Soul Searching: The Catholic Church and Human Rights in Cuba

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.

.post-meta "comments" < display: none;>

3 thoughts on “Soul Searching: The Catholic Church and Human Rights in Cuba

  • July 20, 2010 at 1:30 am

    It should be noted that the preponderance of Catholic priests who were kicked out of Cuba in 1959 were from Spain and were backers of Generalissimo Franco a virulent opponent of socialism.
    These priests were counter-revolutionary and were politically active, working against the interests of the Cuban revolution.

    It is not simply that the revolution was against religion per se.
    The Catholic Church has always been pro-fascist and anti-communist. It protected Nazis after WWII , it worked against the Sandinistas and in general has always supported governments in power against revolutionary forces as a matter of self preservation.

    The Cuban revolution was acting in self defense in ousting the Spanish priests.

    One would think that the Cuban revolution having lifted all its people and especially the poor to 51st place in the United Nations Human Development Index would be looked upon highly by the Catholic Church which is supposed to be promoting the teachings of Christ foremost of which dealt with helping the poor.

  • July 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Thank you very much to Bethan Rafferty for this well-balanced article!
    Yes, I share those hopes that the attitude of the representatives of the Catholic Church will work as a model for the United States government.
    Probably for diplomatic reasons, this article does not mention the "Peter Pan" campaign after the triumph of the Cuban revolution when the Catholic Church and the US government then commonly spread the word that the Cuban revolutionaries would take the children away from their parents. Therefore, many parents sent their children into the USA where many of them ended up in orphanages … Well, read about Father Walsh.
    Meanwhile, the CIA initiated terrorist actions against the Island.
    Shortly before the "crack down" in March 2003 Cuban ships and planes were hijacked with impunity.
    As Miami Herald posted then, there had been a demonstration at the Calle Ocho in Miami when people shouted: "Iraq now, Cuba next!". Additionally, the leader of the Interest section in Havana, James Cason, proudly said that he had travelled throughout Cuba for gathering "dissidents" around him and providing them with money and communication equipment for their subversive work. He clearly transcended his authority as a diplomat by this.
    Which country would allow such things to happen on its own territory?
    It should be a truism that violation causes other violations.

    However, it seems to be more difficult for the U.S. government than for the Cuban government to make peace.

  • July 21, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    It should be noted that most of the Catholic priests expelled from Cuba shortly after the revolution were from Spain then under the fascist Generalissimo Franco (STILL dead)and were, like the Catholic Church has always been, anticommunist/socialist and therefore against Cuba's socialist revolution..

    It should also be noted that a great many of these so-called dissidents and political prisoners were in the pay of the United States. In any other country they would rightfully be called traitors. In many other countries the penalty for treason is death. In U.S. client states like Colombia the penalty is often an extrajudicial death penalty or disappearance.

    What would happen to anyone in the U.S. found guilty of taking money from al-Qaeda to work against the U.S. government?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *