This year marks the 55th anniversary of Cuba’s current government and July 26 commemorated the 61st anniversary of the revolution which swept it into power. After coming to power, the Castro government broke its pro-democracy pledges and, despite recent improvements, maintains a problematic record on human rights, including religious freedom.
This was confirmed by the State Department’s international religious freedom annual report, which was released this week. It also was exhibited when the government recently detained more than 100 members of the Ladies in White, relatives of imprisoned dissidents who draw inspiration from their Catholic faith.
Religious freedom and other rights are spelled out in international documents — including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — which most nations, including Cuba, endorsed. It was a Cuban diplomat, Guy Perez-Cisneros, who together with other Latin Americans helped drive its drafting and passage. Thus, whenever Havana violates human rights, it betrays not only its past promises, but Cuba’s legacy of liberty. The world should affirm this legacy by standing steadfastly for Cuban religious freedom and related rights.
The seeds for that legacy already were being sown in early 1945, just prior to the San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations, when Latin American delegates meeting in Mexico adopted a resolution supporting a human rights declaration for the U.N. Charter. They lobbied for it vigorously once the conference opened.
The Charter mentioned human rights seven times, along with an agreement to establish a Human Rights Commission. This commission prepared an international bill of rights which became the UDHR and Perez-Cisneros spoke eloquently for the pro-freedom coalition that made it possible.
As detailed by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal body on which we serve, the Castro government has yet to own this heritage. Instead, it controls and monitors religious activities and requires an invasive registration process.
What happens when a religious community refuses to register? It cannot receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved places of worship, or apply for travel abroad for religious purposes.
What happens when it agrees to register? Local communist officials must approve its activities and the government interferes with its leadership and internal affairs. Havana often seeks to change church structure, freeze church assets, close churches, and intimidate pastors of churches such as the Western Baptist Convention.
Independent religious communities often suffer the most. The fast-growing Apostolic Reformation faces government harassment, including arrests of leaders; confiscation or destruction of property; aggressive surveillance of church members and relatives; heavy fines; and potential loss of job, housing, and educational opportunities.
It is not just religious communities that authorities often target. They also interfere with human rights activists exercising religious freedom, denying them access to religious services and pressuring church leaders to do likewise. They regularly detain Ladies in White members on their way to Sunday services, block their entry, and send others to harass and intimidate them.
As in prior years, the past year saw signs of improvement.
The government eased some restrictions, allowed registered groups to build or expand houses of worship, and permitted churches more opportunities for charity work. But the question remains whether it still views religious practices as privileges to be granted or withheld, rather than inherent rights to be affirmed or protected. At stake is the legacy of an entire generation, led by Guy Perez-Cisneros, who helped bring the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is time to honor this great gift that Cubans helped bestow on humanity. While people disagree on how to deal with Cuba on various fronts, including the U.S. embargo, all should agree that the United States must press Havana to cease interfering with religious activities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; refrain from mistreating human rights activists and blocking them from attending churches; and cease arresting and harassing religious leaders.
USCIRF would also welcome Cuba’s allowing its members a visit. Other countries, including Latin American and European nations, should weave human rights, including religious freedom, into discussions with Cuba. Cuba once stood for the world’s freedom; the world should do likewise for Cubans.
Katrina Lantos Swett serves as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Mary Ann Glendon serves as a USCIRF Commissioner.