‘I will not beat other people; I am a Christian’ – Cuba’s new criminal code outlaws freedom of conscience 

Faced with a growing number of protests in Cuba on the part of its citizenry, the Cuban regime has needed to forcibly recruit men1 into the ranks of its military. They are not being brought in to bring peace or mediate in the middle of the protests, exactly, but rather to violently repress and neutralize the protests, of which 5,164 separate incidents have been recorded since demonstrations broke out on 11 July 2021, also known as 11J. The new recruits have also been made to participate in the creation of false evidence, which has been used to lock up more than 1,000 political prisoners since 11J.  

The Cuban Conflict Observatory reports that 589 protests took place in October 2022; this was the month with the highest number incidents since demonstrations first broke out on 11J. The regime has had to resort to raids, using various means of deception and often  force, to increase the numbers of enlisted young people.  

‘Do you know what they did to a group of young people?’ a pastor asked CSW. ‘They phoned them to arrange the handover of their degrees and grades, [but really] the people from the military committee were waiting for them to enlist them.’ 

In other cases, the government goes from house to house issuing summons to young people, who are then transferred to other cities where they know no one, which makes it easier for the military officers when it is time to hand out beatings.  

In education centres, students who have turned 16 years old are obliged to present themselves for a medical check which designates whether they are able to serve or not. Similarly, they have to register with the military committee in their zone. Compulsory military service for young men was established as policy by the regime in 1963 because of its fear of a US invasion USA, but today the ‘enemies’ the recruits are being forced to fight are their fellow Cubans on the island.  

This situation has raised concern among young people whose religious beliefs mean they do not want to be part of the wave of violence that the military authorities are carrying out. These students, including, in many cases, some who have not even reached 18 years of age, are first-hand witnesses to the beatings their religious leaders have received at the hands of military recruits.  

Military draftees, under orders from superiors, are made to attack pastors who, in addition to protesting peacefully in the streets, have previously been declared enemies of the regime because of their leadership of unregistered churches, as in the case of Pastor Lorenzo Rosales, condemned to seven years in prison.  

Leaders of other religions have fallen prey to these attacks as well, including the Yoruba priests Loreto Hernández and Donaida Pérez, who founded the Free Yoruba Association after leaving the Communist Party. Today they are both serving seven-year prison sentences. In 2019, they protested their son, Dairon, being forced to present himself for military service.  The young man was beaten with bats and later targeted on repeated occasions and declared an enemy of the Revolution.  

For their part, different religious leaders have expressed to CSW, confidentially, their concern for the new generation who must complete their military service. The Communist Party has drawn up the laws in such a way that there is no way to present a request for Conscientious Objection based on religious reason. Although Articles 19 and 54 of the Constitution mention freedom of worship and conscience, they also put limits on this, making them crimes through the Criminal Code.  

Article 54 of the 2019 Constitution states that ‘The State recognizes, respects and guarantees people freedom of thought, conscience and expression”. However, in the same paragraph it establishes that “Conscientious objection cannot be invoked with the purpose of evading compliance with the law or preventing another from complying with it or exercising their rights.’ 

Article 171 of the Criminal Code made freedom of conscience a crime, establishing punishments not only against the person who tries to avoid military service and refuses to obey summons of the military authority either actively or through negligence, but also against the authority that permits them to do so. The new code increases the punishment to three months to a year of imprisonment and/or pecuniary punishment, in other words a heavy fine. 

Article 206 of the new Criminal Code, which has been in force since 1 December, establishes that ‘Whoever, abusing the freedom of worship guaranteed by the Constitution, opposes religious belief to the objectives of education, or to the duty of working, of defending the Homeland with arms, of revering its symbols or any others, established in the Constitution, is punished with deprivation of liberty from three months to one year or a fine…’ 

Young people who aspire to study at university are required to present their military draft card; if they do not, they can be refused a place or financial aid.  

Pastor Roberto2 told CSW that ‘various young people have asked me to try to create some kind of resistance block so that they won’t be forced to spend two years of their lives in military service. They do not want to participate in the violence that today’s protesters are being subjected to, and they know from the testimony of others that they will be persecuted from inside the institution if they express opposition to this.’ 

For his part, Pastor Alonso, told CSW that in October 2022, his son, who was carrying out his military service, was called upon to go out into the streets as part of the Rapid Response Brigades.  

In a private message, the son of the pastor told his father that the previous night they had been called to prepare to go out, dressed as civilians, into the streets and although a number of units had gone out and beat up the protestors, by mere coincidence his unit had not received the order to go out that night.  

Despite the orders that this young man might receive, he made it very clear to his father, that if the moment comes and his unit has to go out, he will not act on the orders to hurt the people ‘I will not beat other people; I am a Christian and I am not in agreement with that way of doing things.’  

Even so, he also said that some of the pastors who lead the churches that these young people attend are ‘afraid’ of confronting the authorities because of the possible reprisals which the regime might carry out, removing their own children from their custody.  

These pastors could be accused of not fulfilling the parental responsibilities defined in Article 134 of the new Family Code, in which paragraph ñ states that they must ‘direct the formation [of minors] for social life; instill in them love for the family, for the Homeland, respect for its symbols…’ 

It is worth recalling that Article 4 of the Cuban constitution claims ‘…the defense of the socialist homeland as the greatest honor and the supreme duty of every Cuban. Treason is the most serious of crimes, whoever commits it is subject to the most severe punishments. The socialist system endorsed by this Constitution is irrevocable. Citizens have the right to fight by all means, including armed struggle, when no other recourse is possible, against anyone who tries to overthrow the political, social and economic order established by this Constitution.’ 

That is to say that a father who does not educate his son in the values of the Cuban Communist Party and who opposes his son’s military service could be labeled a traitor to the homeland, lose his rights as a parent of his son, and be deprived of his liberty, with punishments of up to and over 20 years imprisonment.  

Many pastors and religious leaders who see no way out have emigrated in order to save the lives of their sons. This in turn has increased Cuba’s negative population growth rate, according to the World Bank, to -0.1% in 2021. As this trend continues apace, there are no signs that this number will be reversed in the near future. In fact, it could become even worse if the Cuban government goes forward with the 2021 proposal of Raul Castro Ruiz.  

In his final speech as Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and as a General of the Armed Forces he recommended forcing all university students, regardless of gender, to complete at least one year of compulsory military service before beginning their studies. This has already been implemented al for all students at the Higher Institute for International Relations (ISRI) in the province of Guantanamo, and while the policy has not yet been extended to other universities there are concerns that if it becomes a law it will accelerate the emigration not only of young male university students, but also of adolescents including young women, who may feel they have no other option.

By CSW’s Senior Latin America Research and Advocacy Officer