University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Cuba, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.61, Doc. 29 rev. 1 (1983).






1. The right to religious freedom and worship is established in the American Declaration which provides:

Article III. Every person has the right freely to profess a religious faith, and to manifest and practice it both in public and in private.

2. The general kind of provision set forth in the Declaration has been specified in the American Convention on Human Rights. Although the latter instrument is not applicable to Cuba, as it is not a party thereof, the Commission considers it worthwhile to take into account some of its pertinent provisions in order to better define the specific scope of the right under consideration, as well as the limits within which it may be exercised.

3. In addition to the free profession and practice—public and private—of a religious faith, the American Convention includes other rights which are necessarily associated with the exercise of these freedoms (Article 12). It establishes the right to disseminate one’s religion and the right of parents or guardians “to provide for the religious and moral education of their children or wards that is in accord with their own convictions” (paragraph 4). Furthermore, the American Convention stipulates the State’s obligation to respect these freedoms and to refrain from adopting restrictive measures that might indirectly impair them. On the other hand, limitations on the exercise of the right to religious freedom and worship should be those prescribed by law, and such as are necessary “to protect public safety, health, or morals, or the rights or freedoms of others” (paragraph 3).


4. The basic rules that govern the exercise of the right of religious freedom and worship in Cuba are set forth in article 54 of the Cuban Constitution, which provides:

The socialist state, which bases its activity and educates the people in the scientific materialist concept of the universe, recognizes and guarantees freedom of conscience and the right of everyone to profess any religious belief and to practice, within the framework of respect for the law, the belief of his preference.

The law regulates the activities of religious institutions.

It is illegal and punishable by law to oppose one’s faith or religious belief to the Revolution, to education or to the fulfillment of the duty to work, defend the country with arms, show reverence for its symbols and fulfill other duties established by the Constitution.

5. In the first place, it should be pointed out that this article employs the term “recognizes” in reference to the right under consideration. This is positive, in that it reveals a concept of the right under consideration as something inherent in a human being and which belongs to him as such. Nevertheless, ambiguous terms are also used in this article which prevent it from functioning as an adequate guarantee of the right to religious freedom and worship. Thus, to consider it “illegal and punishable by law to oppose one’s faith or religious belief to the Revolution”, is to give a free hand to the political bodies to interpret the legal scope of faiths or actions that may be considered in opposition “to the Revolution”.

6. Furthermore, the paragraph under consideration introduces another of the frequent professions of doctrinal faith, in establishing that “The socialist State bases its activity and educates the people in the scientific materialist concept of the universe¼”. This text establishes the bases for indirect discrimination against believers with respect to the performance of state functions, due to the materialism which is the basis of State activities. Likewise, it prevents parents from deciding on the education they wish their children to have in moral or religious terms. Article 54 thus reinforces the dogmatic content of education, which is one of its basic features, as described in Chapter XI of this Report.


7. To evaluate the practice of the Government of Cuba with respect to the exercise of freedom of religion and worship, it is necessary to analyze, on the one hand, the forms taken by relations between the Government and the existing religious institutions in the country, with respect both to activities directly linked to worship, and to actions indirectly linked to it and which traditionally had been performed by the churches until 1959. In addition, such an evaluation should also consider the ideological and practical conditioning that affects believers in the performance of social and political activities generally. This will be the subject of the following presentation.

1. Government Relations with Religious Institutions

8. Until the rise to power of the present government, the Catholic and Protestant churches had carried out activities similar to those performed in most of the countries of Latin America. Thus, in addition to activities related to religious worship—including those of public dissemination of beliefs—were joined those activities indirectly related to religious worship, among which special mention should be made of education and social assistance to disadvantaged sectors. Furthermore, religious denominations, in particular the Catholic Church, possessed a status that provided them a relative degree of political influence.

9. It should be borne in mind that the above-mentioned activities were not clearly separated; on the contrary, they overlapped in a way that made and continues to make it difficult, to specify the effective social and political impact of one or several of these activities.

10. With respect to this distinction among the various categories of activities and their potential political and social impact, an assessment of the observance of the right to religious freedom entails assuming a position with respect to the framework within which concrete actions are taken. It is undeniable that there is a social dimension to religious activities; the ethical content of religious concepts can be translated into general principles that serve both to evaluate concrete phenomena in the economic, social and political arena, as well as to guide the daily conduct of believers at certain times in the political life of a country.

11. Furthermore, when applied to the concrete activities of society, these general principles can become the ideological foundation to support political action. In this capacity, they are, on the one hand, legitimate elements of a democratic political system and, on the other, they become relatively independent of the original concepts from which they derive, thus becoming subject to the same status as other political principles; they are, therefore, subject to criticism in theory and practice, as well as to possible change. It is the latter aspect that distinguishes them from the denominational base which supports them, and in this sense, they become guidelines for desirable but not obligatory conduct. Proof of this is that persons who do not belong to the religion from which they are derived may adhere to these social principles, and conversely, members of the religious belief in question may legitimately hold different political views.

12. What has been stated thus far allows one to consider that there is a nucleus of religious beliefs that manifest themselves in concrete activities, including religious worship; this is the fundamental content of the right to religious freedom. From these basic beliefs, doctrinal postulates may be derived that serve to support models of economic, social and political organization; in that capacity, they and the actions they inspire spill over from the sphere of religion to the political arena; protection of them is therefore a matter derived from the observance of political rights.

13. In Cuba, the combined effect of a number of factors rendered the tenuous distinction between these two kinds of actions more imprecise and almost nonexistent, a situation that was especially acute in the early years of the present Cuban government, due to the hyperpolitization provoked by the process. The antagonism that marked relations of the Government with religious institutions was exacerbated by the different social bases on which the former and the latter grounded their activity; by the international context in which the Cuban process took place; and by the rigidity of the ideological positions of both the Government and the churches, especially the Catholic Church, whose social doctrine was made more flexible only following the Second Vatican Council

14. In considering the sectors of society on which religious institutions had greater influence, it may generally be stated that on the eve of 1959, there was a high level of secularity in Cuban society, with the result that the churches lacked the marked influence that characterizes their presence in other societies in Latin American. This influence, already limited, was basically restricted to the middle and upper classes, and was very slight among the lowest ranks of society.

15. For example, the Agrupacion Catolica performed a study in 1957 of 4,000 heads of rural families, which revealed that 53.51% had never seen a priest; 36.74% indicated that they knew him only by sight, and only 7.81% affirmed having had personal contact with one. The weakness of the church in rural areas is also confirmed by the fact that 41.41% of those surveyed stated they had no religious faith, whereas 52.10% claimed to be Catholic, 3.26% protestant, and 1.09% as believers in Spiritism. Of the Catholics, 88.84% had never attended mass, and only 4.25% had done so three or more times per year. Moreover, when asked what institution would most help them to improve the situation of all rural workers, only 3.43% mentioned the church. The majority mentioned the government (68.73%) or their employer (16.72%).[1]

16. Protestant churches were affected by a similar phenomenon, to which should be added their close identification with protestant churches in the United States. Thus, in 1940, it was indicated that:

“The evangelical church is not yet adjusted in program, upkeep and leadership to the economic and social conditions of Cuba. The church is a middle class and expensive institution in a largely lower class and poverty-stricken constituency. It is an Anglo-Saxon and democratic institution in a Latin and feudal society. It is an urbanized institution seeking to expand in a rural environment.”[2]

17. Two additional elements further sharpened confrontations between the government and the churches in the area of politics. On the one hand, the “cold war” environment that permeated the international scene and that led the superpowers to strongly exert their influence on the internal polarization of positions, a process undertaken and developed by the leaderships for the political factions in conflict. The second element, in reference to the Catholic Church, was the above-cited organizational and doctrinal rigidity characteristic of the period preceding the Second Vatican Council.

18. In this context, in 1959 the Catholic Church expressed its concern over the education law that would prohibit religious instruction in public schools. The church hierarchy held that the problem would be resolved if chaplains were allowed to provide such instruction in the schools. The issue became moot with the revolution’s expansion of the number of elementary and secondary schools, for which there were not enough chaplains. A proposal to suspend degrees and credits earned at private universities to compensate for the losses suffered by students at the University of Havana which had been closed from 1956 to 1958 by former President Batista, generated strong protests by the Catholic University of Villanueva and the Protestant Candler University. The dispute was eventually resolved by suspending the validity of such degrees and credits for two years.

19. The first major conflict with church members came with the circulation of the draft agrarian reform law adopted in May, 1959. Welcomed by Bishop Evelio Diaz of Havana on behalf of the hierarchy, it was condemned by Agrupacion Catolica. The issue of agrarian reform helped prompt a meeting of 62 priests at Castro’s Jesuit alma mater, Belen, in June 1959, to review the political situation in general. While unanimity of opinion proved elusive, the meeting served to reinforce the preoccupations of those clergymen fearful of the Marxist direction of the regime, and thereafter more priests used their pulpits to criticize the direction of the Revolution. Protestants shared some of the same concerns and in general felt that the new government was more radical than expected. Overall, there was an increasing preoccupation on the part of the Catholic Church with the sanctity of private property, a cornerstone of its social doctrine.

20. The divisions within both the Catholic and Protestant Churches greatly limited their capacity to influence the course of the Revolution. This caused them to be slow to react to revolutionary initiatives and hampered them in formulating alternatives. Divisions within the Catholic hierarchy were exacerbated by conflicting pressures emanating from the laity.

21. As a result of the collapse of the traditional political parties in the face of the positions and measures of the Government, the churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, became a base for the opposition to the regime. Thus, the National Catholic Congress in November 1959 was attended by over 1 million people, when previously no more than 10,000 had attended this meeting. It was in this atmosphere that religious processions began to turn into anti-government rallies and that revolutionaries interrupted church services and raided parish houses.

22. In the fall of 1960, Cuban bishops issued a series of pastoral letters which stated that in any conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union over Cuba, they would support the former. Coming as they did after the beginning of nationalization of US property in June, 1960, these documents placed the Catholic Church in clear opposition to the Revolution. This situation illustrates the impact of the cold war climate that was felt at a global level, typified by polarization and confrontation between the two superpowers that struggled to win followers inside Cuba, thus impeding the adoption of positions that would respond appropriately to the true social and national nature of the political conflicts that had erupted. The Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961 was commanded by Manuel Artime, of the Agrupación Católica and accompanied by four priests of Spanish origin as well as other members of that institution. This gave the Government grounds for closing the headquarters of the Agrupación Católilca in Havana. The Government also claimed that several private schools had been used to prepare uprising that was to follow the Bay of Pigs invasion.

24. On May 1, 1961, the Government nationalized private schools, thus provoking further confrontation with the churches. In September of that year it prohibited religious processions when a person in attendance at one of them was killed. Both the Bay of Pigs invasion and nationalization of educational institutions, as well as prohibition of religious processions brought Church/State relations to their lowest point; the Government proceeded to expel priests and religious members, it being estimated that 8% were expelled for alleged “counter-revolutionary activities”. These acts and the increasingly radical measures adopted by the Government in other areas prompted an exodus of members of religious orders and citizens who did not support the direction adopted by the revolution, among whom was a large number of church members. The Jewish community also participated in this exodus, with the effect of reducing, over time, the Jewish population to one-tenth of its numbers prior to 1959.

25. The shortage of pastors caused by the exodus and the expulsions, combined with the prevailing hostile environment, led some churches to cease functioning. To avoid this, some Protestant churches responded by placing lay people—including women—in charge of pastorates, which was not the case of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the number of Catholic parishes increased from 210 in 1959 to 226 in 1965.[3]

26. In the course of these initial stages, the Government adopted other measures such as the elimination of religious holidays and the organization of athletic activities and indoctrination classes on Sundays, in order to hamper attendance at religious services. It also denied access to the mass communications media to church people to disseminate their beliefs. Various other forms of discrimination were brought to bear against those professing a religion, in keeping with the strong, officially-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist dogmatism.

27. In the mid-sixties, another Church/State conflict erupted over adoption of obligatory military training in Cuba, which led several churches to request that their followers, including those who made religion a way of life be assigned to alternative service. The Government’s response was to draft priests, pastors, seminarians and other clergy into the Unidades Militares para Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP) (Military units to Assist Production), in which government employees who were guilty of punishable administrative errors, homosexuals, informants and ex-convicts were conscripted into force labor for the Government. Treatment of church people was unjust from any standpoint, and revealed the abuses to which they could be subjected by government authorities. It should be pointed out that the UMAPs were discontinued in 1976 as a result of strong public criticism against them.

28. Some religious groups had—and continue to have—serious conflicts with the government. This is the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Gideon’s Band, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Their activities are regarded as counter-revolutionary, in particular, the continued links of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the United States, their method of proselytizing, and opposition to military service and public schooling. The Evangelical Gideon’s Band is considered blatantly counterrevolutionary. The Seventh-Day Adventists are singled out for refusing to work or sent their children to school on Saturdays. In a national campaign, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists were targeted as counterrevolutionary, anti-social, and unpatriotic. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for refusing military service. In 1974 the Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their legal status as a private entity, entitles to engage in commercial transactions, and became simply a religious association as the other denominations were.

29. The conflict that arose over the drafting of church people into the UMAPs was the last significant confrontation between church authorities and the government. As the regime consolidated its political power and constrained church activities to a framework that provided them scant opportunity to influence the population, relations tended to stabilize in the environment of tolerance. This was illustrated by the positions taken by the churches, in particular by the bishops of the Catholic Church. Two pastoral letters of April and September 1969 condemned the US economic blockade and assured Catholics that cooperation with the Government for the betterment of Cuban society was legitimate. Nevertheless, church officials have not ceased to urge the Government to provide more facilities for the education of children in keeping with the religious convictions of their parents and to meet their requests for access to the media to disseminate their beliefs among a wider section of the populace. It should be noted that two Catholic and five Protestant seminaries operate in Cuba.[4]

2. Ideological and Practical Problems

30. As has been repeatedly pointed out throughout this report, the official ideology of the Cuban Regime is Marxist-Leninist. The hostility of this ideology toward religious beliefs, in general, is well known, as is its requirement that it be professed in order to become a member of the Communist party, which is an indispensable prerequisite to holding any political office in Cuba. Therefore, there is necessarily de facto discrimination on the basis of religious belief in access to higher positions in the state apparatus, including the armed forces.

31. The above-cited hostility has led, on the one hand, to the active promotion of Marxism-Leninism in every facet of Cuban society, and on the other, it has dictated a number of restrictions on religious activities. Indeed, religion has been systematically considered by Marxism as one of various instruments used by a social class to maintain And strengthen its domination over another; likewise, that ideology has postulated that religion is a fanciful divergence from reality which is destined to disappear with the spread of a materialist concept of the universe.

32. There is, therefore, an inherent competition in the relations between Marxist-Leninist ideology and religious beliefs, which initially was expressed in hostility. It is what led the government to officially promote scientific materialism in every aspect of Cuban society. It has also imposed restrictions on the ability of churches to disseminate their beliefs through the mass media, by denying them access to the communications media—instruments of ideological education, as was seen in Chapter V of this report—and by eliminating religious instruction from the educational system, which is also a fundamental channel for the transmission of official doctrine.

33. With respect to the application of religious beliefs and materialist philosophy to national life, the churches and the government and the Communist Party have undergone change in Cuba. It is essential to bear this process in mind to fully understand the forms taken by the practical observance of the right to religious freedom and worship.

34. On the part of the churches, two elements have influenced the evolution of their position over approximately the last fourteen years. One has been the political consolidation of the of the present regime and the assumption that virtually all of the changes that have taken place in Cuban society are irreversible; this has led the churches to reconsider how they might integrate themselves into that society, which has necessarily entailed a redefinition of their relations with the government. This has included giving careful consideration to the results of governmental action affecting the standard of living of the most disadvantaged sectors of society in the period prior to 1959. The other element that has influenced the evolution of the churches, in particular the Catholic Church, has been the changes at the global level that have led to emphasis on a commitment to social justice as a principle derived from basic religious beliefs.

35. This has resulted in a more flexible position on socialism as a form of social organization, in distinction from the broader concept of Marxism-Leninism itself, which is still considered as definitively incompatible with religious belief. This has removed one of the obstacles that impeded smoother church action in Cuban society, in general, and with the government in particular.

36. The Government of Cuba and the Communist Party of that country have also undergone a change which has transformed the focus of their relations with the churches from its initial political hostility to the current ideological competition. Thus, at the first Cuban Congress on Education and Culture, held in 1971, the conclusion was drawn that the struggle against religious belief corresponded to the Party rather than to the State, and it was affirmed that it did not constitute the center of its task, but rather an aspect of the “ideological battle” that must be waged as part of the building of a socialist society. Complete separation of the State and education of the church was also affirmed, with the stipulation that no encouragement, support or help would be given to any religious group, or any favors asked of them. The Congress stated that it shared no religious belief, but at the same time it stated the respect of the regime for religious beliefs and worship “as an individual right”, by virtue of which it emphasized that there was no religious persecution. Viewing construction of socialist society as the center of its tasks, it affirmed that all citizens, without distinction of religious belief, should be included in that undertaking.

37. The First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in December 1975 emphasized that the struggle for a scientific view of the world was subordinate to the task of constructing a new society. It affirmed that in that task, believers, nonbelievers, members of religious orders and atheists have participated, continue to participate and must necessarily participate, since the construction of a new society required the union of all Cubans and hence believers should not be isolated nor rejected, but rather incorporated into the political process underway. Furthermore, it was stated that the dissemination of historical dialectical materialism should be done in such a fashion as not to offend believers’ personal or religious feelings. Nevertheless, it was emphasized that membership in the Communist Party and the Union of Communist youth was to be limited to those who accepted their programs and Marxism-Leninism.

38. The platform of the Communist Party in 1978 focused on two elements regarding religion: relations with members of the church, and religion as ideology. With respect to the former, the Party reaffirmed the liberty of conscience, freedom to worship within the law, and objected to the use of religion to oppose the revolution and socialism. The same rights and social responsibilities were established for believers as well as nonbelievers. With respect to religion as ideology, the platform reaffirmed the need for systematic dissemination of scientific materialism, and opposition to anti-religious campaigns, the use of coercive or administrative measures against religion and the isolation of believers.

39. The Second Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held in 1980, reaffirmed the positions stated at the previous Congress and expanded on them in reference to political cooperation between Christians and Marxists, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

40. In several interviews and speeches, President Fidel Castro has upheld the same positions: ideological competition between religious beliefs and Marxism-Leninism; legitimacy of the use of all state resources for the promotion of official ideology; repression of members of certain churches not on the basis of religion but rather for political positions derived from it and which are contrary to the fundamental policies of the government; observance of religious freedom as an individual right; and the absence of any contradiction between the social purposes pursued by socialism and those based on religious beliefs, specifically Christianity.[5]

41. The trends sketched above have led to a relaxation of previously tense Church/State relations in Cuba; although there remain vestiges of anti-religious sentiment, they appear to arise from personal viewpoints and not from government or party policies. Nevertheless, there are several situations that, in practice, engender discrimination against believers. Thus, in addition to the above-mentioned restriction on membership in the Communist Party, with the consequent exclusion from higher political office in government and in the armed Forces, there are also employment obstacles, such as the prohibition of believers teaching courses that might have any political or ideological overtones—economics, philosophy, social sciences, etc.--; there are also ideological prerequisites for promotions and certificates are required for the purchase of durable consumer goods. In education also, ideology is a decisive condition for admission to universities, which places those who profess religious faiths at a disadvantage; the same is true of access to scholarships, one of the requirements for which is that candidates “be faithful to the Revolution”. Although the Commission recognizes that it does not have the kind of field study necessary to evaluate the scope of these mechanisms and practice, it considers that their mere existence represents a potential threat to the effective observance of religious freedom and worship.

42. The preceding presentation points out that there is currently freedom of religion and worship in Cuba, but it is limited in terms of dissemination by two fundamental restrictions: the use of the mass communications media and education. The early hostility in the Church/State relations has given way to ideological competition, in which the Government has—and uses—the vast resources at its command to actively promote the official Marxist-Leninist philosophy. In addition, it should be made clear that there has been an evolution in the positions of the churches and the government, which has brought about a positive environment of mutual tolerance. There is no religious persecution; the restrictions to which certain religious groups have been subjected—including imprisonment of some of their members—can be traced to the impact of their actions on the political system and not to the fact of professing a religious faith as such. Nevertheless, indirect restrictions continue to constrain believers, leading to discrimination against them in various central aspects of the life and politics of Cuban society.



[1] Echevarria Salvar, oscar A., La Agricultura Cubana, 1934-1966: Regimen social, productividat y nivel de vida del sector agricola (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1971), pp. 14-16 and 25.

[2] J. Merle Davis, The Cuban Church in a Sugar Economy (New York: International Missionary Council, 1942), p. 133. This study, commissioned by the International Missionary Council, officially surveyed all the protestant churches in Cuba in an effort to devise more effective missionary strategies. Davis recommended increased social welfare and evangelizing efforts in the rural areas, together with decreased dependence on the “mother’ churches in the United States. It was not until the 1950s that the protestant churches intensified their efforts in the rural areas and the late 1960s when most became self-supporting and legally independent of US mission agencies.

[3] Anuario Pontificio, 1982.

[4] The five protestant seminaries are the Nazarene in Punta Brava, Western Baptist in havana, Eastern Baptista in Santiago, the Pinos Nuevos in Placetas, and the Evangelical Seminary in Matanzas. The Catholics have a minor seminary in Santiago and a major one in Havana (San Carlos).

[5] See especially the statements of President Fidel Castro at the meeting of Christians for Socialism, Chile, 1972; his speech to the Jamaican Council of Churches on October 11, 1977; and “There are no contradictions between the aims of religion and the aims of socialism”, Granma, XII, 47, November 20, 1977, p.4.


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