‘I don’t think that any man can get used to this place, and even more so when one knows that one is here unjustly.’– Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo
Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo has been a prisoner of the Cuban government for over 18 months. He was arrested, among many others, on 11 July 2021 in the midst of unprecedented nationwide protests in Cuba, and he is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence on completely fabricated charges of ‘disrespect’, ‘assault’, ‘criminal incitement’ and ‘public disorder’.
He is one of many political prisoners on the island, his continuing detention just one reminder of the Cuban authorities’ relentless hostility towards religious groups it views with suspicion and fear.
In 2022, CSW documented 657 violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), a staggering increase on the 272 documented in the previous year, and a figure made all the more noteworthy when one considers the fact that all of our documenters were forced into exile with their families over the course of the year.
The uptick in violations dates back to the same protests in which Pastor Lorenzo was detained. The demonstrations saw Cubans from all walks of life coming together to protest the government’s continuing economic mismanagement of the country, and its decades-long crackdown on human rights and pro-democracy movements.
The government responded, predictably, with force, and it has spent the subsequent year and a half doing all it can to sure up its grip on power.
In September 2022, it won a referendum on a new Family Code, though not overwhelmingly as it had hoped, the lead up to which was marked by multiple religious leaders receiving summons for questioning and in many cases being told to instruct their congregations to vote in favour of the code.
Concerns about the code were fully justified, particularly given that one of its provisions permits the government to remove children if their parents fail to fulfil a list of duties including to instil in their children love for the homeland, respect of its symbols, and respect for the authorities. Unfortunately however, the government’s efforts were successful, and the code came into effect at the start of 2023.
In December, the government put into effect a new criminal code which increases the minimum sentencing for numerous offences, including for ‘leading or belonging to an unauthorised association’ and ‘leading or participating in an unauthorised meeting’.
Legislation such as this will only strengthen the government’s ability to crack down on religious leaders and adherents, especially those associated with groups that the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) has continually refused to register.
It is therefore no wonder that upwards of 300,000 Cubans have seen no other option but to leave the country over the past two years, fleeing not only the authorities’ rampant repression but also a continuing economic crisis that has left many in dangerous poverty.
Among those who left in 2022 were many vocal advocates for FoRB and other human rights, who were threatened with imprisonment or the removal of their children if they did not leave Cuba, including the independent journalists Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre and Yoel Suárez, and prominent Apostolic Movement leader Alain Toledano Valiente. Their departure from the country leaves a gaping hole in the defence of FoRB in Cuba, and yet still others continue to stand up and speak out, openly criticising the dangers of laws like the criminal and family codes, and continuing to raise awareness of the government’s human rights violations despite the reprisals that they may face.
More must be done to support independent civil society and religious groups on the island, and states must continue to hold the Cuban government to account for the repression it has subjected its people to for decades.
We must advocate for a Cuba to which people like Ricardo, Yoel and Alain and their families can safely return, and in which pastors and others like Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo are not held prisoner for exercising their fundamental human rights.
By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley
Click here to read CSW’s brand new report on freedom of religion or belief in Cuba.