Life in Cuba under the Castro dictatorship

Christian Solidarity Worldwide interviews Cuban dissident, human rights activist, and pastor Mario Felix Lleonart on their blog, FoRB in Full:

Life in Cuba under the Castros

Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart
Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart

Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso is a prominent Cuban Baptist pastor and human rights activist from Cuba. In the following interview with CSW, he shares his perspective as a Cuban national, on the recent death of Fidel Castro and the potential impact this could have on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) on the island.

What is the symbolic significance for Cubans of the death of Fidel Castro?

Many years ago, the Cuban people collectively resolved to accept that nothing would really change until Fidel Castro died. In this sense, the objective which the Cuban people have themselves imposed, has been fulfilled; Fidel Castro treated Cuba throughout all of his time in power as if it was his own land. Undoing the legacy of destitution which this man brought to Cuba in every way will not be easy. To sever the ties of his relatives and accomplices will be an even bigger challenge. However, we all know that an era has ended for the Cuban people and that from now on, the string will begin to unravel. With the death of Fidel Castro, it is as if the curse has been broken.

What was the relationship between Fidel Castro and religious freedom/religious groups in Cuba?

From the time Fidel Castro announced his alliance to the Stalinist regime in the early 1960s, he adopted an adversity to anything religious. Although his aim was to get rid of every trace of religion in Cuba, he didn’t achieve it. Executions, concentration camps, prison sentences, were some of the extreme methods adopted by his regime in the first years of his oppression. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the fall of this socialist regime, Castro had to change his policy from open persecution to a form of tolerance. The most relevant change was the constitutional reform of 1992 which stated that the Cuban State would shift from atheism to a secular state. In this case, Castro’s policy went from trying to destroy religion to manipulating it and religious groups. The clearest expression of this is the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) of the Cuban communist party, an entity with great power dedicated to deciding what to allow and what to abolish [regarding religion], in line with the political interests of the Castro’s, on religious topics.

What is the current situation of religious freedom in Cuba and are you expecting this to change in light of the recent death of Fidel Castro?

A lot needs to change in Cuba, and not only in the area of religion. The implementation of a religious law, which guarantees religious freedom in a fair-handed way, and the elimination of the ORA with its current agenda, will be the biggest challenges. As a consequence of the current policies, 2016 began with the demolition of various places of worship which have been denied legal status for many years, despite the processes carried out in the Registration of Associations within the Ministry of Justice. Up until today, all existing religious groups in Cuba, both legal and illegal, lack access to the means of spreading their religion; Fidel Castro illegally removed this right at the beginning of the 1960s. None of the theological seminaries belonging to religious organisations in Cuba are recognised by the Ministry of Education. No religious organisation can participate in the education system, which remains solely in the hands of the state. These are but a few of the restrictions which exist as part of the current religious panorama in Cuba. The challenges are huge. However, the one who is fundamentally responsible for all of these religious freedom violations in Cuba – the commander and chief, Castro – is no longer with us.

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