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Why Cuba is getting worse for the Catholic Church

It is almost a cliché in Latin America that whenever a leftist government is elected, people ask if the country will become the “next Cuba.” But with persecution of the island nation’s Catholic Church increasing, it might be more apt for Catholics to ask if Cuba is becoming the “next Nicaragua.”

Catedral de San Cristóbal, Havana. Image credit: Guilluame Baviere (CC BY 2.0)

As the economic crisis in the country worsens and protests against the regime increase, government pressure on the Catholic Church grows, despite a progressive increase in freedom of worship in the last three decades.

Priests have denounced government threats and intimidation, Holy Week processions have been banned and several Catholic activists have been imprisoned or exiled from the country.

“I’d say that in Cuba there is freedom of worship, but not religious freedom. There is freedom of worship because you can go to church on Sundays in peace. Before they viewed that badly, now not so much — there are Masses, there are retreats, there are seminaries,” said Bladimir Navarro, a Cuban priest who has lived in exile in Madrid for the last four years.

“But there is no religious freedom because there cannot be Church media, religion cannot be taught in schools. Only now are some priests and bishops allowed to speak publicly, but everything is hyper-controlled by the Religious Affairs Office of the Communist Party,” he told The Pillar.

For a while, Cuban Church-state relations seemed to be improving after St. John Paul II's first visit in 1998, and Francis' own overtures. So why does there now seem to be a progressive deterioration of the freedom of the Church at this moment?


The Church in Cuba

The contemporary history of the Church in Cuba begins with the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959. The Church would criticize the political repression and executions of opponents of the new Communist regime.

“At that time, Communism raged against the Church because the Church was faithful to social doctrine, to its prophetic voice, from the priests, bishops and lay people. For this reason they tried to dismantle the religious orders and expel priests,” Fr. Navarro told The Pillar.

Castro established the so-called “revolutionary tribunals” to try opponents of the revolution or those who had supported the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which Castro’s forces had overthrown.

Most of those show trials were held in stadiums and public places, without respect for due process, for which they were widely criticized in Cuba and abroad. On January 29, 1959, Archbishop Pérez Serantes of Santiago de Cuba had a letter questioning the practice read out in all the churches of his archdiocese.

Tired of the Church's criticism of the Communist regime, Castro responded with a policy of persecution. On May 1, 1961, he announced the state’s expropriation of all Church educational and welfare institutions.

In addition, the government expelled hundreds of priests and religious from the country. In fact, on a single night in June 1961, almost 400 religious were put on a ship and sent into exile in Spain. Another 160 were exiled in September.

In 1963 there were only about 200 priests left in Cuba to care for more than 7 million people. In 1966, shortly after the end of the Second Vatican Council, the Cuban regime confiscated the Good Shepherd seminary in Havana and converted it into a military base to protect the capital in the event of an invasion by the United States.

In 1968, Archbishop Pérez Serantes calculated that the ratio of priests to inhabitants was one for every 35,000 in the west of the country, with double the deficit in the east. At this time, the ratio in Latin America was one priest per 5,400 inhabitants.

Many Catholic priests and activists would end up in the so-called “Military Production Aid Units” which were forced labor camps for political opponents, religious people, and homosexuals.

Later, the 1976 Constitution defined Cuba as an atheist state and Church activity was severely reduced. In 1971, only 7,000 baptisms were recorded in the Archdiocese of Havana, which then had 1.5 million Catholics.

However, as the end of the Cold War approached, the situation began to change.

“In the 1980s a national ecclesial meeting was held, where after decades of repression when Communism wanted the Church to live in the sacristy, the Church decided to go out into the streets and be missionary and preach the Gospel without fear,” said Navarro.

In 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union and a deep humanitarian crisis on the island known as the “special period,” Cuba began to relax the pressure on religions. 

In 1992, Cuba became officially secular but was no longer a confessionally-atheist state. That same year, Havana quadrupled the number of baptisms, and the number of priests, nuns, and parishes all increased slightly.

Eventually, in 1998, Pope St. John Paul II visited the country asking for “Cuba to open to the world so that the world opens to Cuba” and calling for the end of the decades-long trade embargo imposed by the United States.

The papal visit marked a before and after point, bringing the reinstatement of Christmas as a national holiday and a reduction in restrictions on the Church. Castro attended almost all of the visiting pope's Masses and speeches, sitting in the front row.

“Before the first papal visit, missions were carried out in which images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were given to people to put in their houses. In the 1960s, these images had been removed and replaced with a photo of the dictator Fideo Castro or of Che Guevara, but after the visit the Sacred Heart of Jesus returned to the homes,” Navarro said.

“Many people returned to the Church to be baptized, the churches began to fill up and there was an explosion of Christian faith. When Benedict XVI returned [in 2012], he went to accompany a growing church, but one that continued to be monitored by the Communist Party,” he said.

Although relations were cordial since John Paul II's visit to the island, with Francis' papacy they reached a new positive level, with the Vatican playing an essential role in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the island and the United States in 2014. 

Pope Francis has said he had a “human relationship” with Raúl Castro, the brother and political heir of Fidel, and he has received visits from the current Cuban head of state, Miguel Díaz Canel.

What’s changed now?

While government repression of the Church was reduced in recent years, it never actually completely ended.

For example, members of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), such as Yandier García Labrada, have been imprisoned for their protests against the regime.

The MCL is a political movement inspired by Catholic social teaching. Its former leader, Oswaldo Payá, died in an alleged traffic accident in 2012, but the Inter-American Court of Human Rights blamed the Cuban regime for his death.

Additionally, the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights reported almost 1,000 violations of religious freedom in Cuba in 2023, mostly against the Catholic Church, including arbitrary arrests and harassment of people to prevent them from attending religious events.

In fact, although publicly relations between the Vatican and Cuba remain cordial, Cuba seems to listen to Pope Francis less and less.

In June 2023, Francis received Miguel Díaz-Canel, president of Cuba, in a 40-minute private audience. In this audience, according to reports, the pope spoke with Díaz-Canel about the possible release of the more than 1,000 political prisoners in Cuba, mostly for participating in the protests that began in July 2021 on the island.

But the attempted mediation by Francis came to nothing and the vast majority of these political prisoners remain in Cuban prisons.

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During those same protests, Fr. Castor Álvarez was arrested for helping an injured demonstrator and supporting the protests. Álvarez was detained for 20 hours, during which he was tortured, according to the NGO Open Doors.

The same NGO has reported that there is intense surveillance of churches (Catholic and other Christian denominations) and that many have been infiltrated by regime informers or security agents. For that reason, the Cuban government has been steadily moving up Open Doors’ World List of Religious Persecution — from 61st place in 2020 to 51st in 2021 and 37th in 2022. 

In the last persecution ranking update in 2023, Cuba was in 22nd place.

The present

Cuba has been going through a deep economic crisis since the Covid-19 pandemic, with economists and observers considering it to be the worst economic crisis in Cuba since the “special period” in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Five percent of the island's population has fled in the last three years, mostly to the United States and Spain.

“Cuba is bleeding out. There have always been migratory waves, but this one is bigger. Many communities are becoming hollowed out because everyone has decided to leave the country,” Fr. Navarro told The Pillar.

The economic crisis also caused a series of massive protests in the country, beginning in July of 2021. In March of this year, thousands again took to the streets to demonstrate over the economic conditions and the state of public services.

Many priests have begun to denounce the crisis, too, and since religious processions are often the only non-governmental public events permitted, some have begun to take on the character of public demonstrations. As a result, surveillance and control have increased, concentrating on a number of socially active priests and parishes.

For example, Fr. Léster Zayas, OP, has become the face of the Catholic resistance against the government.

Zayas, parish priest of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the historic neighborhood of Vedado in Havana, has become famous for his social denunciations in his homilies. And he has been noticed.

Despite authorizing 111 Holy Week processions in 2024, the Cuban government banned the one to be held the parish of Zayas for the second consecutive year.

"According to the information my superiors gave me, it was denied exclusively by me, because apparently in the homilies I offend or bother certain people or they consider my homilies dangerous," he explained in a recent interview.

The Cuban government has also banned processions in the city of Bayamo after it became an epicenter of anti-regime protests in March. According to independent media, at least two other parishes in Villa Clara also saw their processions suspended.

“The Communists are very afraid [of the protests], therefore, repression and control increases, especially against those priests who have wanted to be prophets. The prophet denounces evil and announces the Gospel. Then they are controlled, spied on and mistreated,” Navarro said.

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The future

But in addition to being associated with protests and demonstrations, the Church in Cuba is also trying to play a constructive role. 

Recently, the Church offered to “facilitate a space for dialogue” between Cuban political actors, according to Fr. Ariel Suárez, secretary of the Cuban episcopal conference, in an interview.

“The bishops have invited us to pray that solutions are found, so that we can get out of this distressing situation, so that the country's rulers have wisdom and boldness when making decisions that benefit the lives of the people," he said.

However, these offers of dialogue in a context like the Cuban one can have unpredictable consequences for the Church.

In a similar situation, the Church offered to mediate between the Venezuelan regime and the opposition in 2016. The negotiations came to nothing, mostly due to a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan dictatorship. 

But the public image of the relationship between the Venezuelan bishops and the Vatican was affected — with the bishops, at that time, much more direct in their denunciations of the Maduro regime, while the Vatican took a more diplomatic tone.

Things were even worse when the Church offered to mediate between the Ortega regime in Nicaragua and the opposition during the protests against the dictatorship between 2018 and 2019.

The negotiations failed and Ortega blamed the Church. His response was to start one of the most concerted and systematic repressions of the Church to remain ongoing today.

Despite the risks, Church offers to create space for dialogue are widely seen as part of her mission, and essential to the diplomatic role of the Church. In most Latin American countries, especially those with autocratic regimes or with the presence of irregular militant groups, the Church is the only social actor with a minimum of legitimacy between the parties.

However, given the actors involved, such offers also come at a cost and can even compromise the Church’s perceived legitimacy in the eyes of the population if it is seen to be too accommodating or willing to look past repression and violence.

It is a complex balance.

In fact, between 2010 and 2011, the then Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, arranged for hundreds of political prisoners to be exiled to Spain, through an agreement between Raúl Castro and the then Spanish president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Many Cubans have mixed memories of this mediation because many relatives of the prisoners were ignored or excluded from the negotiations, with the government unilaterally imposing conditions.

“There is a lot of complicit silence – according to my personal opinion – from the bishops, but not from priests, nuns and lay people who continue to denounce the evil that communism causes in Cuba,” said Fr. Navarro. But, he said, as long as the Church remains alive in Cuba, there will continue to be people like Father Zayas.

“Although I fear reprisals, I am even more afraid of not being faithful to my people,” Zayas said in a recent interview.

“People call me 'brave', but I'm not brave at all. I'm more afraid of hell for not being faithful to the truth and people's suffering than anything else. But I’m nothing brave,” the priest said.

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