Archives For WOLA

When the Pope visits Cuba next week, the world’s eyes will undoubtedly turn to the island nation, and questions about the current state of religious freedom will be raised. I wrote about the role of the church in Cuba last October, but it seems time to revisit the topic.

According to Mary Anastasia O’Grady with the Wall Street Journal, Christian human rights activists in Cuba are losing hope that the Pope has any intention of meeting with them, listening to them, or making any substantial pleas on their behalf. Instead, it seems Benedict XVI’s public plans are limited to three outdoor masses, meetings with Raul Castro and Cuban Catholic Church leaders (separately, of course), and a possible meeting with Fidel Castro. Fidel, interestingly enough, is rumored to be considering a return to the faith, though it’s hard to know for sure what to make of that.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen slow and incremental easing of economic restrictions by Raul Castro, which has created some new opportunities, but has hardly been enough to turn the country around. It seems that there has been increased religious freedom as well, though according to the U.S. State Department, “in law and in practice, the government places restrictions on freedom of religion.” But according to Geoff Thale at the Washington Office on Latin America, a respected human rights and democracy think tank, Cuba’s religious communities are varied and thriving, despite state-imposed obstacles:

Conventional wisdom dictates that freedom of religion in Cuba is extremely limited; that churches are barely tolerated; that the relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party have improved little since the 1960s; that mutual hostility is the dominant motif in relations between churches and the state; that the Catholic Church in Cuba is eager to embrace the role that the Catholic Church played in Poland in the 1980s, serving as the spiritual voice for a nascent political opposition; and that the Catholic Church is not just the largest religious community in Cuba, but the only significant one. All of these assumptions are unfounded.

Thale has written an in-depth three part series exploring religion in Cuba. The first part of the series takes a look at religious communities in Cuba today, including the prominent Catholic Church, as well as Afro-Cuban traditional religions like Santeria, rapidly growing Protestant churches, ranging from traditional mainline denominations to evangelicals and Pentecostals, and other smaller religious groups.

In the second part, Thale writes about the country’s church-state relations and how they have evolved over the years, from the early days of the revolution, through the Cold War years, all the way to today. Over the last two decades, Thale writes, significant improvements in church-state relations have been made.

Finally, in the third part of the series, Thale says that while the state indeed still imposes restrictions, “most religious groups have been able to function within the government’s limitations.” Increasingly these groups have been taking a pro-active role in pushing the country to change. The Catholic Church has been able to publicly advocate on a number of social and political issues, and has been instrumental in the freeing of political prisoners.

I’d highly recommend reading all three parts of the series to better understand both the remarkable achievements of our Cuban brothers and sisters, as well as the challenges they continue to face. Yes, it’s right to continue to push Cuba to ease restrictions on religion, but we’d be wrong to espouse the narrative that the church in Cuba is simply being thwarted at every turn.

[Image credit: Fox News Latino]

Last week the State Department released its eleventh annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks 184 countries on how well they’re doing in the fight against human trafficking. Countries are placed in one of three tiers according to how well they comply with the Department’s minimum standards. Basically, Tier 1 countries are those doing the most to combat trafficking, Tier 3 countries are the ones doing the least to prevent it, and Tier 2 countries are somewhere in between.

Theoretically, it’s a great report. It’s important that the State Department is making this a priority, and not leaving it exclusively to the domain of NGOs with great expertise in important areas but, in many cases, a lack of political clout to affect change.

Certain aspects of the report are iffy, though. For one thing, there’s the question of the United States as “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking in persons.” Last year was the first time the US included itself on the list, and unsurprisingly, it awarded itself with a Tier 1 ranking. This ranking may very well be deserved, but the conflict of interest is apparent.

Meanwhile, Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America, makes an interesting observation on the rankings of the countries in the Americas. Other than the United States, almost all countries in the region are given the Tier 2 designation, meaning they’re all doing some — but not enough — to combat trafficking in persons.

There are three exceptions: Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela. Yes, Colombia is known for its good relationship with the US and Cuba and Venezuela, of course, are known for just the opposite. And yes, Colombia is placed in Tier 1, while Cuba and Venezuela are given the region’s only Tier 3 rankings. Obviously, this isn’t to say that Colombia isn’t taking strides to fight trafficking or that trafficking isn’t a problem in the two nations with the most outspoken anti-American presidents. But I agree with Isacson that it does cast some unfortunate doubt on the report’s credibility.

If you’d like to support the work of organizations working to stop trafficking in the Americas and elsewhere, please consider International Justice Mission or World Vision.

I received this statement from the Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin America Working Group today, and especially given the fact that it’s Cinco de Mayo I thought it was worth sharing:

Beginning on May 5, Javier Sicilia, a Mexican poet whose son was murdered on March 28, will lead a march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City to demand an end to violence in the country. The march will culminate with activities in Mexico City on May 8. Simultaneous demonstrations will occur in other parts of the country as well as cities outside of Mexico. Protesters include diverse sectors of civil society, human rights defenders, intellectuals, youth, women’s organizations, religious and business leaders, among others. We, as organizations that promote and defend human rights, add our support to the anti-violence protests in Mexico.

The country’s current situation shows that there are many reasons to protest. Since 2006, more than 36,000 people have died as a result of the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico; the vast majority of these deaths have not been investigated and the perpetrators walk free. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) reports that more than 5,000 people have been disappeared since 2006, a number 300% higher than the number of people disappeared during the 1970s “Dirty War.” Mass graves with hundreds of bodies are being discovered in the north of the country. Thousands of migrants in transit have been robbed, kidnapped, extorted, and killed. Enough is enough.

This week’s protests express society’s frustration with the high levels of violence, and they demand an end to the bloodshed and impunity. We lament the death of the thousands of people that have been victims of the violence in Mexico, and we add our voices to those of all Mexicans who demand an end to violence and impunity and who fight for peace and respect for human rights.

It’s a much-needed, yet sobering reminder that when we hear news of terrifying violence south of our nation’s border, ordinary families — not violent criminals — are most often the victims. Learn more about the difficulties in Mexico and the region and what is being done to change things at WOLA and LAWG, and please remember our southern neighbors in your prayers.