Cuban religious leaders and members of communities of faith have joined the largest ongoing wave of emigration since the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The reasons for this mass exodus are many and complex, but a significant factor is the Cuban government's restrictions on religious freedom. Today marks two years since Cuban authorities unjustly imprisoned Pastor Lorenzo Fajardo Rosales and Free Yoruba leaders Loreto García Hernández and Donaida Pérez Paseiro following the July 11 protests.
U.S. Ambassador at Large, Rashad Hussain, called on Cuban authorities to unconditionally release these religious leaders.
The Cuban government requires that all religious groups and associations obtain legal registration from the Ministry of Justice but it makes it almost impossible for them to do so. Since the Revolution, the government has granted legal status to only a handful of groups and has stripped some, which had a legally recognized presence on the island prior to 1959, of their legal status. As a result, most religious groups that did not have a legal presence on the island before 1959 exist outside the law, automatically making them targets of discrimination and harassment.
Over the past two years, Cuba has sent hundreds of dissidents to prison, where for those who hold religious beliefs, their faith often is used by prison guards as a pressure point. The government regularly violates the Nelson Mandela Rules, refusing to allow political prisoners to receive religious visits, possess religious materials or participate in religious services inside the prisons. Political prisoners’ religious faith is regularly publicly ridiculed. Among the growing number of political prisoners are leaders of unregistered religious groups.
One example is Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, pastor of the unregistered Monte de Sion church in Palma Soriano, sentenced to seven years in prison after peacefully protesting on 11 July. The pastor has now spent two years in prison, where he has been subjected to inhumane treatment, including beatings and being put in a punishment cell for days after he refused to stop sharing his faith inside the prison. He has been singled out for humiliation, with prison guards denigrating his religious beliefs. Outside of the prison, his wife, Maridilegnis Carballo, lost her job as a judge because she was married to a pastor of an unregistered church.
Another example is Loreto Hernandez Garcia and his wife, Donaida Perez Paseiro, both leaders of the Association of Free Yorubas, an independent Afro-Cuban religious group. Both were imprisoned following the 11 July protests and have been imprisoned.
From January to December 2022, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) documented 657 violations of freedom of religion or belief. Protestant Christians and Roman Catholics reported the highest incidents among all religious groups.
77% of the reported cases relate to the arbitrary arrest of Roman Catholics, most of whom are dissidents or are related to political prisoners, in order to prevent them from attending religious services. Often, victims suffer several violations, such as being locked up and handcuffed for several hours in a police car in the sun; being held in a cell for eight hours with no place to sit or lie down; and being released in remote locations, far from their forcing them to walk for several hours to get home.
Parishioners are normally fined up to $5 US dollars in a country where the minimum wage is approximately $42 per month. During the arrests, the victims are beaten, psychologically abused, and violently dragged into patrol cars. Sometimes they are even subjected to ‘acts of repudiation’ – a form of public humiliation orchestrated by the regime and carried out by pro-government mobs.
The other 23% of the violations include harassment, confiscation of religious property and materials, denial of religious visas, regulation of foreign travel, discrimination against adults and children, economic fines, physical abuse, vandalism, threats and violence within prisons, and denying the minimum vital services to prisoners with religious backgrounds.
In the context of injustices and growing numbers of serious FoRB violations, religious leaders, worn down by the constant harassment targeting them and their families, have joined thousands of others going into exile. In a few cases, travel restrictions imposed on a specific religious leader or FoRB defender were temporarily lifted by the government on the condition that the individual never return to Cuba. In at least one case, a FoRB defender was stripped of their citizenship before going into exile.
According to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), in fiscal year 2022, almost 178,000 Cubans arrived in the United States, and it is believed that more than 300,000 have left the country since 11 July 2021. The figure exceeds the combined records of the Mariel exodus in 1980 and the 1994 ‘Balsero Crisis’, the two largest waves of emigration from Cuba in the 20th century. While dissidents, activists and religious leaders are part of this exodus, the vast majority are ordinary Cubans who, following the 11 July crackdown and the imposition of even harsher legislation, see no future for themselves in Cuba.