Raul J. Muniz, “Protests in Cuba and the Detention of Religious Leaders”

[Editors: The following is a post from St. John’s 3L law student, Raul J. Muniz.]

On July 11, thousands of Cubans in more than 40 cities across the country took to the streets to protest the Cuban government. The island has not seen public demonstrations on this scale in over 62 years since Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces took power in 1959. The Cuban people have lived under a single-party authoritarian regime where political dissent is punished and repressed. The protests demanding liberty were exacerbated by increasing COVID-19 cases and a failing economy.

Protestors were quickly met with large-scale arrests by security forces and a complete shutdown of internet access to limit communication and prevent videos of the protests from circulating across social media. According to the Foundation for Pan American Democracy (FDP) Center for Incident Reports, at least 750 Cubans have disappeared or have been detained.

The arrests and detentions have included some prominent religious figures. Among those detained were Pastor Yeremi Blanco and Pastor Yarian Sierra of the Berean Baptist Mission, Reverend Yusniel Pérez Montejo of the Eastern Baptist Convention, and Father Jose Alvarez Devesa of the Roman Catholic Church. Cuban authorities also detained Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, an opposition movement founded by wives and relatives of jailed dissidents who silently walk through the streets dressed in white after attending Sunday Mass.

Religion and Religious Freedom in Cuba

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion on the island, with 60% of Cubans identifying as members of the Roman Catholic Church.

Professor Alejandro Anreus explains, in Catholic Cuba, that by the late 1950s, Catholic leaders were openly challenging President Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro’s predecessor, to return to an elected and constitutional democracy. When Castro’s revolutionary forces successfully overthrew Batista’s military dictatorship, Catholic leaders and laity sensed new possibilities in Castro’s promises of an ethically managed government, agrarian reform and land redistribution, literacy campaigns, and other social-justice improvements.

However, after Castro came to power, the Cuban government banned public religious events, expelled Roman Catholic priests, and nationalized Catholic schools. Notably, the Auxiliary Bishop of Havana, Boza Masvidal, was jailed and deported after condemning Castro’s self-declared Marxist-Leninist government. Father Miguel A. Loredo, a Franciscan friar and an outspoken critic of the revolution’s denial of religious freedom, would spend ten years in prison and was forced to leave Cuba. By 1962, 70 percent of priests and 90 percent of nuns had left Cuba.

Tensions between the Church and Cuban government have eased somewhat in more recent years. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis all have visited the island, and the first Catholic Church since the 1959 revolution was inaugurated in 2019. However, religious expression is limited by state surveillance and control; religious leaders that speak out against the government are subject to government discrimination and harassment.

Role of the Roman Catholic Church

In recent years, the Catholic Church has served as a mediator in negotiating the release of political prisoners and brokering the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Critics of the Cuban government have asserted that the Church has not done enough to confront the government on human rights abuses.

After the protests on July 11, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Religious set up a hotline to advise the families of detainees about pursuing claims of habeas corpus, locating detainees, and providing spiritual and psychological guidance. Cuban bishops issued a statement on July 12 acknowledging “that the people have the right to express their needs, desires and hopes and, in turn, to express publicly how some of the measures that have been taken are seriously affecting them,” and encouraged citizens and the government to seek dialogue. Pope Francis, in his first Angelus Address after being hospitalized for two weeks, extended his support for the Cuban people and prayed for a “society that is more just and more fraternal through peace, dialogue and solidarity.”

Although the protests on July 11 perhaps suggest that Catholic leaders in Cuba are willing to take a stronger stance against the government, it remains unclear what role the Catholic Church will play as Cubans on the island, and Cuban exiles in the United States, demand further and more far-reaching changes.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • A petition for certiorari was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Woods, in which the Washington Supreme Court held that, as applied, the religious and non-profit exemption to the state’s anti-discrimination law may be unconstitutional.
  • A petition for certiorari was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Gordon College v. DeWeese-Boyd, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the ministerial exception does not apply in a suit by an associate professor at a private Christian liberal arts college who claims her promotion to full professor was denied because of her public opposition to the school’s policies on LGBTQ individuals.
  • U.S Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, in Calvary Chapel of Bangor v. Mills, denied an application by a Maine church for injunctive relief, which sought to prevent Maine’s governor from reinstating COVID-related restrictions on worship services, pending disposition of its petition for certiorari.
  • U.S. Army sergeant, Jacob DiPietro, became one of the first Christian service members to receive an exemption to grow out his hair and beard for religious purposes.
  • A Pennsylvania appellate court, in Kaur v. Singh, upheld an order of protection that excludes plaintiff’s ex-husband from attending the Nazareth Temple on Sundays, finding that the order does not violate his Free Exercise rights.
  • A Scotland court ruled in favor of Kenneth Ferguson, a Christian CEO, who was unjustly fired by The Robertson Trust, the country’s biggest grant-making trust, because of his religious views on marriage.