After six decades of state-led religious suppression, the post-Castro regime brings hope to religious freedom movements and the prospect of participation of the Church in politics through multiple facets. Although the Church is used as an avenue for political, economic, and social support for suppressed citizens, the international community must be wary of the possible implications that come with a stronger relationship between the Church and an authoritarian State.
In 1959, Fidel Castro’s rise to power introduced multiple restrictions on religion and its influence on society. Members of the Church, both civil and political, were one of the many groups of dissidents Castro aimed to censor and permanently silence. This goal continued to lead the country into decades of poor deliverance of liberty and freedom of expression, as reflected in the V-Dem Institute’s 2020 Democracy Report. Castro was successful in eradicating religious influences in Cuban political institutions and created an atheist government in a heavily religious island. At the beginning of Castro’s rule, religious instruction in schools were banned, events were prohibited or heavily monitored, and religious figures were continually silenced for their political opinions which were often anti-communist. Religious influence itself was contradictory to Marxist thought and policy-making, thus leading to the many restrictions imposed by Castro. However, as the regime prolonged for thirty more years, changing international contexts required reform in the 1990s to move away from Soviet-Marxist influence and characteristics. Castro began to re-strengthen religious freedom and expression but still kept the Church’s political role at bay, unlike his brother Raúl who accepted substantial support from them during diplomatic recovery processes with the United States. Today, we see a more secular approach to Church and State relations in the Cuban government; but, one must be wary when these two institutions rekindle a long-lost relationship and of the implications such a relationship means for non-Christian, minority groups.
Similar to its Latin American neighbors, Catholicism is easily the most practiced religion on the island with approximately 59% of the population identifying at Roman Catholic. Atheism (~23%) is the next most practiced belief due to its promotion and indoctrination into citizens’ belief systems by their government. Additionally similar to its Caribbean neighbors, Afro-Caribbean religions (~12%) such as Santería rank relatively high compared to other religions present in Cuba which compromise the bottom ~6% of belief systems on the island. The sheer amount of believers on the island was an obstacle that Castro faced when creating in his atheist, now secular, society. These numbers civically and politically were a threat to the Marxist foundations of Castro’s regime, and the Church specifically was targeted because of the massive influence it had (and still has) in Cuban citizens.
How does this past relationship between Church and State compare to today’s relationship under President Díaz-Canel? The first stark contrast between the regimes is the number of instances that Cuban politicians have been sighted at Church gatherings, including President Díaz-Canel. This is an enormous change from a strictly atheist politburo and shows a bit of the reformist side to this new leadership. Another change from Castro’s rule is the participation of religious figures and institutions in Cuba’s government. Although the country is secular, political influencers are proud of their religious upbringings and tend to maintain their traditional, conservative stances on social issues. The Catholic Church is taking advantage of this gradual movement towards religious expression; Catholic bishops are growing as political and economic figures, demanding the release of religious enemies to the politicians still maintaining Castro’s aggressive tactics against religious dissidents. Additionally, Cuba is now no stranger to visits from the Pope himself, where his presence serves a political role for both the regime and religious citizens in their journey to ease relations between Church and State.
The social and political role that the Church has mostly played for Cuban citizens is as a civil society organization (CSO); Church groups can allow citizens to participate in the political and activist field, especially now that the Díaz-Canel government is becoming more lenient in political and religious expression. The Church brings a forum for citizens and political players to talk about local problems, whether or not they are the product of the regime. CSOs controlled or closely tied to the Church aim to strengthen democracy, inclusion, and mobilization of opposition groups in Cuba. This allows opposing ideas to have some sort of role in Cuba’s political arena, although the endgame of influencing policy is still heavily controlled by the secular Communist Party. The inclusion of these organizations is crucial to any movement towards democracy, and the Church’s greater role Cuban politics may prove to be beneficial to civil liberties and privileges.
Unfortunately, there is always another side to the coin. There is no doubt of the in/out-group, exclusionary nature that comes with religious presence in governmental affairs. A recent development researched by a fellow Democratic Erosion student shows that the Church has some concerning influence in how the government addresses its minority groups. In this case, it is the LGBTQ+ community and their status in Cuban society. Just before a constitutional amendment recognizing the legitimacy of same-sex marriage was produced from Díaz-Canel, the Church’s input (along with the Christian community’s) actually prevented Díaz-Canel’s government from implementing the amendment entirely. This move by the Cuban government serves as a foreshadowing event warning us that actors in this new relationship may aim to maintain the “status quo” of their lives (heteronormativity, in this case) and block any benefits that may support minority groups. The conservative elements of the Church may prove to prohibit the democratic inclusion of minority groups, and this is one example of worrisome policy decisions that actors in IR should be particularly on the lookout for.
Unfortunately, there is not much research on the Church’s newfound position in Cuban politics and its influence on the social inclusion of minority groups, and I doubt those residing on the island know what to expect. This topic is clouded with uncertainty and skepticism from all political perspectives. Global scholars need to look at how the Church’s newfound role in Cuba’s politics is beneficial and/or concerning in Cuba’s gradual movement democratization. One specific point that scholars and researchers should focus on is the way the Church influences political decisions and whether they are beneficial or detrimental to Cuba’s democratization. Although the Church has maintained its role as a forum for political and religious expression, its conservative forces recently proved to be an inhibitor to the promotion of social equity. Political actors new to Cuba’s playing field have a lot of power in the precedents they will set with this new voice in policy making. Will this new player in Cuban politics lead to Cuba’s authoritarian decline or maintenance?
Adrian, this is a very interesting analysis of the growing influence of religious actors over the Cuban regime! President Díaz-Canel’s rise to power following the rule of the Castro brothers offered the international community, especially the United States, renewed hope for constructive engagement with the island. Though your points about being weary of the consequences of growing religious entanglement are very important. We’ve seen time and time again that populist authoritarians often cling to religious and faith-based communities as a source for their popularity and consequent consolidation of further powers. While the opening up of religious liberties signals steps in the right direction for democratic consolidation, it simultaneously presents the opportunity for an authoritarian-figure to exploit the Catholic-majority citizenry as an avenue for seeking power. Everywhere from the Russian Federation to Brazil, we’ve witnessed authoritarians like Putin and Bolsonaro expand their powers through traditional values campaigns that target societal outgroups. Although, on an island governed by left-wing authoritarians for so long, it would be interesting to learn whether a conservative or far-right voice that exploits religiosity for power could thrive in Cuba, especially as nearly a quarter of the population as identifies as atheist. Overall you have presented a clear and insightful analysis of the issues in modern Cuba. Thank you!