U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Cuba

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief, within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the Government places restrictions on freedom of religion.

The Government requires churches and other religious groups to register with the provincial Registry of Associations to obtain official recognition. In practice, the Government refuses to register new denominations. The Government prohibits, with occasional exceptions, the construction of new churches, forcing many growing congregations to violate the law and meet in private homes.

Along with recognized churches, the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, the Masons, small human rights groups, and a number of nascent fraternal or professional organizations are the only associations outside the control or influence of the State, the Communist Party, and their mass organizations. With the exception of the Masons, who have been established in the country for more than a century, the authorities continue to ignore other groups' applications for legal recognition, thereby subjecting members to potential charges of illegal association.

The Government's main interaction with religious denominations is through the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party. The Ministry of Interior engages in active efforts to control and monitor the country's religious institutions, including surveillance, infiltration, and harassment of religious professionals and laypersons.

There is no independent authoritative source on the size or composition of religious institutions and their membership. About 40 to 45 percent of the population generally are believed to identify themselves at least nominally with the Roman Catholic Church. A significant number of citizens share or have participated in syncretistic Afro-Caribbean beliefs, such as santeria. The Baptists, represented in four different conventions, are possibly the largest Protestant denomination, followed closely by the Pentecostal churches, in particular the Assemblies of God. Some 22 denominations recognized by the State, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, are members of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC). Another 24 officially recognized denominations have maintained a more independent posture. Other churches present include Jehovah's Witnesses and a small Jewish community of some 500 families.

Cuba historically has been a largely secular society without an especially strong religious character. Church and state have been constitutionally separate since the early 20th century. The Marxist-Leninist ideology of the current Government led to strong confrontations with institutional churches in the early 1960's. During that period, many church leaders and religious professionals left the country, fearing persecution. Over 130 Catholic religious workers, including priests, were expelled, and a few served long prison terms. In 1965 the Government forced many priests, pastors, and others "who made religion a way of life" into forced labor camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP's), alongside homosexuals, vagrants, and others considered by the regime to be "social scum." The UMAP system ended in 1967. However, over the next 30 years, the Government and the Communist Party systematically discriminated against and marginalized persons who openly professed their faith. Although the Government abandoned its official atheism in the early 1990's, most churches had been weakened seriously by then, and active participation in religious services had fallen drastically. Nevertheless, church attendance has grown in recent years in some denominations, and has increased substantially at Catholic Church services in the wake of the Pope's visit in January 1998.

In recent years, the Government has eased the harsher aspects of its repression of religious freedom. In 1991 it allowed religious adherents to join the Communist Party, which is the only legal political entity. In 1992 it amended the Constitution to prohibit religious discrimination and removed references to "scientific materialism," i.e., atheism, as the basis for the Cuban State. Nevertheless, the Government discourages members of the armed forces from allowing anyone in their household to observe religious practices, except elderly relatives if their religious beliefs do not influence other family members and are not "damaging to the revolution."

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report; the Pope's January 1998 visit did not lead to the level of change expected by many persons.

Government harassment of private houses of worship continued, with evangelical denominations reporting evictions from houses used for those purposes. Officials of the CCC reported that in 1997 local authorities had demolished two homes used as churches in the eastern provinces. In one case, provincial government authorities provided a replacement building.

In September 1998, independent journalists reported that the Evenecer church in a home in Caibarien, Villa Clara province, was confiscated by local officials of the Communist Party's Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Interior. Authorities also have threatened to demolish homes used as churches in the Havana province and have evicted congregations from other informal chapels. On October 22, 1998, the Government expelled a congregation affiliated with the Western Baptist Convention from a house used as a church in Encrucijada, Villa Clara province. The authorities confiscated the house and turned it over to the local branch of the Union of Young Communists. Church leaders reported that this was the first such action taken against Baptists since the 1960's.

State security officials visited priests, pastors, and other religious workers prior to significant religious events, ostensibly to warn them about dissidents, in an effort to sow discord and mistrust between the churches and peaceful prodemocracy activists. State security officers regularly harassed human rights advocates who sought to attend religious services commemorating special feast days or before significant national days, including inside churches and during religious ceremonies.

State security agents in Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Pinar del Rio visited the homes of activists the night before and the morning of July 13, 1998 – the fourth anniversary of the Cuban Coast Guard's sinking of the "13th of March" tugboat in which 41 persons, including 21 children, died – to warn them against commemorating the incident. In Havana the police chased, beat, and detained 10 activists outside a church. State security officials also visited the homes of some of the family members of the victims of the incident and warned them against commemorating the tragedy. In connection with the September 8, 1998, celebration in honor of Our Lady of Charity, state security agents placed 16 activists under preventive detention for up to 72 hours. State security and uniformed police also detained for about 5 hours some 20 other dissidents who had gathered in the home of activist Isabel del Pino to prevent them from taking part in the religious event. Similar government harassment of human rights and opposition activists occurred during other religious anniversaries. In September 1998, anti-abortion activist Dr. Elias Biscet was harassed during a Mass in Havana and briefly detained by state security personnel, who confiscated copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights he had been carrying. Apart from these incidents, there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Prison authorities routinely denied religious workers access to detainees and prisoners. In Cienfuegos prison, the authorities repeatedly refused to allow priests access to political prisoners, such as Benito Fojaco, even though the priests occasionally were allowed to enter the prison. The four members of the internal dissident working group (economist Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, economist and former military officer Vladimiro Roca Antunez, professor Felix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano) were allowed access to a priest only after frequent requests and letters to prison, civil, and religious authorities. Roca's request for baptism was granted only after direct appeals to Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the Vatican. On May 25, 1998, political prisoner Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, also known as "Antunez," reportedly began a 23-day hunger strike at the Guantanamo provincial prison to press his demands for medical attention and access to religious counsel as well as a transfer to a prison closer to his family in Villa Clara, over 300 miles away. Garcia Perez ended the strike after prison officials agreed to allow a priest to visit him.

The Government continued to enforce a resolution that prevents any Cuban or joint enterprise (except those with specific authorization) from selling computers, facsimile machines, photocopiers, or other equipment to any church at other than the official – and exorbitant – retail prices.

Education is secular. Students who profess a belief in religion continue to be stigmatized by other students and teachers and have been disciplined formally for wearing crucifixes, and for bringing Bibles or other religious materials to school.

On January 21-25, 1998, Pope John Paul II made a historic trip to Cuba. The Pope celebrated public Masses in front of hundreds of thousands of persons in Havana, Villa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, which were televised nationally. The Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba told the faithful that "the nation should not be confused with a party," and that "culture should not be confused with an ideology," and asked the Pope to pray for those who lacked the "precious gift" of freedom. Persons attending the Mass in Havana chanted "freedom," and the Pope made an appeal for the "world to open up to Cuba" and for "Cuba to open up to the world." In his 11 discourses while in the country, the Pope emphasized the need to allow fundamental freedoms, to respect human rights, and to foster the development of independent civil society. In response to a papal request for clemency, the Government released some 300 prisoners from jails across the island, including a little over 100 political prisoners.

On May 30, 1998, the country's Catholic Bishops publicly appealed to the Government to recognize the Church's role in civil society and the family, as well as in the temporal areas of work, the economy, the arts, sports, and the scientific and technical worlds. The Government continued to limit strictly the Church's access to the media and refused to allow the Church to have an independent printing capability. It maintained its prohibition against the establishment of religious schools. However, it selectively continued to authorize the Catholic Church to hold outdoor processions at specific locations on important feast days during the year. It also authorized other denominations to hold a few public events. The Seventh-Day Adventists held a mass baptism in February 1998, and the Eastern Baptist Convention was permitted to rent a government-owned theater for an annual meeting. However, requests for other processions and events were denied routinely and arbitrarily. On September 8, 1998, local government authorities allowed the Catholic Church to hold an outdoor procession in Havana to mark the feast day of Our Lady of Charity, for the first time since 1961. State security personnel openly and heavily harassed diplomats during this ceremony. Cardinal Jaime Ortega also was allowed a 10-minute address on the national classical music station.

In June 1998, CCC officials reported that the Council had received the Government's permission to broadcast a monthly 15-minute program on a national classical music station, with the understanding that the program would not include material of a political character. This was later expanded to a total of one hour of monthly programming. The head of the CCC is a member of the government-controlled National Assembly of the People's Power (ANPP). There are a few small church-run publications that are watched closely by the Government, and that are denied access to mass printing equipment. During the Pope's visit, the Catholic Church's ability to distribute even approved information pamphlets was constricted by its lack of access to printing presses.

On December 1, 1998, the Government announced in a politburo declaration that henceforth citizens would be allowed to celebrate Christmas as an official holiday. (The holiday had been cancelled, ostensibly to spur the sugar harvest, in 1969, and restored in 1997 as part of the preparations for the Pope's visit.) The authorities again permitted the Cardinal to speak briefly on the national media to commemorate Christmas. However, despite the Government's decision to allow citizens to celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, it maintained a December 1995 decree prohibiting nativity scenes in public buildings except those related to the tourist or foreign commercial sector.

There are currently some 300 Catholic priests in the country, less than half the total prior to 1960. The Government allowed some foreign priests and nuns to enter the country, but applications of many other priests and religious workers remain pending. Overall numbers are only slightly up from before the Papal visit, since most new arrivals replaced retiring priests or those whose time of service in the country had ended. In 1998 the Government pressured two foreign Catholic priests to leave the island. In one case, American priest Patrick Sullivan left Cuba after Communist Party officials objected to his displaying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inside his church, allowing parishioners to elect members of the church board, and maintaining contacts with foreign diplomats. Father Sullivan publicly stated that he did not leave of his own volition. In August 1998, authorities at Havana's international airport briefly questioned two Italian members of a Catholic religious order who had traveled to Cuba to participate in a religious event and warned them not to return to the country.

However, the Government relaxed restrictions on most officially recognized religious denominations. In February 1998, the president of the world association of Seventh-Day Adventists was permitted to visit the country, where he celebrated an open-air mass baptism in Matanzas province, presided over the reopening of a church in Havana and met with government officials. Jehovah's Witnesses, once considered "active religious enemies of the revolution," were allowed to proselytize quietly door-to-door and they generally were not subjected to overt government harassment, although there were sporadic reports of harassment by local Communist Party and government officials. The Government has authorized small assemblies of Jehovah's Witnesses, the opening of a central office in Havana, and publishing of the group's magazine and other religious tracts.

In May and June 1999, the Government permitted most of Cuba's Protestant churches – both inside and outside the Cuban Council of Churches – to hold a "Cuban evangelical celebration." The celebration consisted of some 18 public events across the island, 4 of which – in Baracoa, Holguin, Camaguey, and Havana, respectively – were televised nationally. The culminating event was a service in Havana on June 20, which attracted tens of thousands of persons and was attended by President Fidel Castro.

In January 1999, a new synagogue opened in Camaguey. This made Camaguey the third city in the country with a synagogue, after Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

There were no reports of government pressures against the practice of santeria and other syncretistic Afro-Caribbean religions. There were some press reports asserting that the Government may be promoting syncretistic religions as a tourist attraction.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

After 40 years of the current regime, societal attitudes, including those toward religion, are heavily conditioned by the attitude of President Castro and the ruling elite. The Government's decision to allow, and even provide some support for, the 1998 Papal visit greatly boosted the public perception that espousing religious faith was again acceptable. President Castro further cemented this view, most importantly among Communist Party adherents and government officials, in national speeches in which he claimed that the Cuban revolution had "never" persecuted religion.

There were some tensions among religions, often because some religious groups perceived others to be too close to the Government.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

U.S. Government policy toward Cuba is to promote peaceful, democratic changes and respect for human rights, including religious freedom. The U.S. Government encourages the development of civil society, which includes the strengthening of religious institutions. The U.S Interests Section in Havana maintains regular contact with the various religious leaders and communities in the country, and supports nongovernmental organization initiatives that aid religious groups. The U.S. Government regularly seeks to facilitate the issuance of licenses for travel by religious persons and for donated goods and materials. The U.S. Interests Section has raised issues of human rights, including religious discrimination and harassment, with government officials. However, the Government has dismissed these concerns. The Interests Section reports on cases of religious discrimination and harassment, and the U.S. Government continuously marshals international pressure on the Cuban Government to cease its repressive practices.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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