Last Updated 7 October 2021

The largest island country in the Caribbean, Cuba has a population of approximately 11 million. The Republic of Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining Communist states. There is no official state religion, however a majority of the population are Christian (58.9%). The nonreligious make up the next largest group (23.2%), followed by those believing in folk religion (17.6%). Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims make up less than 1% of the population each.1 Many individuals, particularly Afro-Cubans, practice religions with roots in the Congo River Basin and West Africa, including Yoruba groups. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism and other forms of Christianity and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to accurately estimate their total membership.2

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

The Constitution3 (in English); (in Spanish) affirms the secular nature of the state and the right freedom of religion, although in practice the government tends to restrict this right.

As a result of a national referendum held on 24 February 2019, a new constitution was adopted. The new constitution states that “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and that “distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration” (Article 15). Further, Article 57 states that

“Any person has the right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice with the required respect to other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”

In addition, the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs (Article 43).

The Constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees” freedom of thought, conscience and expression (Article 54) and the rights of assembly and association (Article 57). In practice, however, the authorities routinely repress and punish dissent and public criticism (for more information see ‘Freedom of expression and advocacy of humanist values’ below).4

The State operates an Office of Religious Affairs, which is responsible for oversight of freedom of religion or belief in the country.

On 2 December 2020, the U.S. Secretary of State again placed Cuba on the Special Watch List “for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.”5

Registration of religious groups

The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the Ministry Of Justice for official registration akin to that of civil society organizations.6 (in Spanish) Once granted, registered religious groups must still seek permission from the Office of Religious Affairs each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship.7

Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.8 Membership of an unregistered association is punishable by up to three months in prison or a fine under Article 208.1 of the Penal Code. Leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison.9 (in English); (in Spanish)

Restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in practise

According to the US State Department’s 2020 report on religious freedom in Cuba:10

“Many religious groups said notwithstanding the constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict the activities of some religious groups, leaders, and followers, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely. Religious groups also said the government applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”

Overall, the government commits numerous violations of freedom of religion or belief. These violations, which numbered as high as 220 in 2014, are committed predominantly by the Office of Religious Affairs.11 The government is reported to deny or ignore requests to register buildings as places of worship; according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, some churches have waited for around 25 years for legal permission to exist, without which they are forced to meet illegally. This makes them vulnerable to confiscation or demolition. Many Cubans are prevented from attending religious services, as evidenced by weekly arrests of women affiliated with the Ladies in White – an internationally acclaimed peaceful civic movement made up of wives and female relatives of jailed dissidents.12; It is unclear whether their arrests are particularly related to their attendance of mass or their wider advocacy for the release of imprisoned dissidents.

Followers of other religious faiths, such as Muslims and Jews have also faced harassment at the hands of the authorities. According to the US State Department, Jewish parents were informed that they would be charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor” – for which the penalty is a one-year prison sentence – if they sent their children to school wearing kippahs.13 A 2020 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom exposed how many followers of Yoruba practices, such as Santería face harassment, discrimination and even detention, particularly if they belong to an unregistered group.14 USCIRF also reported attempts by the State to co-opt Santería for political gain.

According to the US State Department:15

“Some religious groups continued to report [that] the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs. Other religious groups reported government restrictions varied and were largely based on the government’s perceptions of the “political pliancy” of each religious group. Religious leaders continued to report government opposition to and interference in religious groups’ providing pastoral services.”

On 2 December 2020, the U.S. Secretary of State again placed Cuba on the Special Watch List “for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.”16

In response to this and the passage of UN Resolution 43/3417 “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief“ the Cuban mission enumerated the legal provisions for the protection of freedom of religion or belief which exist in the country, claiming that questions and concerns raised by the US delegation regarding freedom of religion or belief in the country were biased and politically motivated in order to achieve a “change in regime”.18

Under Article 294 of the Penal Code, disrupting ceremonies of registered religious groups is punishable by up to one year in prison. The penalty is increased to up to two years if the offence is committed by a public official.19 (in English); (in Spanish)

However, abuse of the “freedom to worship” against “the education objectives, the work duty, the defense of the Nation with arms, the veneration of its symbols or any others stipulated in the Constitution” is punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine (Article 206 of the Penal Code).

Education and children’s rights

The government does not permit the existence of private primary and secondary schools, including religious schools, although several international schools in Havana operated under agreements with the government and were given considerable leeway in setting their curricula. Home-schooling is also illegal. In one instance, a Christian pastor and his wife were imprisoned for removing their children from the state-run school system.20;

Religious education does not form part of the school curriculum, however, the Cuban Mission to the United Nations reports that s are free to teach children about their religion at home.21 Select religious groups are also permitted to run after school classes, seminaries and inter-faith training centres.22

Academic curricula at all levels of schooling are highly politicized. Consequently, groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced difficulties accommodating their prohibitions against political involvement in this environment. For instance, some Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders encouraged their members to avoid university education.23

The government restricts academic freedom. Educators and academics must receive permission to attend academic conferences, if not prevented from attending at all. Intellectuals are often dismissed from their positions and discriminated in other ways for holding views critical of the regime.24

Family, community and society

LGBTI+ rights

Discrimination against sexual discrimination or gender identity is protected under Article 42 of the Cuban Constitution. Despite recent protections against discrimination enshrined in the 2019 Constitution, members of the LGBTI+ community continue to face harassment, discrimination and violence. In its report on Cuba,25 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), stated:

“The Inter-American Commission has recognized the efforts of the Cuban State in adopting legal measures for the comprehensive protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) persons […]

“However, the IACHR notes with concern that LGBTI people and human rights defenders working on issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, and sexual characteristics still suffer violence, discrimination, restrictions on their rights of assembly and association, and curtailment of their freedom of expression and dissemination of thought.”

Article 36 of the 1976 Cuban Constitution defined marriage as “the voluntarily established union between a man and a woman”. However, the new Constitution no longer defines marriage as such. Article 82 reads “Marriage is a social and legal institution. It is one form of family organization. It is based on free will and equality of rights, obligations and legal capacity of the spouses. The law decides how it is constituted and its effects.” However, the full recognition of same-sex marriage will depend on a pubic consultation of the revised Family Code.26; (in Spanish) A referendum on the subject was deferred following the petition of various evangelical churches, who opposed same-sex marriage.27;

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Stifling dissent

Brief and arbitrary detention is a common practice used to harass dissidents in Cuba.28;;
The police rarely provide the detained with a reason or warrant for their arrest, and in some cases, detainees are released after receiving official warnings, which prosecutors can use in subsequent criminal trials to show a pattern of “delinquent” behavior.29

The Cuban government fails to recognize human rights monitoring as a legitimate activity and denies legal status to local human rights groups.30 Human rights defenders, independent journalists, bloggers, writers, poets, social media influencers, artists, and academics who publish information considered critical of the government are routinely subject to harassment, violence, smear campaigns, travel restrictions, internet cuts, online harassment, raids on their homes and offices, confiscation of working materials, and arbitrary arrests. They are regularly held incommunicado.31

According to the CIA World Factbook (2020), the government “owns and controls all broadcast media” and “private ownership of electronic media is prohibited”. Of the several online independent news sites, those that are critical of the government are blocked. Around 57% of the population has access to the internet, though special authorization is needed to buy computers or access the internet.32

Cuban citizens are banned from hosting their writings on foreign servers. Investigators are authorized to engage in electronic surveillance without prior judicial approval by Decree 389.33 Information gathered under electronic surveillance can be used as evidence in criminal cases.34 Laws restricting the internet were increasingly used over the course of 2020 to restrict the freedom of expression of independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.35;;

Decree 347 of 201836 requires the Ministry of Culture to approve public and private cultural activities and bans artistic content found to harm “Ethical and cultural values”. The artists’ collective MSI have organized protests and a hunger strike in November 2020. The authorities retaliated by raiding the movement’s headquarters, at the Havana home of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.37

Under Decree 34938 all artists – including collectives, musicians and performers – cannot “provide artistic services” in public or private spaces without prior approval from the Ministry of Culture. Those who hire or make payments to people for artistic services without authorization are subject to sanctions, as are the artists. Sanctions include fines, confiscation of materials, cancellation of artistic events, and revocation of licenses. Local independent artists have protested the decree, both before and after it entered force in April 2019.39;;;

Freedom of assembly

The right to assemble is also severely limited. Cubans are not free to create organizations that are not state sponsored, including independent labor unions, think tanks, and political parties.40

Detention or the threat of detention is often used to prevent people from participating in peaceful marches or meetings to discuss politics. Detainees are often beaten, threatened, and held incommunicado for hours or days. Police have been criticized for their use of violence to quell protests.41


2, 5, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15, 16, 22, 23
3 (in English); (in Spanish)
4, 29, 30, 31, 41
6 (in Spanish)
9, 19 (in English); (in Spanish)
18, 21
24, 34, 37, 40
26; (in Spanish)

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