Cuba’s faithful seek more rights in an era of slow reform

HAVANA — As she jogged along the oceanside promenade known as the Malecón, a woman stopped to hug strangers, holding her face to the sky and proclaiming ¡Gracias a Jesucristo! — ”Thanks to Jesus Christ!”

In most of Latin America, that level of religious fervor would blend seamlessly into a culture rich with prayer, crucifix necklaces and other signs of devotion. In Cuba, where religious practice was outlawed for decades after the revolution, expressions of faith are present but usually far more subtle.

The Communist Party enshrined religious freedom in the constitution with a 1992 amendment, but winning government approval to build new houses of worship remains incredibly difficult and religious leaders say that surveillance, arrests and confiscation of property remain common.

“Persecuting religious liberties has been something innate to them during their six decades in power. But I have no doubt that God has other plans for Cuba,” said Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart.

Lleonart, who was arrested by Cuban state security just hours before President Barack Obama’s visit to the island in 2016, attended a U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. last week. He used the platform of the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to call upon Cuban leadership, including new President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to change its approach to people of faith as a religious revival quietly sweeps the country.

“I warned [American leaders] not to fall into the trap of believing the propaganda of the Cuba regime and its spokespersons at Office of Religious Affairs. Cuba needs authentic freedom, not a mere makeover,” Lleonart tweeted from the gathering that included Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Thousands of “house churches” have sprung up in the capital of Havana and throughout the countryside. A new Catholic church, the first in 60 years, will soon open in Western Cuba thanks to support from a parish in Florida. In 2015, Saudi Arabia funded a new mosque in Havana, now home to thousands of Muslims. The Jewish community is growing as well, thanks to young converts leading the way in the absence of a rabbi. And Santería, a syncretic religion that blends African, indigenous and Catholic traditions, remains deeply intertwined with day-to-day Cuban life.

“For years religion was frowned upon in Cuba, but now there is more openness,” said Roberto Chaviano, a Catholic student who is part of an interfaith program in Havana that brings together Christians, Hare Krishnas, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions including Santería.

Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba in 2015 represented a milestone in an era of warming relations — not only between Cuba and the Catholic Church, but between Cuba and the U.S.

President Obama’s visit to the island the following year brought great fanfare, the first visit by a US president to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Easing of U.S. sanctions coupled with renewed relations with the Vatican seemed to herald a new era for Cuban diplomacy. Then the Trump administration threw cold water on Obama’s policy, causing a sharp drop in U.S. tourism, while the Vatican stepped back.

However under President Díaz-Canel, who assumed the presidency from Raul Castro in April, Cuba’s Communist Party is slowly moving toward privatization of the country’s economy and pushing forward a revised constitution.

This month, Cuba’s legislature discussed the new document, which “recognizes religious freedoms and ratifies the secular character of the nation.”

In a departure from the past, the constitution would shift away from the revolution’s longstanding commitment to a communist state, instead focusing on a socialist society with private ownership. The document would change how the country is governed, adding a prime minister and limiting the term of the president, as well as guaranteeing the right of presumed innocence before the law.

Controversially, there is also a provision to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

Yet mystery still surrounds the draft, which has not yet been made public in its entirety. So far political and academic observers say it’s unlikely to give new rights to non-state media, or protections for freedom of speech and assembly.

The legislature unanimously approved the document, which now heads into a period of public comment before a final vote.

Michael Touchton, assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami, said that while the reforms are not transformative, they do send a message to the next generation of Cubans — and to the world.

“One way to look at this is as a concession to rapidly changing social norms and a drive for civil rights, but without extending political rights, like freedom of speech or assembly,” Touchton said. “Thus, the move is likely to be popular among young Cubans and seen as progress, but does not threaten the party’s power in any way.”

This story is part of a series exploring the growing role of faith during a time of transformation, produced in partnership with Northeastern University and with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.