Since 1998, the U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has given annual reports to Congress concerning religious freedom around the world. Their mandate includes an assurance that all information be presented as “objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible.”
In its April 2023 report, the USCIRF named Cuba as a “country of particular concern,” claiming that in 2022 “religious freedom conditions in Cuba worsened. Throughout the year, the Cuban government tightly controlled religious activity through surveillance, harassment of religious leaders and laypeople, forced exile, fines, and ill treatment of religious prisoners of conscience. . .”
My first-hand experience in Cuba contradicts this report and causes me to question the USCIRF’s claims of being “objective, thorough, and fair.”
After spending 20 years leading more than 50 church groups to Cuba for church-to-church partnership development, my wife Kim and I spent the better part of 2014-2020 working full-time across the island with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba. We taught at the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, and leading trainings for the Cuban Council of Churches’ chaplaincy program.
From 2021 until now, we have continued making frequent trips on month-long visas. At no time have we have witnessed any diminishing of religious freedom in Cuba, neither any government control, nor harassment of religious leaders. If anything, we have seen the churches gain more access to public spaces for sharing their faith.
I can testify without hesitation that we continue to witness a vibrant expression of religious liberty in Cuba. I have preached in over twenty churches, in eleven provinces, and never once felt constrained in what I could say in my sermons. At no time did anyone ever warn me about what I could or could not share in our workshops.
In dozens of churches, both those that are formally registered with Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as non-registered house churches and missions, we have experienced a freedom of spirit among the pastors and congregations to express their faith freely.
We have also participated in public events, such as the ecumenical Christmas program and the annual Easter sunrise service, both in Matanzas. Both are also broadcast nationally on Cuba’s state-run television. It is powerful testimony to the freedom of religion in Cuba with different denominations coming together in unity of spirit to share publicly the good news of their faith.
This year, during Holy Week, we participated in a Stations of the Cross pilgrimage throughout the city of Matanzas. Catholics and Protestants from many traditions marched and sang together. The group of several hundred people stopped along the way at 14 stations to share a liturgy of the crucifixion of Christ, all with no sign of government interference or control.
None of this is to claim there is no policing of speech in Cuba. I do not doubt the reports that there are political prisoners there.
However, there is an important difference between control of religious expression and the policing of political dissidence. Most governments of the world have laws against sedition. Most nations of the world also prosecute people whose dissident speech borders on treason and threatens a system-wide overthrow.
Our nation’s economic embargo against Cuba is consistent with a decades-long policy, first approved by President Eisenhower in 1960. Its stated purpose is to replace Cuba’s socialist regime with one “more acceptable” to the U.S.
Given that the stated objectives of that ongoing policy include creating a “covert intelligence and action organization within Cuba” supported by a “powerful propaganda offensive,” it is not surprising that Cuban security forces are hyper-vigilant in their policing of speech that could be construed as treasonous.
It would be a mistake to equate such reactions against perceived seditious speech with controls on religious expression. In fact, there is ample evidence to show that religious expression has even been dissenting in nature.
For example, in the early 1990s, religious leaders expressed their opposition to Cuba’s constitutional discrimination against religion. Their dissent resulted in a revised constitution that replaced official atheism with a lay (non-sectarian) state, which guaranteed freedom of religion.
Afterwards, religious leaders were free to run for political office, and a Baptist pastor, Raúl Suárez, became one of the first religious leaders elected to the National Assembly. In that role, he freely and famously expressed his dissent to capital punishment.
Another more recent example of dissent based on religious conviction came in discussions around proposed revisions to the family code of ethics, which afforded human right’s guarantees to LGBTQ+ persons. Conservative churches were very public in their opposition to these revisions, and their dissent was in no way controlled or censured by the government.
It appears that the only time religious leaders are subject to harassment is when they participate in movements advocating for regime change or an overthrow of Cuba’s socialist system. Otherwise, religious life in Cuba continues to be vibrant, open, and transformative.
Were the USCIRF to be truly “objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible,” they would agree. As it stands, the report does little more than add to a decades-long “powerful propaganda offensive.”
After leading over 40 groups to visit churches in Cuba, beginning in the 1990s, Dotson has served for the past three years as associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Matanzas. He and his spouse Kim are currently back in North Carolina on a brief respite, awaiting their next opportunity to return and continue the work. Stan and Kim love their work of building bridges between Fraternity of Baptists churches in Cuba and congregations in the States, and they also love engaging in creative ministries of music, drama and story-telling.