[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.