Cautious Defiance

The Cuban Church’s role in the release of political prisoners

One day last March, the Ladies in White—a group of wives, mothers, and other female relatives of Cuban political prisoners—prepared to march from St. Rita of Cascia Church in Havana to a nearby park. The Ladies, who wear white as a symbol of peace, had made that walk every week since 2003.

In March of that year, Cuban government agents arrested and imprisoned 75 journalists and human rights and democracy activists in a crackdown on nonviolent political dissent that became known as Cuba’s Black Spring. The Cuban government had rarely interrupted the Ladies’ peaceful protests. (My brother, doing research in Cuba for a documentary, observed one of the marches in Havana two years ago, and saw that several policemen were present but didn’t intrude, even when he began recording the march with a hand-held video camera.)

This time, however, the Ladies were besieged by a group of government security agents, who blocked their procession, shouting insults and threats. Several women were detained and assaulted. Then, hundreds of pro-government protestors surrounded the group and engaged in what the Cuban government calls “acts of repudiation”— verbal taunts, chants, and threats.

Over the next several weeks, similar scenarios played out during the Ladies’ peaceful protests. It quickly became clear that the government was attempting to put an end to the marches.

The government’s intimidation tactics prompted the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, to send a letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro protesting the abuse and stating that “for the Church to tolerate this in silence would be an act of cowardice.” Cardinal Ortega, Havana’s archbishop since 1981, had sent many letters over the years to Fidel and Raúl Castro asking for meetings to express the Church’s concern over the treatment of political prisoners and other dissidents on the island. But something novel happened when Cardinal Ortega sent the letter this time: he got a response.

In May, Raúl Castro, who has headed the Cuban government since 2008, met with Cardinal Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez, president of the Cuban bishops’ conference. Castro agreed to stop harassing the Ladies. He also agreed to move 12 political prisoners to prisons closer to their homes so as to make it easier for their families to visit them. (The government typically holds its political enemies in prisons as far away from their families as possible.)

Ortega and Castro met three more times over the next few weeks for talks that Ortega later described as “unprecedented.” With help from the Vatican and the Spanish government, on July 7 Ortega negotiated the release of the remaining 52 Black Spring prisoners, most of whom had been sentenced to decades-long prison terms. As of mid-October, the government had released 42 prisoners, and was promising to release the remaining prisoners by mid-November.

The Catholic Church has sometimes been criticized for not being outspoken enough about Cuba’s political prisoners. It has historically chosen engagement with the Castro regime over outright repudiation. But the Church’s cautious defiance has permitted it to play the crucial role of mediator in negotiating the current prisoner releases. While the prisoner releases are a result of a specific set of economic and political events and circumstances in Cuba, it is unlikely that they would be happening without the involvement of the Church.


In early 1959, in the weeks following Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, most Cubans, including most Catholic Cubans, hoped that a more democratic government had arrived. Catholic leaders were initially pleased with the revolution’s emphasis on the social and communal dimensions of Catholic social doctrine and with Castro’s contention that his revolution was informed by Christian principles. The archbishop of Santiago de Cuba even held a Mass to celebrate the revolutionary triumph.

Soon thereafter, however, Castro began to reveal his true governing philosophy. By mid-1961, Castro had declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and Cuba a socialist state. In his bestselling prison memoirs, Against All Hope, Armando Valladares described the Church’s reaction:

Ever since Castro’s triumph, Catholic priests had followed the development of the Revolution with great concern. As soon as they saw that it was going down the path of Marxism they denounced it, and from their pulpits alerted their parishioners to the approaching danger. On May 8, 1960, all Cuban bishops signed a pastoral letter condemning communism.

Hundreds of Catholic schools were shuttered, and half of the island’s priests and nuns were expelled. Cubans were discouraged from attending worship services, and those who did were often discriminated against when seeking state and university employment.

The Castro regime banned Catholics from joining the Communist Party, the country’s sole political party, and religious instruction was abolished in the new government-run schools as the Church was cast as an enemy of the poor. The Church was prohibited from printing independent newspapers, from establishing schools and hospitals, and from either training or importing priests and other religious.

Catholics were featured prominently among the thousands of political opponents Castro executed. As Valladares recounted in Against All Hope:

Those cries of the executed patriots—“Long live Christ the King! Down with communism!”—had wakened me to a new life as they echoed through the 200-year-old moats of the fortress. The cries became such a potent and stirring symbol that by 1963 the men condemned to death were gagged before being carried down to be shot.

Castro’s hostility toward the Church deepened after Operation Peter Pan, in which, between 1960 and 1962, American and Catholic Church officials helped resettle in the United States 14,000 Cuban children whose parents wanted them to escape the communist island.

Conditions for Cuba’s Catholics improved slightly starting in the early 1990s. In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party lifted its ban on practicing Catholics joining the party, and in 1992, a constitutional amendment transformed a previously atheist Cuba into an officially secular state. With Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit the Church re-entered the public square, if only for a few days. The first pope to visit Cuba in its 400 years of Catholicism, John Paul spoke before hundreds of thousands of Cubans in Havana’s Revolution Square. The Pope’s visit prompted a series of concessions on religious freedom, as well as the release of more than 300 political prisoners.

Recent signs of increased religious tolerance include the first beautification on Cuban soil in 2008—of José Olallo Valdez of the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God—a public procession to celebrate a Catholic feast day, and the continuing construction of the first new Catholic seminary since the revolution’s inception. But such concessions are the exception. The rule in Cuba continues to be persecution and repression, of the Church and others fighting peacefully for human rights and liberty.

The Castro government’s antagonism has produced a Church that struggles to attend to the spiritual needs of its members. The Church estimates that 60 percent of Cubans are Catholics but that only 10 percent of baptized Catholics regularly attend Mass. Many Cubans’ Catholic faith is combined with elements of other faiths, including non-Christian African religions such as Santeria. As one Cuba expert put it to me, “Catholicism pervades Cuba, but the practice of Catholicism does not.”

Despite these challenges, the Church has had some success in parts of its social role. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) provides humanitarian and emergency response work and helped lead clean-up efforts after hurricanes devastated the island in 2008. CRS works with Caritas Cuba, and its thousands of volunteers minister to elderly, hungry, and disabled Cubans.


Some Cubans believe the Church has not confronted the government strongly enough, particularly in its treatment of political opponents. Valladares is a Catholic who spent 22 years under brutal conditions in Castro’s prisons for refusing to pledge allegiance to communism. In Against All Hope, he criticized the Church of the 1960s and 70s for accommodating the regime.

After a group of priests was expelled from the island in 1967, he wrote, “never again did the Catholic Church in Cuba raise its voice against the crimes and tortures or demand that the firing squads be abolished. During that time it was not only a silent church, but something much worse, a church of complicity.”

Valladares’ opinion hasn’t softened. In an e-mail exchange with CWR, he stated that he believes “the Church continues to collaborate with the tyranny.” By focusing on ending the American trade embargo, Valladares believes, the “Church for 50 years [has not represented] the people or the Catholics; [it has] represented the totalitarian government.”

Other former political prisoners from Cuba criticize the Church too. Oswaldo PayÁ Sardinas, perhaps the most prominent political dissident still on the island, expressed frustration that Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti did not meet with opposition groups during his visit to Cuba in July.

In an interview with CWR, Dr. Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, described the Church’s approach to the Cuban government as “cautious.” She believes the Church “has not wanted to provoke the Castro government, so it’s tried to work within the context of the regime. It has not been a vanguard for political freedom.”

Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, told CWR that he is very happy with the Church’s leadership in the current round of political prisoner releases. But, citing his own views as well as those of other Cuban exiles and some on the island, he asked rhetorically: “Cardinal Ortega—where has he been for 50 years?”


It is not hard to understand the frustration of Valladares and others with the Church’s public response to Cuba’s political prisoners. Thousands of Cubans have been executed or imprisoned for political reasons. And the prisons that those who are incarcerated must endure are among the most wretched in the world.

Cuba is one of only a few countries in the world that prohibits the International Committee of the Red Cross from visiting its prisons. In August the government revoked an invitation to Manfred Nowak, the United Nations special investigator on torture, to make a fact-finding visit to the island’s prisons. Prisoners forcibly exiled to Spain in the current round of releases describe severely over-crowded and unsanitary conditions, torture, extreme isolation, and malnutrition. Perhaps most revealing is the report that self-mutilation and suicide attempts are common among prisoners.

None of the experts interviewed for this piece believe the prisoner releases suggest the regime will reform itself. Most agree with just-released political prisoner Regis Iglesias Ramirez, who told the Associated Press in August, “I think we have been freed because the regime needs to clean up its image internationally.”

One tragic and image-tarnishing incident was the February death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo. His death after an 85-day hunger strike over prison conditions generated an international outcry and renewed criticism of the regime’s mistreatment of political prisoners. Another political prisoner, Guillermo Farinas, was months into his own hunger strike when he was freed in the first round of prisoner releases in July.

Prisoner releases are an easy way for authoritarian regimes to extract economic concessions, Dr. Purcell said, adding, “It’s wrong to think that we are now on this one-way road toward openness and democracy. That’s not the case at all. Cuba needs something, and Cuba will try and get what it needs without in any significant way changing its political system. So anyone who thinks this is a first step toward a democratic opening—that’s incorrect.”

What the regime needs is economic help. Cuba had one of the world’s most vibrant economies in the 1950s. After the revolution, however, the state appropriated 80 percent of the economy and it was soon the poorest country in the region. It relied on Soviet subsidies until the Soviet Union’s demise in 1990.

Today’s Cuban economy is still reeling from the effects of a series of devastating hurricanes in 2008. Foreign remittances have plunged with the world economy, as has the price of main exports like nickel. 

The economy is struggling so much that, after firing one million state workers, the Cuban government is broadening opportunities for self-employment. The government has already given up some of its farm land, most of which lies fallow. But such changes are not permanent. After the last economic crisis, in the early 1990s, the government loosened controls on private enterprise only to shut down many of the private businesses once the economy began to recover.

The prisoner releases are a transparent attempt to win economic concessions, particularly from the United States, which has made prisoner releases the main pre-condition for lifting its 48-year trade embargo. President Obama has already lifted restrictions on travel and remittances for Americans with relatives in Cuba. And as of late August it was widely believed that the administration was planning to ease rules for American citizens to travel to Cuba. Spain’s foreign minister said prisoner releases would yield “political consequences” for relations with the European Union, which is considering strengthening economic ties with Cuba.


The Church will play the important role of mediator as the Castro regime continues to seek to engage other countries. It is clear that the Church is Raúl Castro’s preferred negotiating partner. The state-run Cuban newspaper Granma ran front-page coverage of Cardinal Ortega’s talks with Raúl Castro and was careful to highlight “the favorable level and development of relations between the State and the Catholic church in Cuba.”

Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Washington, DC, told CWR that although the Church has always communicated with the Cuban government, “most of that contact has been about its own issues—pastoral duties, its charities, and the space that it needs to carry those things out. So the idea that they are talking about Cuban domestic policies, especially issues as sensitive as human rights and reform, is very new.”

“Fidel Castro’s style,” he added “was to do diplomacy with the Vatican, and to go over the head of the Cuban Catholic Church. We are seeing now that that is not the case [with Raúl], and that’s a positive change.”

It is easy to wonder why a regime historically so hostile to the Church would seek to engage it now. But the Church is the only institution that enjoys legitimacy and a certain level of trust among all the key players—the Cuban government, the families and advocates of political prisoners, as well as the US and other foreign governments.

Purcell speculates that the regime thought it would look weak and submissive if it dealt directly with the United States or other governments. “We know that the Cuban government does not respond well to foreign pressure. And this has been the case for a long time. So Raúl Castro was obviously disposed to start releasing these prisoners.”

But, she added, “If he’s got this predisposition to release prisoners and if the Cuban government is not going to take an action where it appears to be responding to foreign pressure, it becomes important to carry this out with a Cuban institution.”


Most of the experts interviewed by CWR believe that the Church can accomplish more (especially on human rights issues) as an intermediary rather than as an outright critic of the regime. But that role carries significant risks, because, as Dr. Purcell noted, “if [the Church] speaks out more it will lose its ability to mediate.”

Dr. Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at the Heritage Foundation, told CWR, “You see a space that’s developing in Cuba for the Church to play a more active role, but it walks a very thin line between [its advocacy for political prisoners] and any sort of political action, anything that is overtly political or questions the gains of the revolution.”

“The problem the Church faces is that if it speaks up too much, it will lose any influence it has,” said Manuel López Oliva of the University of Havana. “It will become irrelevant in government affairs. The Church’s role is not without risks. If the government fails to release a significant number of prisoners, it will add to criticism, particularly among Cuba exiles, that the Church has been too accommodating and is helping the government buy time.”

There are a number of questions at the heart of the political prisoner issue; for one, how many political prisoners does Cuba hold? Amnesty International cites only a single “prisoner of conscience” who will remain if the current releases are made. But other human rights groups insist there are scores, perhaps hundreds, more. For its part, the Castro government refuses to admit it holds any Cubans imprisoned solely because of their beliefs. Instead, the Castro regime’s official position is that all political prisoners were jailed for being spies or mercenaries of the American government.

Also, while all of the prisoners released thus far have agreed to leave the country with their immediate families, there are as many as 10 who refuse to be exiled. How will the Church respond if the government refuses to allow those political prisoners who wish to remain in Cuba to stay? And will the Church be viewed as a pawn rather than a peacemaker if, as has happened after other prisoner releases, the regime refills its prisons with political opponents once it wins the economic and political concessions it desires?

The challenges seem endless. In mid-August, Amnesty International reported that Cuban authorities had resumed their harassment of the Ladies in White. The government deployed large mobs to surround the house of Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of deceased hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, preventing her from marching and attending Mass.

Cardinal Ortega has described his talks with the Cuban government as a “magnificent beginning” that prove “the Church can play the role of mediator and resolve old conflicts.” But the question remains whether old conflicts can in fact be resolved with a government whose sole aspiration is its own survival.

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About Daniel Allott 0 Articles
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute.