Why Christian Persecution Remains Despite Reforms in Cuba

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 1/2013

Cuba has shown some relatively significant signs of economic and political transformation since Raúl Castro’s official election as President in February 2008, but the nation’s communist government still persecutes Christians and crushes dissent.

While Raúl Castro has the same objective as his predecessor and brother Fidel Castro – to pass on the legacy of the Revolution to the next generation – the incumbent president believes the country should have private farmers’ markets, legalize the dollar, allow self-employment, gradually end the isolation, and compete globally.

Therefore, as Raúl Castro begins his second five-year term as president this month, some positive developments can be seen. For example, immigration authorities are now processing passports for Cubans to travel abroad, and citizens can also retain their property and residence status if they live or work outside of Cuba. Besides, about half of the nation’s economy is expected to be in private hands within five years.

Moreover, in the general election this month, a little less than three-fourth of the candidates for the 612 seats are newcomers, most of who were born after the Cuban Revolution. And about half of the candidates are women.

Cuba, which has been governed by a one-party state ever since Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, is also strengthening relations with Brazil and the Catholic Church, apparently to open up new economic and social spaces for Cubans.

However, Raúl Castro’s reforms agenda is apparently not due to calls for transformation by the United States, and nor does it seek to please Washington, which has had an embargo on all trade and commercial transactions with Cuba for over half a century. On the contrary, the reforms are being brought in mostly for domestic reasons and have been supplemented with safeguards against “interference” by the United States.

Around the time when Raúl Castro was elected by the National Assembly as President in 2009, tensions between Cuba and the United States peaked with the arrest of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who was tried and convicted of attempting to destabilize the communist regime through a U.S.-sponsored program.

The United States’ economic embargo on Cuba continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people, and has done nothing to improve human rights in Cuba, the Human Rights Watch remarks in its 2013 report, and points to the United Nations General Assembly in November, 2012, where 188 of the 192 member countries voted for a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo.

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama enacted reforms to eliminate limits on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans to Cuba, which had been put in place during the administration of President George W. Bush. In 2011, Obama used his executive powers to ease “people-to-people” travel restrictions, allowing religious, educational, and cultural groups from the US to travel to Cuba. However, in May 2012 the Obama administration established additional requirements to obtain “people to people” licenses, which has reduced the frequency of such trips.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that alongside positive developments, political arrests in the country also jumped to more than 6,600 in 2012 – the highest in decades, according to the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. There was also a dramatic increase in violations of freedom of religion or belief in the country last year, says a report by London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), pointing out that 120 cases of religious freedom were reported in the year – up from a total of 30 in 2011.

However, while the persecution of Christians and dissidents remains, it is now low-profile and low-intensity. For example, authorities no longer slap critics with long prison sentences, but short-term arbitrary arrests are still widespread. Similarly, Cuba has largely moved away from the targeting of Christians and churches the way authorities under Fidel Castro did, but legal restrictions and surveillance are still there.

According to Operation World, of the roughly 11 million people in Cuba, an estimated 6 million are Christian, with Catholics as the majority, and about 1 million are evangelicals. The actual number could be higher, as the church appears to be growing fast.

The Cuban government still largely controls religious groups through legal restrictions and government-authorized surveillance and harassment, and at times detention, of religious leaders, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The government requires religious communities to undergo an invasive registration procedure. Only registered religious communities are allowed to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply for international travel for religious purposes. Besides, local Communist Party officials must approve all registered groups’ religious activities.

A ban on all political organizing continues, and political dissent in any form is still a punishable offense, according to Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House. The news media is still owned and controlled by the state, and access to the Internet is also tightly controlled until today. Rights of assembly and association cannot be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State.” The Council of State, led by Raúl Castro, controls the courts and the judicial process as a whole.

For the Cuban government to introduce some legal reforms and allow civil rights, it would perhaps require a sense of lesser threat from the United States now that the island nation is opening up.

While resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States would involve a long process because it a politically divisive issue for the latter, even a little progress in the two countries’ ties – even if that requires Washington to take some unilateral steps – can help lift some more restrictions in the Caribbean nation.