U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba

Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world.[1] In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject.[2]  The most recent State Department reports grudgingly admit that there have been many improvements in such freedom in Cuba while the Commission takes a more strident and hostile view of the subject.

It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].” [3] Instead the agencies reports rely upon international legal standards for such freedom.[4]


The Cuban Revolution’s early hostility to religion and the relaxation of this hostility after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union have been discussed.[5]

Cuba’s constitution now recognizes the right of its citizens to profess and practice any religious belief. However, Cuba is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the American Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, those treaties are not legally binding upon Cuba. Nor is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; as a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly it does not create legal obligations for any nation state.

The estimated religious makeup of the Cuban population is as follows:

Religious Group Number Percentage
Roman Catholic   8,000,000     69.57%
Protestants      600,000      5.22%
Jews          1,500      0.01%
Muslims          1,000      0.01%
Other   2,897,500    25.20%
TOTAL 11,500,000 100.00%

However, only an estimated 320,000 to 400,000 of the Roman Catholics regularly attend Mass, and an estimated 80% of the population has some interactions with Santaria, an African Yoruba religion with Catholicism accents.

State Department Reports

Under the authorizing statute, the State Department Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. It has so designated eight countries. Cuba is not one of them.[6]

The most recent State Department reports on Cuba start with the statement that “in law and in practice, the [Cuban] government places restrictions on freedom of religion.” The balance of the reports, however, talk about the following positive aspects of this freedom in Cuba:

  • “Most religious groups reported improvements in religious freedom.”
  • They report “increased ability to cultivate new members, hold religious activities, and conduct charitable and community service projects.”
  • They report “fewer restrictions on politically sensitive expression, importation of religious materials, and travel.” Indeed, the majority of religious groups said there was “continued improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events,” and it was “easier to bring in foreign religious workers, access the Internet, and restore houses of worship.”
  • They also report greater ability “to obtain government permission to maintain and repair existing places of worship and other buildings.”
  • “There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”
  • The Cuban government and  the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Cuba held discussions that led to less government harassment of a group of female relatives of political prisoners (Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White)).
  • Although unrecognized religious groups are technically illegal, the government rarely interfered with them.
  • Although unregistered “house churches” are technically illegal, the vast majority of religious leaders reported that such churches operated without interference.
  • “There were no reports of persons imprisoned or detained for specifically religious reasons.”
  • “There were no reports of forced religious conversion.”
  • Although there is no legal provision for conscientious objections to military service, in practice the government allows alternative civilian public service.

The Cuban restrictions on religious freedom, according to these reports, in my opinion, are less significant and are qualified by the above recognized positive developments. It has been difficult to obtain permission to construct new church buildings. Some unrecognized churches reported government harassment. The process of obtaining permission for “house churches” was difficult. All religious groups are required to disclose certain financial information and affiliation with foreign organizations, and their records are subject to inspection. The government tightly regulates the publication of all printed materials, including religious materials.

Leaders of an association of nondenominational churches (Apostolic Reformation) reported harassment and detention, and one of the leaders, Pastor Omar Gude Perez, was convicted in 2009 of illicit electronic activity and falsification of documents. In early 2010 the conviction was affirmed.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. In its latest report 14 countries are so designated. Cuba is not one of them; the eight so designated by the State Department plus six others.[7]

But Cuba is one of 11 countries on the Commission’s “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.” (Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.)[8]

The Commission recognizes many of the same improvements in Cuban religious freedom as the State Department. The Commission also notes that Raul and Fidel Castro have taken steps to reach out to its small Jewish community with Raul celebrating Hanukkah in 2010 while Fidel criticized Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust.

This report focuses on the Cuban government’s harassment of the Apostolic Reformation, including the conviction and imprisonment of one of its leaders, as was noted in the State Department’s report too. The Commission also discussed the charges made against an evangelical Cuban pastor.

The Commission mentions the Cuban government’s requirement for registration of churches and house churches and its “failure to give permission to build new houses of worship, repair or restore existing ones, or access construction materials; denial of access to state media; denial of exit visas for Cubans; state monopoly on printing presses for religious material; censorship of such materials; prohibition of private religious schools; limits on entry of foreign religious workers; denial of Internet access; denial of religious materials to prisoners; denial of permission to hold religious events outside their buildings; and unofficial exclusion of overtly religious propel from certain employment. (The State Department in contrast talks about many of these restrictions being relaxed.)

The Commission then recommends that the U.S. press the Cuban government to take 10 specific actions to improve religious freedom “prior to [the U.S.’] considering resuming full diplomatic relations” with Cuba. Other recommendations were: (i) U.S. funding of initiatives to advance Cuban religious freedom; (ii) increasing the number of U.S. visas for Cuban religious leaders; (iii) encouraging Radio Marti and Radio Marti to report on religious freedom issues;[9] (iv) eliminating U.S. barriers to Internet access by Cuban religious freedom and human rights activists; and (v) awarding U.S. funds to counter Cuban censorship.


The State Department’s more balanced reports on Cuban religious freedom, in my opinion, are better grounded in reality than the Commission’s. While I believe the U.S. should encourage and promote religious freedom around the world, including Cuba, the recommendations by the Commission are unjustified and counterproductive and evidence the same bias against Cuba that we see in other aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba.[10]

[1]  U.S. Dep’t of State, 2010 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (Nov. 17, 2010), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/index.htm; U.S.Dep’t of State, July-December, 2010 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (Sept. 13, 2011), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010_5/index.htm.

[2] U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2011 (May 2011), http://www.uscirf.gov/images/book%20with%20cover%20for%20web.pdf. The Commission, which was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as an entity separate and distinct from the State Department, is an independent U.S. government body that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.  On December 16, 2011, the Commission’s life was extended by Congress through 2018 after a series of brief extensions had kept it in existence after its previous authorization expired in September 2011. (Bauman, US religious freedom commission reauthorized at last minute, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com (Dec. 17, 2011).)

[3]  U.S. Const., First Amend.

[4] See Post: International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion (Jan. 1, 2012).

[5] See Post: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011).

[6] The eight CPC countries are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan.

[7]  The other six CPC countries, according to the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

[8]  The other 10 countries on the Commission’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, India, Indonesia, Laos,Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

[9] Radio y Televisión Martí is a radio and television broadcaster based in Miami, Florida, financed by the U.S. government which transmits Spanish radio and television broadcasts to Cuba.

[10] See Post:The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

11 thoughts on “U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba”

  1. Comment: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2012 Report on Cuba

    On March 22, 2012, the Commission released its 2012 report (http://www.uscirf.gov/images/ Annual%20Report%20of%20USCIRF%202012(2).pdf).

    Cuba is still on its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.” (Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.)
    The Commission did so even though it recognized improvements in Cuban religious freedom. According to the Commission, “Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2011. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba‘s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Additionally, there were fewer reports of illegal house churches being fined, confiscated, or evicted.”

    In addition, the Commission conceded, “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continue to improve, although the government maintains strict oversight of, and restrictions on, church activities. Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been instrumental in negotiating the release of political prisoners and intervening to stop officials from preventing the Ladies in White from attending mass in Havana. March 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba‘s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba starting on March 26 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he will be received by Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue, La Mambisa, has toured the island, drawing large crowds.”

    These positive developments, however, were outweighed for the Commission by its findings that some religious leaders and followers had been arrested and held for short periods of time and that some church leaders reported increased government surveillance and interference with church activities.

    The Commission’s list of recommendations for U.S. policy was shorter than the prior year that was discussed in the January 5, 2012 post. The new recommendations are the following:

    • demand Cuba end detentions of religious leaders and followers;

    • press Cuba to stop arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders; cease interference with religious activities and the internal affairs of religious communities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; revise government policies that restrict religious services in homes or on other personal property; and hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of non-violent religious practitioners;

    • use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrest by supporting the development of new technologies, while also immediately distributing proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship; and

    • encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries, to ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.

  2. What precisely seriously moved you to write “U.S. Governments Opinions on Religious Freedom
    in Cuba dwkcommentaries”? I actuallyabsolutely enjoyed reading the
    blog post! Thanks for the post -Ashlee

    1. Brent, thanks for your comment. As you probably have discovered, I have written many posts about Cuba. Just click on “Cuba” in the tag cloud at the top tight of the blog. Or go to the “List of Posts and Comments-Topical” in the Pages section at the bottom right of the blog; it has a section listing posts and comments about Cuba.

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