Sanctioning Faith: Religion, Politics, and U.S.-Cuban Relations

35 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2009  

Jill I. Goldenziel

Marine Corps University-Command and Staff College; University of Pennsylvania; Harvard University

Date Written: April 6, 2009


Fidel Castro's government actively suppressed religious life in Cuba for decades. Yet in recent years Cuba has experienced a dramatic flourishing of religious life. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government has increased religious liberty by opening political space for religious belief and practice. In 1991, the Cuban Communist Party removed atheism as a prerequisite for party membership. One year later, Cuba amended its constitution to deem itself a secular state rather than an atheist state. Since that time, religious life in Cuba has grown exponentially. All religious denominations, from the Catholic Church to Afro-Cuban religious societies and the Jewish and Muslim communities, report increased participation in religious rites. Religious social service organizations like Caritas have opened in Cuba, providing vital social services to Cubans of all religious faiths. These religious institutions are assisted by groups from the United States traveling legally to Cuba on religious visas and carrying vital medicine, aid, and religious paraphernalia.

What explains the Cuban government's sudden accommodation of religion? Drawing on original field research in Havana, I argue that the Cuban government has strategically increased religious liberty for political gain. Loopholes in U.S. sanctions policies have allowed aid to flow into Cuba from the United States via religious groups, allowing the Cuban government to open a controlled religious marketplace. The Cuban government has learned from the experience of similar religious awakenings in post-Communist states in Eastern Europe and has shrewdly managed the workings of religious organizations while permitting individual spiritual revival. By softening its anti-religious stance, the Cuban government has opened the door to religious pluralism on the island while closely monitoring religious groups to prevent political opposition. As the Obama Administration has already begun to ease U.S. Sanctions on Cuba, the U.S. Government must gain a broader understanding the relationship between Cuban religion, civil society, and democratic freedoms.

Keywords: Cuba, religion, church, state, Castro, sanctions, U.S., international relations

JEL Classification: P20, P26, N40, O19

Suggested Citation

Goldenziel, Jill I., Sanctioning Faith: Religion, Politics, and U.S.-Cuban Relations (April 6, 2009). Journal of Law and Politics, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Jill I. Goldenziel (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1737 Cambridge St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Marine Corps University-Command and Staff College ( email )

2076 South Street
Quantico, VA 22134


University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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