A-A/AID’s Participation in the Outreach Aid to the Americas Conference on Religious Freedom

Thursday, August 20, 2020

[As Prepared]

Introduction

Thank you Teo, for shaping this event. As always, I salute you and your organization for putting together meaningful discussions around quality of life in the Americas. And today’s discussion is certainly meaningful.

The state of faith-based activism in Latin America — particularly in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela — ties together two important topics that are high on the Administration’s, and therefore USAID’s, priority list.

First, the preservation of religious freedom. And second, defeating the tyranny that exists in these three countries.

Importance of International Religious Freedom

On June 2, President Trump signed the Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom. This executive order makes clear that advancing religious freedom is a major U.S. foreign policy and national security priority. USAID is proud to be playing a key role in implementing this directive by providing tangible support to faith-based communities.

Today, too many people live in countries where freedom of conscience is threatened, restricted, or flat-out denied.

When governments suppress freedom of religion, they prevent entire segments of society from making meaningful contributions to their country’s political, social, and economic development.

This notion is in complete contradiction to USAID’s goal of fostering inclusive societies. Countries simply cannot reach their full development potential without embracing the pluralism that is fundamental to the tapestry of so many societies today.

Attacks on Religious Freedom in LAC

Freedom of religion is a personal issue for me. As a Cuban-American, I grew up in Miami surrounded by first- and second-generation Cuban refugees. My mother, a practicing Catholic, was forced to flee Cuba as Fidel Castro’s communist revolution began to cascade throughout the country.

I attended a Jesuit high school in Miami. This same school, which is ironically the same school Fidel Castro attended in Cuba before he became an atheist communist dictator, was forced to move in its entirety out of the country to Miami because of persecution.

So I understand first-hand how discrimination on the basis of faith can sow chaos, destroy lives, uproot societies, and divide families.

I frequently tell the story of how my mother left the island of Cuba with just a handful of things. One of those things was her diploma from the University of Havana that hangs in my office today.

It’s a constant reminder of how one young lady’s dreams for a “normal” life in her own country were crushed by oppression.

It also reminds me of the perseverance and the hope that fuels the desire of Cubans — and of course Nicaraguans and Venezuelans — desire to overcome challenges and look for change.

Make no mistake about it; religious liberty has been under assault in Cuba for the last six decades. With a few exceptions, the government severely restricts the construction of buildings for religious use. And it is illegal to hold religious activities in buildings that are not officially registered.

To this day, the totalitarian regime in Cuba continues to surveil, harass, and attack faith leaders and worshippers.

Most recently, on March 31, Third Baptist Church in Santiago de Cuba was demolished by the Cuban regime. This proves that even as Cubans are suffering from COVID-19, the regime is relentless in its violations of religious freedom.

In April last year, Reverend Ramon Rigal and his wife Ayda Expósito — of the Church of God in Cuba — were detained in jail. This was a well-known case because it spoke to the persecution that many Cuban leaders of faith experience.

Parenthetically, it also spoke to how the Cuban regime wants to control indoctrination. This couple was jailed because they chose to home-school their child due to fear of harassment and bullying in school based on their religion.

We all know that Nicaragua has become one of the most repressive countries in Latin America. The Catholic Church — one of the country’s last places of refuge for dissenters — is under attack.

In Nicaragua, there were three separate attacks on churches just last month. We’re all familiar with the Catholic Cathedral in Managua being lit up in flames by arsonists on July 31. But while this attack received a lot of media coverage, there were two lesser-known incidents of churches being desecrated in that same week.

These are not isolated incidents. These are not accidents. These are targeted terrorist attacks by Ortega-supported thugs. And as expected, the Ortega regime has not issued any condemnation.

Why are these attacks happening? It’s because the Church in Nicaragua is bold enough to speak up about the rampant human rights abuses and violations of basic freedoms.

We know attacks on churches in the region are not uncommon. In just one month last year, four churches were attacked in Venezuela. On May 1, 2019, about 40 Venezuelan National Guards tried to enter Our Lady of Fatima church in San Cristóbal. Parishioners were in the middle of Mass, when guards threw tear gas into the church, forcing families with children and the elderly to flee through a backdoor.

These attacks on religion are pure violations of human rights — plain and simple. Every man or woman should be able to practice their God-given right to freedom of conscience.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, or an Evangelical.

Role of Faith-Based Communities in LAC

But we have to ask ourselves: Why are these regimes going to such lengths to attack their own people?

It’s because these faith-based communities are the glue that keeps these societies together.

There’s a kinetic energy in these communities that these autocratic regimes are terrified of.

Faith-based communities also have the unique ability to uncover the oppression happening behind the veil of tyranny. Diaz-Canel, Ortega, Maduro, and their cronies know that when well-respected religious groups report on what is happening in their countries, the international community listens.

We’re seeing this in Cuba, where we’ve seen an explosive growth of evangelicals in the past few years. This growth of the evangelical movement is extremely worrisome to the regime. Its mere existence threatens the regime’s control of society and that - control - is existential to the regime’s survival.

There’s a similar movement happening in Nicaragua. The Protestant and evangelical communities are the critical drivers of change there.

But in Venezuela, as you know, it’s a bit different. The Catholic Church is still the predominant faith there. And the power of the Catholic Church can’t be underestimated. Centuries of involvement in the fabric of Venezuelan society cannot be erased by the whim of a dictator like Maduro.

While the faith-based community is critical to raising concerns on human rights issues, we must also acknowledge the critical role that they play in providing assistance to those in need.

In Cuba, they have offered tangible and unprecedented assistance in recent years. They are cooking meals for the elderly and tutoring young children.

When a deadly tornado ripped through Cuba in January last year, churches responded immediately. Congregants rushed to fill trash bags with clothes and food for tornado victims.

We’re seeing the role of the faith-based community most visibly in the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Religious organizations are working very hard to provide health care, food, and education to the most vulnerable Venezuelans. I would love to talk more specifically about all the great work we are doing with the faith based communities and organizations in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

But as the world knows, the mere mention of any church...of any organization...of any community we are working with, puts a target on their back.

And that gets to the root of this discussion today. We’re here today to speak truth to power. We’re here to celebrate faith as a connector of people and an engine for change. And we’re here to call out these regimes for the crimes they commit.

Again, thank you for allowing me to participate in today’s event. I appreciate all the work you do and I look forward to hearing and learning from today’s panelists.

Q&A

What is USAID doing through its funding mechanisms to make sure that NGOs are helping faith communities be effective activists in these countries?

USAID welcomes collaborations with faith-based organizations because these groups already have an established, trusted presence in the countries in which we work and are critical to our success.

In countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, we incorporate the faith-based community into our activities, particularly into our democracy, governance, and human rights programming.

We support religious leaders who protect and defend human rights through leadership and advocacy training, workshops on how to report abuses, and by aiding individuals and their families facing persecution.

USAID also provides basic needs assistance to religious activists that have been persecuted because of their attempts to practice their faith.

USAID takes its commitment to supporting religious freedom seriously and we value faith-based organizations and their contributions to both their society and development. The persecution these groups face by their countries’ authoritarian regimes is both a democracy and human rights issue. We will continue to stand with religious communities and faith-based organizations in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Como asegura USAID que las ONG que reciben sus fondos están apoyando a las comunidades de fe para que puedan llevar a cabo activismo en estos países?

USAID ve con buenos ojos la colaboración con las organizaciones basadas en fe porque estos grupos ya tienen una presencia y una confianza establecidas en los países donde trabajamos y son fundamentales para el éxito de nuestro trabajo.

En países como Cuba, Nicaragua y Venezuela incorporamos la comunidad de fe en nuestras actividades, en particular en las áreas de democracia, gobernanza y derechos humanos.

Apoyamos a líderes religiosos que protegen y defienden los derechos humanos a través de capacitaciones en liderazgo, abogacía y en técnicas para reportar abusos; y también apoyamos a personas perseguidas y a sus familias.

USAID también provee necesidades básicas a activistas religiosos que se encuentran perseguidos por simplemente querer practicar su fe.

USAID toma muy en serio su compromiso de proteger la libertad religiosa y valoramos la contribución a la sociedad y al desarrollo de las organizaciones basadas en la fe. La persecución de estos grupos por los regímenes autoritarios de sus países es tanto un tema de democracia como de derechos humanos.

Continuaremos firmes, apoyando a comunidades religiosas y organizaciones de fe en Cuba, Nicaragua y Venezuela.

Last updated: August 20, 2020

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