Can There be Apolitical Religious Freedom?

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Cuba’s a confusing place.  There are a number of things that I was surprised to learn that Cuba seems to be doing well, notably education and healthcare.  And yet, even these achievements are straining under Cuba’s economic crisis. Yes, they have universal literacy, but schoolchildren are desperate for basic school supplies.  Yes, there is universal medical care but doctors often supplement their income working in the tourist industry to earn hard currency, and prescription medications are too expensive for most citizens.

One of my most confusing experiences of Cuba was encountering its unexpectedly diverse religious landscape.  As a part of a mission to assist the Jewish community, I knew before going that there were Jews in Cuba. But I was surprised to learn the extent to which the state has loosened restrictions on religious organizations and adherents, since the collapse of the USSR.  The communist party is the only legitimate political party and is atheist.  So, in order to be active in the party a citizen cannot also be a member of a religious group.  But only a small percentage of the population maintains party membership and there are few benefits to doing so these days.  The best jobs are in the tourist industry, not politics, and party membership is not a prerequisite for a good job, even to serve as a guide working for a state-owned tour company.

Cubans have embraced the freedom to practice their religions that has grown in the past two decades.  Religious difference is everywhere in Cuba.  My first night in country, walking along the Malecón, the coast road that crowns Havana, I met a group of artists who are Soka Gokkai Buddhists. My last day, huddled under an awning waiting out an afternoon thunderstorm I spoke with a couple of Rastafarians.  I later caught a ride from a bicitaxi driver whose aunt is a Jehovah’s Witness.  A bookseller in the Plaza de Armas was eager to teach me about the three dominant varieties of Afro-Cuban religion.  In addition to the synagogues and many Roman Catholic Churches that I visited, I also noted a Methodist Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, and a Russian Orthodox Church contributing to Cuba’s spectacular architectural landscape.

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As an attribute of the cultural diversity of Cuban society, religious freedom at first glance seems robust.  There is an absence of state coercion of religion and belief and there is freedom for religious practice.  There’s no antisemitism or sectarian strife.  Roman Catholic priests allow practitioners of Santería to bring offerings of flowers and candles to the altars of saints in their churches.  This would seem to add up to religious freedom.  And yet, last month when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its annual report, it named Cuba as a Tier 2 country of concern.  Though noting that religious groups have begun to see an increase in the freedom of religious expression in Cuban life, the U.S. government condemned the absence of political freedoms.  As the USCIRF report notes, religious organizations must be licensed and approved by the state.  Organizations whose beliefs conflict with, challenge, or dissent from state policy are not approved and are not able to receive aid from outside organizations, aid that is desperately needed in the difficult economic situation that Cuba has been struggling with since the collapse of the USSR.  The official Cuban state-run newspaper Granma denounced the USCIRF report as unilateral and political,  described it as “standing in judgment over others but not itself,” and accused the U.S. of inventing reasons to justify the ongoing economic embargo. The Cuban government’s response emphasized Cuba’s respect for diverse religious beliefs and practices, citing interviews with leaders from minority religious communities.

On the surface these competing points of view can be seen as a shouting match between rival propaganda machines.  But I think the differences of perspective about religious freedom are emblematic of a deeper philosophical divide.  Cuba represents the position of  its Soviet-bloc comrades during the Cold War, in defense of the primacy of economic, social, and cultural rights.  To this day the Cuban government argues that while it may not have a free press it has universal literacy and universal medical care.  In its eyes, these successes highlight its ability to honor the human dignity of its citizens better than its neighbor to the north.  In Cuba, religious freedom is apolitical.  Participation in a religious community is not about contributing visions of justice and the common good to a public discussion and debate about the future of Cuban society, because no such public discourse exists.  Rather, in Cuba religious freedom is about the freedom to contribute to the cultural abundance of Cuban society.

The U.S. perspective, while yes self-aggrandizing and hubristic illustrates the view that civil and political rights are the foundational building blocks for all other rights.  The rights of citizens to participate in the process of deciding social and economic priorities is the prerequisite to making progress towards achieving such priorities.  As articulated by the USCIRF, the freedom to participate in religious community, express religious beliefs, and participate in religious practices does not constitute full religious freedom so long as the freedom to dissent from the principles and values propagated by the state continues to be denied.

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