Friday, June 12, 2015

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports on reforms in Cuba that undermine property rights

Christian Solidarity Worldwide has released a report documenting a worsening situation with regards to religious freedom in Cuba that has been picked up in the media. However,  reading through their report one finds that what many Cuba experts have been heralding as one of Raul Castro's reforms has a sinister underbelly that further undermines the already weak area of property rights. Even graves are not protected. The Miami Herald reported on June 9, 2015 that Cuban-American investor José Valdés-Fauli found when he visited the tomb of his maternal grandfather, Jacinto Pedroso, a Cuban businessmen and founder of the Pedroso Bank who had died in 1955 that his mausoleum had been sold, his remains thrown into a mass grave some time after 2013. Below is the excerpt of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide discussing this new legislation that negatively impacts property rights. The added bold for emphasis is mine.

New legislation, Legal Decree 322: the General Law on Housing, was announced on 5 September 2014 and came into force on 5 January 2015.1 The law is meant to regulate private properties, mostly homes, and enforce zoning laws. However, it has reportedly been used by government officials to claim the right to seize church properties and to force the churches into the role of paying tenant. Cuban lawyers have told CSW that although the law does not specifically mention religious groups, government officials have claimed it gives them the authority to expropriate property when they deem it ‘necessary.’ One legal expert linked to the Cuban Council of Churches and speaking anonymously told CSW that churches of all denominations and in multiple provinces are affected:
“They are applying the law rigorously. In the case of the churches it is worse. They propose to convert the church into a tenant. This has consequences. For example, the ‘new owner’ is able to decide what the church can or cannot do in this place. That is to say they lose autonomy. They cannot accept this. The situation is complicated.”1
The legal expert added that the most vulnerable churches are those to which the government has refused to issue a licence recognising them as a registered place of worship.2 However, at least one historic church property was targeted in the first half of the year. In May 2015 the leadership of the Maranatha First Baptist Church, in the city of Holguin, was informed by provincial Communist
Party and Housing Ministry officials that their property is to be confiscated and their status changed from owners to tenants. The church is affiliated with the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba, and over 800 people worship there on a weekly basis. It has held title to the property since 1947 and was officially registered in May 1954. Government officials threatened to confiscate the church property once before in 2011, but backed down after a high profile campaign; now, it seems, they may be attempting to apply the new legislation to justify their actions. Leaders of the church have published an open letter calling for support as they resist government attempts to seize their
property. Other churches have also reported threats of confiscation or destruction of property, which appear to be related to the application of Legal Decree 322. In May Reverend Fausto Polemo was informed by local authorities that his church in the city of Santiago de Cuba would be confiscated and demolished, and that he was prohibited from holding any more services. The church belongs to the Assemblies of God denomination, which is registered and recognized in Cuba. Similarly, Pastors Osmel and Madeleine de Calderón were told that their church in Loma Blanca, Upper Mayarí, Santiago Province and affiliated with the Apostolic Movement,3 must stop holding services. Members of their church have also been approached by government officials, warned to stop attending the church, and told to distance themselves from the couple. Reverend Alain Toledano, another Apostolic Movement leader, was told that his property in the city of Santiago would be confiscated. He has continued to make public calls for the government to clarify the status of his

In May, a Request for Precautionary Measures was filed with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on behalf of Reverend Yiorvis Bravo, another Apostolic Movement leader. In 2013 a Camaguey court sanctioned a government move to expropriate his home, which is also the meeting place of his church. While the case predates the enactment of Legal Decree 322, the tactics
appear identical. Reverend Bravo was approached by Ministry of Housing officials in 2013 who offered to allow him and his family to remain in the property as tenants, if they agreed to submit all church activities for approval in advance. Reverend Bravo refused to comply and remains in the home, but while government officials have not yet made any move to evict the family, they have continued to maintain that the property is now theirs and they reserve the right to evict or relocate the family at any time.

1 More information on the law can be found at (Spanish)

2 Because the government has allowed only a handful of new church buildings to be built since the 1959 Revolution, despite massive growth in the churches through the 1990s and 2000s, a huge proportion of Protestants and some Catholics meet in what are usually referred to as house churches. This name is applied to any building where religious services are held and which is not legally registered as a place of worship. While the government mostly tolerated these house churches for
many years, it made it difficult and often impossible to register the buildings as places of worship. This meant that they were technically illegal and always vulnerable to harassment, fines and forced closure.

3 The government has refused to register the Apostolic Movement and considers it to be illegal.

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