Isbel Díaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES — On April 26, during an online debate held through the web-site of the Cuban Association of the United Nations (ACNU), I asked Reverend Oden Marichal, representative of Cuba’s Council of Churches, the following three questions related to the issue of human rights.
1. What is the Council’s opinion on initiatives to legalize same-sex marriages?
2. Why are followers of other religions, such as Rastafarians, denied the rights enjoyed by Christian churches and even the right to register officially?
3. What is your opinion about the highly limited access to the mass media (radio and television) which the Cuban State offers churches in Cuba?
The reverend expressed his reservations about making a declaration, on behalf of Cuba’s Council of Churches, regarding initiatives undertaken by Cuban civil society to legalize same-sex marriages.
According to the pastor, “the Council hasn’t yet addressed the issue and, unfortunately, will likely not address it for a long time.” He added that “we cannot forget that churches in Cuba, as in many other countries around the world, have a conservative stance on the issue. This is true of those Cuban churches that are members of the Council and those that are not.”
It is worth noting that the Council of Churches brings together several Christian denominations, but does not include the Catholic Church, which has been clear about its posture of outright opposition to the granting of such rights to Cuba’s LGBT community.
Having said that, Oden Marichal made what he referred to as a “personal declaration” and stated that, if the decision were up to him, “same-sex marriages would be legalized today. That is an option and a right people and couples should have.”
The reverend also acknowledged that “Cuban civil society has made greater progress than churches with respect to this issue,” telling me that “if you’re fighting for people’s right to same-sex marriages, don’t give up. The spaces for this struggle are there.”
If one also considers the declarations made on Cuban television by a protestant pastor some time ago, plus the support shown by the Martin Luther King Center to Cuba’s national days against homophobia and Revered Raul Suarez’ remarks at Havana’s Cine Club Diferente (where films dealing with gay issues are discussed), one could conclude that the island’s LGBT movement can look to several protestant churches as potential allies in a public debate on the issue.
Rev. Marichal expressed less progressive opinions, however, in connection with the query about the right of other religions to official State recognition.
“In Cuba, Christian and other churches first came, worked with people, formed communities and made concrete contributions to the improvement of people’s everyday and spiritual life. They showed respect towards these communities and made significant contributions to the lives of their members. Official recognition came later,” Marichal explained.
The unfortunate impact which the Catholic Church had on Cuba’s indigenous communities, and the manner in which the Christian religion was imposed on people brought from Africa as slaves, was passed over in silence by the representative of Cuba’s Council of Churches.
“When I speak of religions which became established in Cuba, I am not speaking of this issue in any legal sense. There’s never been a law concerning religion in Cuba, neither in colonial times nor the republican era. Nor is there one today, which you could invoke to go to an office somewhere and register,” the reverend said, explaining that “religions aren’t established through juridical norms anywhere. Juridical norms are designed to guarantee different freedoms, the freedom of religion among them.”
In his comments, the reverend made no mention of the Registry of Religious Associations of Cuba’s Ministry of Justice, through which many religious institutions in Cuba have attained official recognition under the law.
The Bureau of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee also acts as liaison between the government and religious institutions on the island.
Regarding the case of the Rastafarians, whose persecution in Cuba attests to the persistence of racism in the country and their association to marihuana, Marichal commented:
“I am convinced that, when Rastafarians establish communities in Cuba, when they make a contribution to the spiritual life of people and satisfy the needs of these people, when they are recognized by these communities, they will establish themselves as a religion in Cuba. I encourage them to work in the communities, to address people’s needs. People are what’s important.”
The presence of Rastafarians in different Cuban communities, however, has already been documented by two recent books of scientific rigor, which describe the practices of these religious groups and their concrete contributions to the country’s cultural life.
Other religions, too, have been denied official recognition by the Cuban government. These include the Buddhists, Muslims, Congos, several Abakua communities, some Yogi groups and others. As of 1959, access to the Registry of Religious Associations has been extremely limited.
In view of the fact the Council of Churches has been allotted, for some years now, a mere 20 minutes of air time a month on Cuba’s CMBF radio station, the reverend’s comments on access to the media were not exactly energetic.
Marichal first explained that not all religious institutions in Cuba are making this demand from the State. “All of us, including the minor religions, defend the complete separation of State and Church,” he declared, adding that “religious institutions should not receive funding from the State for programs having to do with religious issues, be it to divulge their doctrines or carry out proselytism campaigns or other work related specifically to the Church.”
“We’d have a problem if religious institutions were authorized to create their own media, which are expensive to operate. If that happened, only one or two denominations of the nearly 230 of the seven established religions in Cuba would be able to finance, operate and develop these, leading to a situation of inequality,” the religious leader underscored.
“What we do ask for at Cuba’s Council of Churches is that the radio, press and television cover events and occurrences of a religious nature in Cuba. This does not necessarily require the creation of spaces wholly devoted to these issues,” he declared, making no mention of his institution’s radio program.
In addition to the Council of Churches, representatives of “civil society” (as the sector was referred to during the forum) also participated at the virtual gathering. Some, such as the Federation of Cuban Women, are very close to the official government stance on the issues discussed.
The ACNU forum, organized in connection to the report Cuba presented before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 1, lasted only two hours and saw very few Cuban participants, owing, no doubt, to the relative lack of Internet access on the island.
The right to freedom of expression and association in the political and economic spheres, as well as other demands voiced by activists and members of the opposition in Cuba, do not seem to form part of what the Cuban government understands by Human Rights.
The report submitted to the UN focused on Cuba’s achievements in the fields of education, health, culture, sports, nutrition, the protection of children, the elderly and disabled persons, freedom of religion, the treatment of prison inmates, gender equality and female empowerment and the fulfillment of the Millennium Goals.
The document identifies the negative repercussions that the U.S. embargo has had on Cuba’s population and the mistreatment of prisoners kept at the Guantanamo Naval Base (located on the island) as the chief problems Cuba faces today.