The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is easing a handful of restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Among other things, Cuban-Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba as much as they like and will be free to send money and gifts to friends and relatives without securing travel or export licenses from the Treasury or the Commerce Department.
While this action was limited, it is nevertheless symbolic and represents a marked change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, on which the U.S. has imposed heavy sanctions for over forty years. It is very likely that, with Fidel Castro now sidelined, this could mark an historic thaw in relations between the two countries, as there is bipartisan support for the further lifting of sanctions (spearheaded on the GOP side of the aisle by Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Jeff Flake (a Latter-day Saint from Arizona)).
All this has made me wonder whether we could possibly see LDS missionaries in Cuba within a few years. I should first stress that there are still a lot of obstacles that stand in the way of such a prospect. Beyond the existing embargo still being imposed by the United States, Cuba’s own domestic policies toward religion pose a significant challenge. Mass proselytizing in Cuba is prohibited, and the government exercises a great deal of control over everything from the number of congregations that are allowed to meet to the construction of chapels (which it rarely allows). But, while heavily restricted, the practice of religion isn’t barred by law in Cuba, and there have actually been some positive developments in recent years, including the removal of references to atheism from the country’s constitution more than a decade ago and a landmark visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
The easing of U.S. restrictions on Cuba now inches us slightly closer to the possibility of one day engaging in missionary work there. So, were U.S. foreign and Cuban domestic policies to allow missionaries to proselytize in Cuba in the coming years, how exactly would the Church be received? Despite decades of religious suppression, Eastern Europeans and Russians openly embraced religion, yet the Church continues to face significant challenges in securing legal recognition in many of these areas as well as in making inroads among adherents to the Orthodox faith (which people in many of these countries hold up as a symbol of long-suppressed freedoms). No doubt we would be starting essentially from scratch in an already heavily Catholic population and competing with Evangelical Protestants for the ears of those Cubans open to religious change. That said, if the Cuban people are at all like other Latin Americans, the missionaries might well find a lot of fertile soil for their message.