It’s been a year since the US embassy in Havana was opened, followed by the historic visit by President Barack Obama. Since then, collaboration between the two countries has increased.
“Direct flights are due to begin this month, travel restrictions have been eased for US citizens and bilateral cooperation increased in science and the arts … [but] the decades-long economic embargo on the island [remains],” reported the BBC in August in an article titled, “What next for US-Cuba relations?”
The BBC says that is a hard question to answer. Much will depend on who will become the next president of the United States.
Paul Groen, analyst at Open Doors, a charity which supports Christians under pressure for their faith, says the answer to that question will also affect the question, ‘What next for the Cuban Church?’
“The improved relations between USA and Cuba raised hopes that Cuban churches would be granted more freedom,” he says. “However, after one year, the situation for Cuban churches remains unchanged. Outspoken Christian leaders continue to receive intimidation, while the Cuban regime is still firmly in place, benefitting from increased legitimacy due to its release from international isolation and the economic benefits of increased tourism.”
As one Cuban pastor notes, “A rapprochement between the governments has been spoken about, but we are yet to see any benefits for the Cuban people. It may be that there are negotiations taking place regarding education, sport, and culture, but nothing that they are speaking about has benefitted the people.”
“Whoever becomes the next president of the United States, let us hope that much more attention will be paid to religious freedom in Cuba,” says Groen.
But is that likely? Below, World Watch Monitor compares the Presidential candidates and assesses the ways in which their policies might affect the Cuban Church.
Presidential candidates compared
If elected, Hilary Clinton would no doubt maintain the tradition that both Democratic and Republican Presidents have supported (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) since the mid-1970s, of demanding that both allies and enemies of the United States respect fundamental freedoms.
She has a significant interest in stabilising relations between the United States and Latin America, and is convinced of the need for more social inclusion, as well as a security network for marginalised individuals, questions about which she responded to in her campaign speech.
Although Clinton speaks a lot about the importance of human rights, Cuba-watchers do not expect that she will manage to generate a greater respect for human rights in Cuba. She would likely continue Obama’s policy, thinks Groen, which, he says, also appeared to have no influence in the sphere of human rights there.
For Clinton, normalisation with Cuba encourages a new start with a “strategically” key region to ensure the prosperity and security of the United States in the long term, following the “unpopular” policy towards the island that made the USA lose “influence and leadership”. And there are many people hoping to occupy this space in the region, she has warned.
“The United States needs to lead in the Americas. If we don’t do it, don’t be mistaken, others will. China is eager to increase its influence,” she said.
Donald Trump’s position with regards to Cuba is very difficult to determine, as he has made contradictory statements.
He has reiterated that, if elected, his government would work to ensure that Washington uses its economy to regain its position on the international stage.
Trump would likely radically move away from the US two-party policy of the last four decades, which placed respect for human rights and democracy among the key conditions for creating good relations between Washington and other countries in the region.
“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he said during the acceptance speech for his candidacy at the National Republican Convention on 21 July.
Trump has also spoken about Russian President Vladimir Putin in positive terms various times, while he said that he wouldn’t order Turkey and other authoritarian US allies to respect human rights.
“I don’t believe we have the right to preach” to other countries, he told The New York Times.
The 2016 Republican Party Platform has criticised the approach to Havana by the Obama administration, and has settled on the historical focus of the party regarding the exceptional nature of the communist island in the Americas.
Trump condemns the Castro regime, supports its victims, defends the conditions established by the Helms-Burton Act for reconciliation, and backs Radio and TV Martí (funded by the US Government), the Cuban Adjustment Act and the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
Trump made it clear that he would not negotiate with Cuba and that the United States has to adhere to the economic embargo against the island in order to avoid rewarding Castro’s government.
It’s unlikely that Trump would completely reject Obama’s policy, but Groen thinks he “definitely won’t take it any further”. In any case, “Trump is not interested in human rights in foreign policy if it has no influence on the geopolitical interests of the United States”, says Groen. “As a consequence, it shouldn’t be expected that he will do anything to promote human rights in Cuba.”
Views from the Cuban Church
After one year, the situation for Cuban churches remains unchanged. Outspoken Christian leaders continue to receive intimidation, while the Cuban regime is still firmly in place, benefitting from increased legitimacy due to its release from international isolation and the economic benefits of increased tourism.
–Paul Groen, Open Doors
Meanwhile, the Cuban Church prefers to wait and see. One church leader, who did not wish to be named, said: “There are many economic factors that are a serious challenge for the Church, but the challenge that preoccupies us most is what is going to happen with the forthcoming rapprochement regarding relations between Cuba and the United States. I imagine that the government will have an answer systemically, but what is going to happen to the people, to the people that suffer every day? What role is the Church going to have during this process?
“What we really want to see is people treated holistically. We don’t want to view people as religious instruments that I am going to feed in exchange for their souls. We want to help, which is what we are doing today – help the Cuban population as a nation, as people that are needed.”
“Changes are being considered in the United States by an imminent President, one who threatens to remove a series of prerogatives, privileges that were given to Cubans who left the island,” said another pastor. “There is a lack of trust in the future and this forces them to make decisions to leave the country. Emigration has risen. This is the most difficult period. It wasn’t communism or open opposition [that motivated them to go], but an uncertain future and the emigration opportunities that they now have.”
Another church leader said there is “great instability”.
“We are in a process of transition. This is not what only I am saying, but what the regime itself is saying; the government is taking measures to confront economic, social, and political challenges,” he added. “They recognise that this is a new phase. They are drawing up guidelines regarding what to do to confront the current situation of the country. They are currently implementing directives, which are related to social work, the economy, and certain liberties for the citizens.
“These are things that were not previously allowed, but, as it is a process, there is going to be instability, and people genuinely do not know where it is going to end. That instability also produces some confusion. There is no security, regardless of which path is taken, as there are big economic problems that the government itself is hiding, plus everything that is happening in the world indicates that a great challenge is on the horizon.”
Open Doors’ Groen added: “The approach that the United States takes regarding Cuba is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the negotiations are the only chance to generate a greater respect for human rights in Cuba – to the extent that, if the United States hadn’t made the dialogue conditional on improvements to human rights, there wouldn’t even have been a dialogue. But on the other hand, the approach gives more legitimacy and economic oxygen to the Cuban regime, because it enables them to take their time and consolidate power.
“Therefore, neither Clinton nor Trump would give much significance to the topic of human rights in Cuba, and no change is expected in the short term. The United States has already taken a step – now it is Cuba’s turn to take theirs. In the meantime, years could pass without anything happening. Any changes regarding human rights would have to come from Cuba’s interior; they cannot be imposed from the outside.”