions.
In one instance, authorities detained a church leader after his congregation held a church service in compliance with the rules set out by the government for religious gatherings. The government falsely alleged that the gathering had exceeded the number of individuals allowed in a religious service, and the pastor was subsequently taken to a maximum-security prison where he was held for five days.
State security officers charged the church leader with ‘spreading the epidemic’ and threatened him with an eight-year prison sentence for having organised an ‘illegal’ church. The pastor refused to plead guilty and was put on trial on the fifth day of his detention, at which point a judge ordered his release, but issued an arbitrary fine of 2,000 Cuban pesos (approximately 75 USD).
The government also targeted churches who sought to help in response to the pandemic. Several churches dedicated ministries to distributing food and other scarce necessities within their local communities, especially to older generations in the high-risk group for COVID-19. This was met with intense opposition from the government, with reports of confiscated food supplies, and of customs officials blocking humanitarian aid sent by overseas religious groups for distribution by Christian groups on the island.
No end in sight
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided no respite to religious groups across Cuba who have long suffered at the hands of a government intent on enforcing total fealty to the state and its ideals. Instead, the coronavirus has exacerbated an already unstable situation on the island, with ordinary citizens suffering from chronic shortages of food, medicine and hygiene supplies on the one hand, and severe violations of human rights on the other.
The new report illustrates just how committed the CCP is to its repressive human rights policies, and there is no reason to believe that the potential end of the coronavirus crisis will bring with it any significant improvements in the lives of Cuban citizens. The international community must therefore take swift action to address the situation, including by maintaining intense scrutiny on the human rights situation in Cuba, and by raising cases and issues of concern with the Cuban government at every opportunity.
By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley