As Cuba-US Relationship Evolves, Religious Freedom Still an Issue

Last week I met with a group of Christian leaders from Cuba who came to the United States to meet with lawmakers and religious freedom advocates to discuss what’s happening within their country as the relationship between the United States and Cuba continues to evolve.

These religious leaders, who asked not to be named due to fear of reprisals back at home, spoke for over two hours about the struggles they face regarding religious freedom and the role that the Communist government plays in suppressing freedom of thought and belief. Cuba is a very interesting situation when it comes to the global religious freedom struggle, as unlike in other countries, an atheistic government is suppressing religious freedom.

As we’ve seen over the past few decades, religious freedom concerns often arise in a country that promotes a majoritarian religious tradition at the expense of nontheists and religious minorities. Cuba, on the other hand, is one of the few countries that maintains a nontheistic government which oppresses those who hold religious beliefs. (It’s worth noting that Cuba is no longer officially atheist; a constitutional change in the 1990’s changed the country from an openly atheistic society into a secular one).

The Cuban pastors spoke at length about how the regime imprisons religious advocates, forces religious communities to purchase Bibles and other holy works from the government at exorbitant prices (even when they are sent directly to pastors free of charge from religious communities around the world), and complicates the process by which houses of worship are incorporated.

Interestingly enough, the government actually seems less interested in suppressing religious thought than holding onto power. I asked one of the pastors if the government is promoting atheism or actively criticizing religious scripture, and the pastor replied that the government doesn’t actually care what your religious beliefs are, so long as you primarily identify as a communist. Catholics, Protestants, atheists, and others will receive governmental support or face governmental oppression, he said, solely based upon whether they support the regime and not because of their religious beliefs. However, the government tends to come down harder on religious Cubans than atheistic Cubans, as certain religious beliefs are seen as a threat to the ideological hegemony that the state promotes, and atheism is seen as a more benign threat to that order because of a lack of beliefs (inspired by religion) which may contradict the government’s positions on various issues.

Cuba is an example of how religious freedom is an issue all around the world, and that those who violate the religious freedom rights of others don’t just come from one religious background, or from any religious background. That’s why atheists, humanists, and other nontheists have a responsibility to partner with likeminded religious allies to convince governments that infringing upon the religious rights of their citizens, whatever their beliefs, is an unnecessary violation of human rights which only further fragments civil society and threatens citizens.