Activists lament US giving up "leverage" as they list continuing abuses.
Yale University history professor Carlos Eire grew up in Cuba and was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of the communist state in the early 1960s. But many of his relatives stayed behind. He’s been thinking of one of them in particular this past week, since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro jointly announced a spy swap and their intention to normalize relations between their countries.
“If you go to church—and they watch; they know who goes, because on every block there’s a spy house—you can forget about having a nice job. And if you send your children to religious education of any kind you can forget about them having an education past the 8th grade,” said Eire, author of several books that have been widely translated but which are banned in his native land. “One of my aunts used to teach catechism, and she always had only about two or three children, and their parents are making that difficult choice, putting their future lives in jeopardy, putting them in religious education. She had to report to the local spy committee on the block which children attend. This was from the 1970s into the 1990s.
“When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba [in 1998], suddenly, from one week to the next, she had 30 kids in class,” he continued. “But within a month or so she was back down to two to three, because the spy committee went out and said to the parents, ‘If you keep sending your kids to her house, this is what’s going to happen to you.’”
Eire and other sympathizers of the Cuban democracy movement expressed skepticism that the deal announced last week will be any good for the human rights situation in Cuba. Though Eire’s aunt’s experience was during the 1970s through the 1990s—and although Cuba maintains that there is freedom of religion—it is still difficult to practice religion, advocates said in interviews over the past few days.
“The US government and American churches must constantly press for greater religious freedom,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “The churches are still tightly restricted in the areas of religious education, broadcasting, communications, and human rights advocacy. Like others, they are prevented by the state in having a normal role in civic society.”
“The government tolerates the Church as long as it doesn’t interfere with politics,” said Enrique Pumar, associate professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America. Pumar sees some change in the situation from the days when he was growing up in Cuba, but there is a need for much more progress. “I was an altar boy there in the late 1960s,” he said. “We were harassed. They had block parties with loud music right in front of church so we couldn’t hear the Mass; they prohibited us from ringing bells so people would know when to come to church.”
But in spite of any progress, he said, the government has “infiltrated the Church” and will “never allow” the Church one of its strongest desires—to run its own schools and universities.
“I am pessimistic” that the deal will “make a dent” in the human rights situation, Pumar said. “We lost a great opportunity" in agreeing to proceed toward normalizing relations without first insisting on concessions. "We should follow [former Secretary of State] Warren Christopher’s solution and say it’s all up to the Cubans: you make reforms, we’ll change our policy accordingly.”
Eire, too, would like to see the US insist on conditions before any further change, such as lifting the economic embargo, “and say, ‘You allow political parties. You allow labor unions, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. Stop harassing people who disagree with the government. Have an election.’ There are all sorts of conditions that could be put on this deal. There’s been nothing like that,” he said.