BOTTOM LINE: Despite some improvements for government-approved religious groups, religious freedom deteriorated in Cuba with a sharp rise in the number of violations, primarily due to government pressure to prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.

Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite some improvements for government-approved religious groups. Reports indicate a tripling in the number of violations, such as detentions and sporadic arrests of clergy and religious leaders; harassment of religious leaders and laity; interference in religious groups' internal affairs, and pressure to prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities. Despite constitutional protections for religious freedom, the Cuban government actively controls and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies. Based on these concerns, USCIRF places Cuba on its Tier 2 list in 2013. Cuba had been on USCIRF's Watch List since 2004.


The Cuban government largely controls religious denominations through government-authorized surveillance and harassment, and at times detentions, of religious leaders and through its implementation of legal restrictions. The government requires churches and other religious groups to undergo an invasive registration procedure with the Ministry of Justice. Only registered religious communities are legally allowed to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply for travel abroad for religious purposes. Local Communist Party officials must approve all religious activities of registered groups. The government also restricts religious practices by: denying permits to construct or repair houses of worship; denying access to state media and exit visas; requiring the registration of publications; limiting the entry of foreign religious workers; denying Internet access to religious organizations; denying religious literature, such as Bibles, to persons in prison; and denying permission to hold processions or events outside religious buildings.


Arrests and Beatings of Religious Leaders: Several religious leaders and followers were arrested, held for short periods of time, and sometimes mistreated in this reporting period. The most serious incident occurred on February 6, when Pentecostal pastor Reutilio Columbie was attacked on his way to file a complaint with regional authorities regarding the arbitrary confiscation of the church vehicle by local officials in late 2011. Pastor Columbie suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the beating, which he believes to have been orchestrated by local Communist Party officials since the only thing taken from him was the document proving his legal ownership of the vehicle. There were also three separate incidents (on February 25, August 11, and October 6) in which evangelical pastors were beaten and detained for several hours after public preaching at bus stations.

Denial of Religious Freedom to Human Rights/Democracy Activists: The vast majority of religious freedom violations in this reporting period reflected the denial of religious freedom rights to members of the Ladies in White and other human rights/democracy activists, primarily in Holguin and Santiago provinces in the eastern part of Cuba. At least 75 separate incidents were reported of a specific group of activists being prevented from attending Sunday masses, either by being arrested before mass and released hours later or by police officers blockading them from reaching their respective churches. Additionally, Cuban human rights groups estimate that at least 200 activists were arrested and imprisoned for the duration of Pope Benedict XVI's visit in March, to prevent them from attending the Pope's mass.

Targeting of Religious Communities: The government continued to harass the Apostolic Reformation and the Western Baptist Convention in 2012. The Apostolic Reformation is a fast-growing, unregistered network of Protestant churches, which garnered the attention of Cuban authorities after it attracted pastors from several churches belonging to Cuban Council of Churches (CCC), the government-approved umbrella organization for Protestant denominations. Harassment of this religious community includes: short-term arrests of leaders, confiscation, destruction or threats of destruction of church property; harassment and surveillance of church members and their relatives; fines of churches; and threats of losses of job, housing or educational opportunities. The Western Baptist Convention has been targeted presumably because of its support of democracy activists. The Convention resisted new government pressure to change its administrative structure from a board to one leader and hold its board meetings every two years instead of annually. Three churches were being threatened with closure: one in Sancti Spiritus Provence, the Trinidad First Baptist Church in Santa Clara, and the Cristo Rompe las Cadenas Church in Havanna. These churches have also been fined and had their assets frozen, and pastors have been harassed, including with threats of physical violence.

Improvements for Registered Communities: Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2012. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba's Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations.

Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve. March 2012 marked the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba's patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Cuba March 26-29 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he met Fidel Castro and Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue toured the island drawing large crowds. Prior to the Pope's visit, 13 individuals occupied the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana seeking an audience with His Holiness. The government removed, but did not charge, the individuals at the request of the Church.


The United States and Cuba do not have full diplomatic relations, and U.S.-Cuba policy continues to be dominated by U.S. trade sanctions and the travel embargo on Cuba. The detention and March 2011 sentencing of USAID contractor Alan Gross to 15 years for crimes against the state also has impeded U.S.-Cuban relations. Gross has been imprisoned since December 2009, despite efforts to secure his release by U.S. government officials. In April 2009, President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on the number of times Cubans in the United States can travel to Cuba and the amount of money they can send to relatives in the country. In January 2011, the Obama Administration increased travel opportunities for U.S. schools, churches and cultural groups to visit Cuba. Religious communities can now apply to travel to the island under a general license and remittances can be sent to religious communities to support religious activity in Cuba.

The U.S. government's programs to promote human rights in Cuba do not adequately promote religious freedom. USCIRF recommends that, in addition to demanding that Havana end the detentions of religious leaders and followers, the U.S. government should:

  • press the Cuban government to meet the following benchmarks concerning religious freedom prior to considering resuming full diplomatic relations with the country: stop arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders; cease interference with religious activities and the internal affairs of religious communities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; revise government policies that restrict religious services in homes or on other personal property; and hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of non-violent religious practitioners;

  • use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrest by supporting the development of new technologies, while also immediately distributing proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship;

  • increase the number of visas issued to Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to the United States to interact with co-religionists; and

  • encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocks, to ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.