The time capsule: Reflections from Cuba

CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer reflects on the island where things are supposed to changing politically, but in many ways stay the same.

Visitor numbers are soaring, with over 2 million tourists arriving in Cuba each year.  And why wouldn’t they be? Historic Havana, churches, cigar factories, vintage cars, live music, art galleries and museums, UNESCO heritage sites, beautiful beaches and the warm climate all make for the perfect holiday destination.

Cuba, a land where you can experience the past, in the present. When people think of Cuba, isn’t this what comes to mind?

But much of the world remains unaware that travelling off the  beaten path leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. In a country with some of the most hospitable and generous people you will ever meet, you will also find that many live on less than $2 a day – and for a number of reasons, the exact figure of those living in poverty is hard to ascertain.

Outside the capital most people cannot afford the comfortable luxury of a Chevrolet and many get around by horse and carriage or ‘cogiendo botella’; in other words, they hitch a ride with whoever is passing by. And whilst a horse and carriage may make for a true Cuban experience and a good photo opportunity, it is also symbolic of a time warp that isn’t so positive for its citizens.

What is apparent is that whilst the tourist sector may have boomed, the only place benefiting from this boom is Havana, the national capital of the communist island and the government’s trust fund.

And this is only part of the story.

In a land that is green and fertile, it’s hard to know exactly what becomes of the wealth generated by tourism. Visitors are often unaware that the meagre ration book (Libreta de Abastecimiento) the government gives to the people is not even enough to last one week, let alone one month.

According to the Economist, Hurricane Irma, which struck the island in 2017, killing at least ten people, and led to an estimated $13 billion of damage, also delivered a heavy knock to an economy that was “already in terrible shape.”

Like Cuba’s iconic colourful colonial buildings, the one thing that tourists won’t fail to notice, the government’s insistence on denying such problems is ‘tiene mucha fachada’ – all show and no substance. Those who live in tourist areas, on main streets, are given paint to decorate the fronts of their houses – a luxury for the majority of the population –  in order to disguise the cracks in the buildings. These ‘fachadas’ represent the façade that the Cuban government has portrayed to the world.

Cuban officials will liberally declare the full right to freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression, exist in the country. However, although Cuba has signed both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), neither has been ratified.

Instead, through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), which is mean to regulate religious affairs in the country, the government continues to oppress religious and belief groups across the island. According to CSW’s research, the majority of FoRB violations are perpetrated by the ORA, which is a branch of the Communist Party rather than an official government department. Its decisions are not subject to oversight and cannot be challenged through official channels or in a court of law.

Property rights is one issue affecting a wide variety of religious groups in the country. The government continues to target church buildings affiliated with both registered and unregistered religious groups. Churches are required to register their buildings in order for them to gain legal status, but church leaders have told CSW that when they make these requests, they are either denied or receive no answer.

Many churches have been waiting for around 25 years for legal permission to exist, which means that many churches are forced to meet illegally, making them vulnerable to confiscation or demolition. In addition, religious leaders regularly report harassment which appears to be aimed at intimidating them and interfering with church activities.

The use of temporary arbitrary detention, harassment of church leaders, and attacks on property rights has occurred for a number of years. However, in 2017, CSW noted that the government is now also diversifying its tactics by threatening activists and religious leaders with trumped up criminal charges, arbitrarily preventing them from traveling out of the country and targeting their children.

This is Cuba. With Fidel’s death, many hoped for change, but politically, with Díaz-Canel in power, Castro propaganda and metal cut-outs of Fidel still dominate the countryside in this one-party regime. Meanwhile, the economy is collapsing and the infrastructure is crumbling.

Mobile phones, which were restricted to those working for foreign companies and government officials, were legalised in 2008. But in many ways, this just enables state security to monitor more conversations, a reality that is already assumed by every Cuban.

Keeping wild birds in cages is a Cuban tradition, although, ironically, Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus), cannot live in a cage because it dies of sadness in captivity.

The reality for many in Cuba is that the government’s tight control of education, broadcasting, newspapers, magazines and churches, and its use of political propaganda, leaves them feeling trapped.

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer.




Shared experiences in the context of extreme violence: what is the Church’s role?

Over the past decades, both Peru and Colombia have experienced internal conflicts which involved extreme levels of violence in many regions and high loss of life. While the conflicts were political (pitting far left groups against the government and/or far right paramilitary groups) they directly impacted ordinary civilians and civil society, including churches.

In many cases, Christians, especially church leaders, were targeted for different reasons by the various armed actors. This directly affected freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in those areas.

In both countries, the larger Church (composed of many different denominations) found itself looking for ways to respond to the conflict and especially how to support the churches, Christians and others living in conflict zones.

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FoRB in China: The UK needs to speak out

Bulldozed House (church) of Sha Ao-4 with broken cross

Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.

In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.

Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.

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Update: The Status of 2,000 AoG Churches Threatened with Confiscation in Cuba

In January 2015, approximately 2,000 churches linked to the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination were declared illegal in Cuba under Legal Decree 322, putting them at risk of confiscation and, in some cases, demolition. CSW’s July 2017 report details a new development in the case.

In May 2017, the superintendent of the denomination was summoned to the Office for Religious Affairs (ORA), where government officials gave verbal assurances that the churches were no longer under threat of confiscation. While verbal assurances have been provided in the past have not been honoured, on this occasion a document was provided that officially rescinded the demolition order for one of the AoG churches.

At the same meeting, the superintendent received verbal promises from ORA officials that they would help legalise the churches that had been under threat. This is tentatively being considered a positive development, however it remains dependent on implementation.

It should be noted that while this appears to be good news, this meeting took place one week before the superintendent was due to attend a conference on international religious freedom held by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Washington D.C. The officials at the ORA were aware of this and encouraged the superintendent to say that ‘there are no religious freedom problems in Cuba’. Worryingly, this could signify that the verbal concessions made by the ORA were merely an effort to manipulate what the superintendent was going to say at the conference.

Since May, there have been no further developments in the situation of the AoG churches. While it is good that the government has not done anything to indicate that they are reneging on their promise not to confiscate them, there has been a frustrating lack of movement towards the promised legalisation of the churches.

In addition, recent months have seen no developments in the return of church properties that were confiscated during earlier periods of open persecution. This took place for over three decades after the 1958 revolution, before a 1992 constitutional amendment which changed the official state religion from atheist to secular. After this, persecution became more covert, but churches that had been previously targeted received no compensation.

At present, Legal Decree 322 is still in effect in Cuba. CSW’s July 2017 report therefore makes the following recommendations:

  • Reform Legal Decree 322 to ensure it cannot be used to arbitrarily expropriate property, including property belonging to religious associations
  • Return church properties confiscated by the government, including under Legal Decree 322
  • Enact and implement legislation allowing for the legalisation of house churches, and for churches to purchase property or receive it as a donation transferred by the owner

CSW remains committed to the close monitoring of the situation to see if there are any changes, positive or otherwise, to the status of the AoG churches.

North Korea and Human Rights: A State of Denial


“There is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” That was the conclusion reached by the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea over two years ago. Indeed, the UN inquiry went further, noting that the regime in North Korea “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”. Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”.

Loyalty to the Regime is expected

Our new report – Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Koreaprovides further evidence that freedom of religion or belief is a human right that is “largely non-existent” in the country. The ruling Kim dynasty is deified. Pictures of the three generations of dictators – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-Un – are displayed in private homes and public spaces, cleaned daily and inspected regularly by the authorities to ensure they are in the best condition. Allowing one of these photographs to decay or gather dust is akin to a blasphemy. Anything less than total loyalty to the ruling family is severely punished.

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