Law Review: Sanctioning Faith: Religion, State, and U.S.-Cuban Relations

Jill I. Goldenziel, Sanctioning Faith: Religion, State, and U.S.-Cuban Relations (2009). Journal of Law and Politics, Vol. 25, p. 179, 2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1562014

Fidel Castro’s government actively suppressed religion in Cuba for decades. Yet in recent years Cuba has experienced a dramatic flourishing of religious life. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government has increased religious liberty by opening political space for religious belief and practice. In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party removed atheism as a prerequisite for membership. One year later, Cuba amended its constitution to deem itself a secular state rather than an atheist state. Since that time, religious life in Cuba has grown exponentially. All religious denominations, from the Catholic Church to the Afro-Cuban religious societies to the Jewish and Muslim communities, report increased participation in religious rites. Religious social service organizations like Caritas have opened in Cuba, providing crucial social services to Cubans of all religious faiths. These religious institutions are assisted by groups from the United States traveling legally to Cuba on religious visas and carrying vital medicine, aid, and religious paraphernalia.

What explains the Cuban government’s sudden accommodation of religion? Drawing on original field research in Havana, I argue that the Cuban government has strategically increased religious liberty for political gain. Loopholes in U.S. sanctions policies have allowed aid to flow into Cuba from the United States via religious groups, tying Cuba’s religious marketplace to its emerging economic markets. The Cuban government has learned from the experience of similar religious awakenings in post-Communist states in Eastern Europe and has shrewdly managed the workings of religious organizations while permitting individual spiritual revival. By allowing greater public expression of religious faith, the Cuban government has opened the door to religious pluralism on the island while closely monitoring religious groups to prevent political opposition. As the Obama Administration has already begun to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba, these recent changes in Cuban law may allow the U.S. to promote political change in Cuba through religious civil society institutions.