Soul Searching: The Catholic Church and Human Rights in Cuba

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Last month’s visit of the Holy See’s foreign minister, Monsignor Dominique Mamberti, to Cuba highlighted the historically uneasy relationship between the Cuban government and the nation’s Catholic Church. However, it should be recognised that overall, relations between Havana and the Church have been continuously improving, creating opportunities for some political dissidents held in Cuba to gain their freedom and have a greater opportunity to come forth with ideas that are counter to those preached by the Cuban government.

A Troubled Past

According to a 2005 BBC report, 56% of Cubans identify themselves as Catholic, which although a majority of the population, is modest in comparison to other countries in the region (Mexico 89%, Brazil 85%). In pre-revolutionary Cuba, the Church was seen by island nationalists as an elitist foreign institution, the remnants of Spanish colonialism. Cuban authorities treated the church with chilly contempt in the years following the 1959 revolution, and Fidel Castro formally declared Cuba to be an atheist nation. The new government banned members of religious organizations from joining the Communist Party; 80% of priests residing on the island ultimately left the country and hundreds of religious schools were closed. For the general public, belonging to a religious group was a risky affiliation.

However, an opening occurred in the Church-State religious dialogue in 1985 when Brazilian priest Frei Betto wrote his book, Fidel and Religion. The now famous work consisted of interviews Betto conducted with Fidel Castro, in which Castro talked about his religious upbringing and the place of religion in a communist society like Cuba. A huge success in Cuba, the book revealed that Castro did not necessarily share Karl Marx’s view of religion as “the opium of the people.” The release of Fidel and Religion demonstrably improved daily life for Cuban religious communities. In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) lifted its ban that had prevented those with religious beliefs from becoming members. A 1992 constitutional amendment transformed a previously atheist Cuba into an officially secular country. In 1994, the Vatican consecrated former political prisoner, Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega, as a Cardinal. Christmas was reintroduced as a national holiday in 1997. Fidel Castro met with Pope John Paul II during an official visit to Rome in 1996, which led to a papal visit to Cuba in 1998. John Paul II was the first pope to visit Cuba in its 400 years of Catholicism. His trip to Cuba seemed extraordinary at the time, as Cuba was the only Latin American country that he had not yet visited in his then twenty-year papacy.

Papal Visit Leads to Freedom

The acceptance of the Castro government by religious leaders has continued to benefit the cause of human rights and free expression on the island. Although the easing of religious restrictions following Fidel and Religion had shown some progress, the first time the improving Church-State relations directly benefited political prisoners was after the departure of John Paul II. Cuban authorities proceeded to free three hundred political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. In contrast to the previous role of the Church, which focused largely on the plight of religious communities on the island, the Church began to take on a slightly more prominent role in broader Cuban human rights issues following the Pope’s departure.

During a mass he gave in Jose Marti Square in Havana, the Pope hinted at concerns he had not only about Cuba but also about the United States:

“On the other hand, various places are witnessing the resurgence of a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces and conditions the development of peoples on those forces. From its centres of power, such neoliberalism often places unbearable burdens upon less favored countries. Hence, at times, unsustainable economic programmes are imposed on nations as a condition for further assistance. In the international community, we thus see a small number of countries growing exceedingly rich at the cost of the increasing impoverishment of a great number of other countries; as a result the wealthy grow ever wealthier, while the poor grow ever poorer”

Pope John Paul II did not specifically condemn nor commend the USA or Cuba during his visit, meaning that Cuba could continue to ease its defenses against the Church with little to fear from recidivism. Although the Cuban government did not necessarily have a new ally, it knew that the Catholic Church would not automatically or overwhelmingly side with Washington.

Black Spring – A Relapse?

The progress made since 1985 has been overshadowed by the 2003 crackdown when seventy-five dissidents were arrested and jailed. Although none of them were imprisoned for their religious beliefs, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State at the time, wrote a letter to Fidel Castro asking to “make a significant gesture of mercy towards the condemned.” This mercy, however, has not been granted to all. According to a 2009 Amnesty International report, Cuba has fifty-eight prisoners of conscience, who were in jail solely for expressing their political views. However, other sources such as the Cuban Human Rights Commission, an unauthorized but tolerated human rights organization based in Havana, estimate that the total number of political prisoners could be as high as 167.

The Catholic Church: A Diplomacy that the United States Might want to Emulate

Some critics would point out that human rights violations in Cuba are not only committed by Havana, but also by the United States. At the same time that Cuban authorities were imprisoning dissidents in 2003, the Bush administration was introducing regulations to end academic exchanges between the United States and Cuba. According to Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that researches and advocates human rights, part of the excessive U.S. travel restrictions violate not only the right to return to one’s home country, but also the rights to family unity and freedom of movement. Although the Obama administration reversed some elements of the U.S. embargo towards Cuba that the Bush administration had originally incorporated, it needs to do more. The U.S. government would automatically improve some of its human rights violations in Cuba by totally eliminating its travel restrictions on the country.

The Catholic Church and the United States government are two formidable institutions at work in Cuba; however, their policies toward the Castro-led regime could not differ more. The United States’ policy of hostility and isolation has led to the deterioration of the basic rights of Cubans, whereas the Catholic Church’s more open and accepting attitude has allowed for some tangible progress to be made. If United States authorities pursued a constructive approach, similar to that of the Catholic Church, then there would be a possible improvement in the lives of both Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Although during the Cold-War era the United States could have claimed that policy towards Cuba was formed with national security considerations in mind, this attitude has been made obsolete by events, with the post Cold-War United States now claiming to have the same objective as the church in striving to improve the lives of the Cuban population.

Mamberti’s Visit

In the days leading up to Dominique Mamberti’s visit, Cuban authorities moved twelve dissidents to prisons closer to their homes and families. In addition the government released Ariel Sigler, a paraplegic dissident who was arrested in the 2003 crackdown. The actions came as a result of talks between President Raul Castro, Archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega, and head of the Cuban Bishops’ conference, Dionisio Garcia. Small steps like these are not trivial, as they demonstrate the willingness of the Cuban government to cooperate if approached with new initiatives. During Mamberti’s stay on the island, he met with senior figures including Raul Castro, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez, and Vice President Esteban Lazo. Progress could be seen shortly after Mamberti’s departure when Cuban officials released political prisoner Darsi Ferrer, the director of the Juan Bruno Zayas Health and Human Rights Center in Havana. It also shows how influential the Catholic Church has become in the sphere of human rights observance in Cuba. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State for the Holy See, was the first foreign official to meet with President Raul Castro after the latter became president.

The Future of the Cuban Catholic Church

The relocations of prisoners and the release of Sigler have had an impact on the global reactions to evolving Cuban political realities. Following Mamberti’s trip, there was talk of a possible 2012 Papal visit to Cuba. The visit would mark the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the first appearance of the Virgin of Charity, patron saint of Cuba. In general, the Catholic Church seems to be satisfied with current progress regarding church-state relations in Cuba, and although there have been no brilliant changes in policy, the recent goodwill gestures of the Cuban government have moved relations towards a more open political environment. A recent Associated Press report stresses that the current number of political prisoners on the island is at the lowest level since the Castro brothers came to power at the end of 1959.


Since the 1959 revolution, the Cuban Catholic Church and government have moved from sharply strained ties filled with suspicion, prejudice, and tension to one of mutual respect and shared goals. In Cardinal Ortega, the Church now has a powerful voice on the island, which has benefitted the welfare of Cuba’s general population as well as political prisoners and defenders of the revolution.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos arrived in Cuba on the 5 July, 2010, to participate in ongoing talks between Cardinal Ortega and Raul Castro and played a significant role in inviting all of those scheduled to be released, along with their families, to seek a safe haven in Spain. On 13 July, seven of the fifty-two soon to-be freed dissidents arrived in Spain with their families. According to The Guardian, the remaining prisoners will be released in the next three months and have already been offered asylum in Chile and the U.S., in addition to Spain. In retrospect, the Church has played a fundamental role in the release of prisoners of conscience, and if the Obama administration decided to capitalize on the current momentum created by the recent church-state dialogue, U.S.– Cuba relations may be improved, to the benefit of both countries.