Cuba, Freedom — and the Failures of Communism

A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: Recent experiences of hunger and hardship have awakened a desire for the kind of authentic human freedom that has been so routinely stifled by Cuba’s Communist Party.

Supporters of the protests against the Cuban government participate July 23 in the so-called Freedom Flotilla, boating from Miami’s Bayside marina in downtown Miami to international waters off Cuba's coast as a visual sign of solidarity for those suffering in the Communist country.
Supporters of the protests against the Cuban government participate July 23 in the so-called Freedom Flotilla, boating from Miami’s Bayside marina in downtown Miami to international waters off Cuba's coast as a visual sign of solidarity for those suffering in the Communist country. (photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui / AFP/Getty)

The mass demonstrations that have swept across Cuba in recent weeks have been unprecedented for an island-nation where an authoritarian communist regime has controlled speech — and nearly every other facet of its citizens’ lives — for more than 60 years.

The spontaneous, multicity protests have been reported by many mainstream media outlets to be the result of a worsening economic and health crisis in Cuba. But this fails to tell the whole story.

To be sure, the Cuban people are experiencing a devastating economic and health crisis. Inflation rates have skyrocketed, while food, fuel and medicine are in short supply. Additionally, the island has been hit hard by a recent surge of COVID-19, with a new peak of 6,199 daily cases reported in mid-July.

But while a lack of basic material needs may have served as an immediate catalyst for the wide-scale demonstrations that erupted on July 11, make no mistake: The Cuban people aren’t merely demanding bread, they’re demanding freedom.

“Libertad!” has been the rallying cry of demonstrators, as the most recent experiences of hunger and hardship have awakened a desire for the kind of authentic human freedom that has been so routinely stifled by Cuba’s Communist Party. The desire and the need for change is now stronger than the fear of reprisal. 

Newly emboldened, protesters and dissident groups are calling for an end to communist rule that was forced upon Cuba by Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries in 1959. During his reign, which ended only a decade ago, as many as 141,000 Cubans were killed by their own government. Millions more have fled their homeland. 

Nearly 10% of all Cubans, for instance, live in the United States. 

Those who have remained on the island have experienced decades of brutal government suppression of their religious, political and economic liberties. According to a 2021 report by the Human Rights Watch, arbitrary detention and harassment of government critics continue to be widespread, while the government controls all media and severely curtails free speech. Most economic enterprises in Cuba are government-owned, and only groups favored by the government have access to better housing, luxury goods and higher salaries.

Catholics and other people of faith have suffered dramatically in communist-controlled Cuba, officially an atheistic country until 1992. During that period, Catholics were barred from membership in the ruling party — and therefore from any voice in the government. Thousands of Catholic churches, schools and seminaries were forcibly closed. Religious education is still highly regulated, and those who receive it are barred from obtaining advanced degrees.

This oppression and the Cuban people’s courageous confrontation of it today convincingly demonstrate what has always been the case and what the Church has always taught: Communism is a failed ideology, incompatible with human nature and opposed to authentic human flourishing.

Rooted in atheistic materialism, communism begins with a false understanding of the world and of humanity. It denies man’s need for God, offering the state as a totalitarian alternative. It suppresses human freedom, mistakenly convinced that our needs are primarily material. As St. John Paul II said during his famed 1979 speech in his homeland of Poland, then still under communist rule, “The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.”

True freedom is not found by merely having our material needs met. It comes from being able to live according to the way God made us: to seek relationship with him and to employ the gifts he has given us for the service of others in the social, political and economic arena. 

The Cuban regime has allegedly made progress in these areas in recent years, for instance, allowing citizens to own small businesses or permitting the construction of the first church since 1959. But these are not indications of a conversion; they are clearly bids to maintain power and control. The ideology that animates the ruling party, one that is corrosive to human freedom and flourishing, is still dominant. This has been revealed in the government’s totalitarian response to recent protests. Internet access was shut down across the island to prevent the sharing of information. 

Cuba’s current communist president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, called upon his supporters to violently confront demonstrators in the streets, and deaths have been reported. On July 18, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cuban democracy advocates have placed the number of arrests at 5,000, while “the whereabouts of nearly 200 are unknown.” These are not the actions of a government concerned with human dignity and the common good, but of a government motivated solely by power and self-preservation.

Catholics are called to aid the marginalized and the oppressed, and our brothers and sisters in Cuba certainly fit the bill. Their freedom to worship, own property and participate in civil society — all rights recognized by Catholic social teaching — have been severely curtailed. 

The Church must support the people of Cuba.

This support can and should come in the form of humanitarian aid, but it also must go beyond meeting material needs. After all, to only acknowledge the material conditions of the Cuban people would be to operate by the same flawed logic of the regime. Instead, we must respond to the legitimate needs and desires for freedom being expressed by the Cuban people. 

The Catholic Church has an important role to play in this situation. Pope Francis has expressed his closeness to the people of Cuba in this difficult time and called for both peace and a dialogue aimed at building a more just society there. The Church must continue to use its voice in support of the freedom of the Cuban people through continued public pressure as well as diplomatic conversations behind closed doors.

When St. John Paul the Great visited Cuba in 1998, he urged the Cuban people to “take charge of their destiny.” In recent weeks, on streets across the Island, we have seen the Cuban people’s willingness to do just that. But they’re in need of our continued support. 

We are indeed our brother’s keeper, not because the state compels us, but because we are moved by the love of Christ and his command to love others. Our faith impels us to stand in solidarity with the Cuban people, to work to end their suffering, and to aid their authentic quest for freedom and flourishing. 

May Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba, hasten to guide and protect her people.

God bless you.

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