Miami Herald: Here’s the most important thing Catholic bishops in Cuba should not concede to the regime

This Op-Ed was originally published by the Miami Herald on May 4, 2023. You can read that version here.
By Dr. Teo Babun

On April 27, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba held a meeting with senior officials of the Cuban communist regime, including President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Bishops had requested this meeting for more than two years, and it reportedly covered issues of common interest, including the socioeconomic crisis that afflicts the island.

Especially noteworthy, however, was that they discussed a potential release of prisoners jailed during the historic protests of July 11, 2021, when thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest food shortages and power cuts, and to demand libertad. Of the hundreds imprisoned and prosecuted, several dozen are minors — a particularly flagrant injustice that has been widely denounced by the international community.

The possibility of a prisoner release was raised earlier this year during Italian Cardinal Benaimino Stella’s visit. He conveyed Pope Francis’ wishes for a “positive response” regarding the prisoners. Sadly, it is likely that Cuba’s leaders see as a possible model what Nicaragua did with 222 of its high-profile political prisoners in February — deporting them to the United States and stripping them of their citizenship and property.

But the fact that the regime is discussing this with the bishops raises another troubling element: Cuban officials probably expect some kind of concession from the Catholic leaders. Add to this that Caridad Diego, who heads the notorious Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), — responsible for regulating all matters dealing with religion on the island — was at the meeting.

ORA is also the primary apparatus used to repress the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. It has been well documented that the office refuses to recognize unregistered or disfavored religious groups and denies requests for permits for construction and to hold large events, for example.

Those who care about human rights, and specifically religious freedom in Cuba, should hope that the Cuban Catholic bishops do not bow to one concession that the ORA has likely asked for: the silencing of brave priests and nuns who have publicly spoken out against the regime’s grave human-rights abuses.

Father Alberto Reyes, in Camagüey, is one of these priests. He frequently posts on Facebook hard-hitting reflections denouncing the regime. In a December post, for example, he asserted that the Cuban government has “more than demonstrated its inability to build a society that is not only prosperous, but one capable of responding to the most basic aspirations of the human being.” In the same post he also provides numerous reasons why there is no religious freedom in Cuba, as the regime absurdly claims.

Another brave critic is Sister Nadieska Almeida, superior of the Daughters of Charity in Cuba, who also has posted numerous critical reflections on Facebook. Last month, she posted an essay in which she depicts the regime as holding the rope that is hanging the Cuban people. She calls on government leaders to “allow us to LIVE like human beings.”

It would be a betrayal for the Catholic bishops to agree to use their position of authority to silence outspoken religious leaders like these, whose words of truth are like oxygen for those feeling stifled and hopeless in the island prison that is Cuba.

Should the Vatican seek to act as a mediator between the United States and the Cuban regime in efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations, as Cuba’s leaders reportedly hope, respect for Cuban’s human rights must be a non-negotiable requirement. Three measures to support this end would be a commitment to not threaten or harass religious leaders for criticizing the regime; the release of those imprisoned for simply exercising their fundamental rights of freedom of religion, assembly, and association; and a commitment to reform the ORA to ensure that it acts in accordance with international human-rights standards.