In mid-February, Reverend Carlos Sebastián Hernandez was labelled a counter-revolutionary. His crime? Publicly opposing Cuba’s draft constitution, which reduces religious freedom protections. In response, Rev Hernandez told CSW, ‘I have total confidence that, even in Cuba, God reigns. Pray for me and my family. My wife and I have spoken and prayed because at any moment they could take me prisoner.’
The church leaders who publicly opposed the draft constitution have come under severe pressure, including being banned from receiving foreign visitors.
On 24 February, the Cuban people voted in favour of a new constitution that significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief and freedom of conscience. In an attempt to participate in a public consultation on the draft, a cross-denominational group of church leaders representing the largest Protestant denominations submitted a draft proposal to the National Assembly in the months before the referendum, with improved language on freedom of religion and conscience. The Cuban Catholic Bishops’ Conference also raised similar concerns.
The government ignored them all, and the draft constitution retained the problematic language. Article 15 of the new constitution now reads: ‘The Cuban State is secular [laico]. In the Republic of Cuba the religious institutions and fraternal associations are separate from the State and all have the same rights and responsibilities. The different beliefs and religions enjoy equal treatment.’ The failure to define ‘rights and responsibilities’ opens the door to abuse by the authorities.
An unprecedented campaign
The potential threat posed by Article 15 did not go unnoticed by the churches on the island – in an unprecedented show of unity, denominations banded together in a campaign to oppose the draft constitution, despite the harassment and intimidation that this stance brought them. Since the referendum, the church leaders who publicly opposed the draft constitution have come under severe pressure, including being banned from receiving foreign visitors. A number of pastors associated with the Apostolic Movement, including Pastors Alain Toledano and Marcos Perdomo, have been cited and interrogated by police. In Granma, a pastor with the Nazarene Church reported that he received notice that the property where his church has been located for 20 years is being confiscated.
New hope in resistance
The cross-denominational campaign against the new constitution brought together Christians across the island in a way that has not been seen since the 1959 Revolution, and led to the launch of a new independent Cuban Evangelical Alliance, representing the largest Protestant denominations on the island. This is an important shift, not only in the wider perception of the church on the island, but also in the role religious groups play in civil society in Cuba. The severity of the reprisals against church leaders who spoke out against the referendum shows that the government sees this new unity and activism as a threat. The government is not used to dealing with such widespread and organised opposition from religious groups – this has led to a belief among church leaders that a crackdown may be imminent, but also hope that the resistance is gaining in strength and becoming more effective.