On April 1, the “Palabra Precisa” program, on Cuban state television, gave voice to a male pastor and a female pastor to talk about the new Family Code. The draft is under popular consultation and must be put to a referendum soon. The female pastor, Dora Arce Valentín, general secretary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba, represented the support for the Code draft. Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero Castellanos, president of the Western Baptist Convention, defended a position mostly contrary to the proposed code, argued in a conservative framework of defense of the biological family, against same-sex marriage and gender and sex education.
That “Palabra Precisa” broadcast is unprecedented for at least two reasons. One, until now state television had not been a platform to resolve openly religious issues, doctrinally arguing policies on a topic of collective interest. Two, the line represented by the male pastor is contrary to what the government institutions have been defending — not without contradictions —, and the discourses against the government’s interest do not reach state television.
The program (re)opened questions about the strong pulse of conservative religious politics in the country and the impact it has and may have on state television as a religious communication platform; on pluralism in the public sphere where rights are settled; and about the Family Code itself.
The context, beyond Cuba
Throughout Latin America and the world, religiously-based neoconservatism has gained strength, audience and impact. Its existence and presence is not new, but in the last decade, it has more scope and consequences. A sector of evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism are key actors.
The “neo” prefix is justified, among other things, by the strategies they use to defend the “traditional values” of the “natural family” and of societies. Especially evangelism displays a strong digital activism in social networks, and has increased its presence in the media (public, state, private, community, formal, informal or directly owned by churches). In many countries of the region, the radio and television stations they own have grown exponentially.
Among the new strategies is also its clearer presence in public spaces in the form of marches, sit-ins, etc. On the other hand, their legal action against regulations under discussion or approved, and against people or organizations that defend rights, is becoming frequent. Religious neoconservatism is constantly activated at legislative junctures: constitutional changes, creation or modification of laws, resolutions, national programs, etc. Public statements and collection of signatures are equally common.
Through these channels and others, religious neoconservatism defends its public voice and affirms it, many times, by appealing to the freedoms of worship and expression. Ecumenical platforms have been created of sectors of evangelicalism and Catholicism to oppose same-sex marriage, gender and sex education, abortion, the inclusion of concepts such as “progressive autonomy” of childhood, assisted reproduction, transversality of the gender approach in public policies, the approval of quota policies to ensure parity in political representation, and a long etcetera. They have also been key in electoral triumphs such as that of Bolsonaro in Brazil, and they produce alliances with a large number of presidential candidates, such as Bukele in El Salvador or the recently elected Rodrigo Chávez in Costa Rica. Religious neoconservative figures increasingly occupy more political seats at different levels, create more channels of influence in political apparatuses and persist and expand their voice in international platforms such as the Organization of American States.
Downward, they devise strong communities of faith where each member is a “spiritual warrior.” The idea that the church must wage spiritual warfare against “evil forces of gender” or “devastating gender ideology” is part of the identity of many congregations of this profile. They join forces with sexist conservatism that is not necessarily religious, and oppose faith communities that defend human rights and feminist and LGTBIQ+ activism.
The question of how they produce their bases can be answered in different ways. Some are: the increase in impoverishment, the abandonment by States, the little or insufficient presence of social movements defending rights in the territories, the presence of neoconservative actors in power apparatuses, the convenient tolerance of high politics against the neoconservative advance, and many more. The argument and political line represented by Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero in “Palabra Precisa” is throughout the world, throughout the region and throughout Cuba. Cuban religious neoconservatism deploys the aforementioned strategies to the letter.
On the background and anticommunism in Cuba
The genealogy of religious neoconservatism in the face of the Family Code did not begin with the broadcasting of the “Palabra Precisa” program or with the consultation of the Code.
The scope of religious neoconservatism in Cuba was established in 2018, during the debate on the draft Constitution of the Republic. The proposal of a specific article that redefined the institution of marriage (no longer between a man and a woman but between two people) activated a very audible neoconservative campaign. It was not only religious but the religious congregations of that profile led the singing voice in the public square. The Western Cuba Baptist Convention, now chaired by Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero, was especially active at the time.
That congregation — then under Reverend Dariel Llanes — was one of the five signatories, in June 2018, of the first official public statement against “homosexual marriage” that the draft Constitution enabled. It did so together with the “Asambleas de Dios” Evangelical Pentecostal Church, the Eastern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical League of Cuba and the Methodist Church of Cuba. That statement denounced the presence of “gender ideology” in the country.
Due to one of its contents, that declaration was anachronistic with the regional neoconservative rhetorical arsenal. In Latin America and the world, neoconservatives associate “gender ideology” with “cultural Marxism,” with communism, with “Castro-Chavism.” However, in Cuba that first statement assured that “gender ideology has nothing to do with our culture, our struggles for independence, or with the historical leaders of the Revolution. In the same way, it does not have any link with the communist countries, say the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and even less North Korea.”
Placing “gender ideology” as opposed to communism was a “contribution” and, without a doubt, a strategic move that tried to ensure political influence. Shortly after, in the second collective statement where the Western Baptist Convention was also present together with twenty churches, they did not speak of “communist countries” but of the scientifically proven reality of “the binary structure of human sexuality,” of the “divine institution” that is marriage and the right of the Cuban Church to a “public voice.” Never again has it been mentioned in the terms of the first statement.
Churches of this profile have fermented in Cuba for decades. Since the government has reticular control in the territories, there is no reason to think that it was an unknown process. During the constitutional debate, these actors, in a line similar to the most conservative Catholicism, showed their firm hand.
The finally approved version of the Constitution opted for a Solomonic solution: displacing the conflict. The definition of what marriage is was removed from the Magna Carta. It was announced that this would be the responsibility of the future Family Code. It compromised on plebiscite rights: the Family Code is the only legislation, among more than a hundred, that needs a referendum for its approval.
That future is already here. The draft of a new Family Code is prolific in terms of rights. Institutional actors who have opted for a radically different and broad code in rights have participated in its formulation, and the LGTBIQ+ and feminist civil society has influenced it. The referendum is yet to come and, in this context, Bárbaro Abel Marrero makes his appearance on state television.
An old dispute: television
In most of the countries of the region, religious content in general and neoconservative content in specific are included on state television. In Cuba it is not like that. That does not mean that television is free of homophobic, sexist, racist narratives. In fact, LGTBIQ+, feminist, anti-racist civil society and voices defending rights (non-institutional and institutional) exercise active oversight of the state media and there are continuous debates about it. However, for open religious neoconservatism specifically, there had been no room. On the contrary, those congregations have made a strong demand for a space on state television.
On March 30, the Executive Committee of the Western Baptist Convention published on its Telegram channel a Call for Prayer in which they announced the broadcast, on April 1, of “Palabra Precisa”. They described their participation in that program as an “answered prayer”:
“We have demanded the opportunity to express our criteria on National Television, with respect to the Code, we believe that our criteria can enrich the popular debate and thus balance the opinions that are expressed every day in the mass media.”
They also called to “continue praying” during the day of the recording of the program, to accompany the opportunity provided by God to “Be Light in our nation.”
A few days earlier, on February 22, the Western Baptist Convention, together with the Free Baptist Convention of Cuba and the Baptist Convention of Eastern Cuba, also published a joint statement. In the document, they expressed their “deepest indignation” at the use of the Baptist name as an ascription of faith of a homosexual pastor, Adiel González, in an audiovisual product shared on television that day. It is important to clarify that this material had already been put on television two days before, but with the censorship of Pastor Adiel’s presence. LGTBIQ+ organizations quickly denounced the incident and the audiovisual was broadcast, this time in its entirety. The aforementioned churches reacted to this second broadcast.
The declaration of the Baptist conventions did not refer only to the audiovisual but also described the content of the Family Code as “immoralities.” It expressed its “rejection of the biased and discriminatory attitude of the Cuban media,” which “condemns our historic churches to ostracism, denying us any possibility of massively sharing what we believe.” It added that “those responsible for the media in Cuba” did not have “the courage and intellectual honesty” to allow the churches to express themselves, and that they distorted their faith and practice. With this, the demand for access to the media was reiterated.
On January 30, the Fasting, Prayer and Intercession Campaign on the day of Clamor for world evangelization and global missions, the same Western Baptist Convention had asked on its Telegram channel to pray “for open doors for the spread of the gospel in restricted areas (television, radio, internet).”
The demand for the presence of this evangelical sector on television had been audible in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. On March 31 of that year, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba published an informative note that alluded to a request presented by that institution to the Office for Attention to Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). The content had to do with radio and television. The response to the request was positive and then that office reported that Catholic television and radio broadcasts would take place during Holy Week, and the weekly frequency of a radio space that was previously monthly.
The following April 2, evangelical media announced that they had also socialized a request addressed to state television. Days later, a complaint circulated stating that the television had not broadcast the evangelical messages.
All of the above shows that the dispute over access to television has been intense in recent years, has different chapters and has been resolved through requests to institutions, open letters, publications on networks, complaints, etc. The arrival of Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero at “Palabra Precisa” is, then, part of a long-gestating program. He is not just any actor in a debate with pluralist aspirations. It is the progress of a demand from specific actors, which has been disputed head-on with the government.
Other actors have asked television for the right to reply or direct and express participation in those spaces, and they have not achieved it. The neoconservatisms yes and it is not because they have been more moderate with respect to the government. In fact, they haven’t. So, their participation in a space for conversation of general interest shows, in addition to the importance of the Family Code itself, an open political channel that is intensely disputed.
After “Palabra Precisa”, in its statement via Telegram for Ten days of fasting, prayer and intercession for Cuba, the Western Baptist Convention itself included in its prayers “that the gospel have a powerful impact on the lives and decisions of the rulers and they can guide with wisdom and fear of God the different areas or spheres of society.” They asked the legislative power, among other things, to enact “laws that provide protection for human dignity, life and the family.”
The conception of the family of the neoconservative evangelisms was, in effect, one of the central points of the “Palabra Precisa” dispute. The program largely developed around it. The line represented by Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero, made clear his plan A and his plan B regarding the Family Code.
Plan A and plan B of religious neoconservatisms
One of the focuses of religious (and also non-religious) neoconservative action is the fight against what they call “gender ideology.” As such, they understand an international program of “normalization of transgenderism, legalization of same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption.” Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero himself has said in a conference that the objectives of “gender ideology” are: to liberate human beings from the (supposed) limitations of their biology; achieve the disappearance of the natural family and its (supposed) oppressive system; abolish the Judeo-Christian culture, its ethics and its (allegedly) obsolete values, as is the case of heteronormativity; and normalize all sexual behavior, in favor of pansexualism.
Throughout the region, “gender ideology” has been the spearhead of a program of moral panic that has mobilized and/or justified the mobilization of militant anti-rights political and social actors.
The Western Baptist Convention has worked extensively on the subject and has conferences on the subject. In “Palabra Precisa”, Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero did not mention “gender ideology,” which contrasts with his constant allusion in the work of the congregation. That was likely a strategic decision, or a result of editing of the program. However, the contents of that framework were present.
There were three major disagreements that the pastor expressed regarding the Family Code: the change of the concept of “custody” for that of “parental responsibility”; the inclusion of sex and gender education in educational programs and same-sex marriage.
Indeed, these issues have been the most audible in the consultation on the Code and have also sparked controversy on non-religious fronts. A sector of the anti-government opposition has understood that, for example, the elimination of custody over minors is part of the government’s authoritarian mantle and that it will destroy families. The issue of sex education has been discussed since before the Family Code and LGTBIQ+ and feminist organizations denounced the stop on the policy of comprehensive sex education in schools. Same-sex marriage, as was said before, was the bone of contention in the constitutional debate and is still very present.
The neoconservative representative clearly expressed that he demanded, as a citizen and also in more or less explicit representation of his congregation, the reform of those contents in the Code under discussion. However, he strategically advanced what could be considered a plan B, which is also very important to attend to.
If these unwanted contents are passed into the Code, said the pastor, it is essential, first, to include a conscientious objection clause for all those professionals who, due to their functions, should be confronted with a regulation contrary to their values. Conscientious objection is a legitimate legal figure that preserves individual rights and freedoms. At the same time, it is extremely controversial when it implies the reduction of rights guarantees for other people. In Latin America, for example, conscientious objection has been a strong barrier for access to voluntary interruption of pregnancies. Therefore, when it is regulated in this way, organizations that defend rights have demanded that professionals always be available to perform procedures in hospitals. The right to conscientious objection of some people cannot restrict, as in fact happens, the rights of others.
Secondly, the pastor included in plan B enabling other means by which fathers and mothers could educate their children; that against the transversalization of the gender approach in education. Was the pastor referring to the authorization of religious education? Private schools? Non-formal education in homes? Any of these options would imply a radical intervention in the field of educational institutions and could limit the right of children to a comprehensive education, also in terms of sex. Sex education in schools implies, contrary to the neoconservative narrative, knowledge of one’s own body, respect for diversity, identification of situations of violence and abuse, their prevention, and the fulfillment of rights.
Open questions, probable answers
Was it necessary for religious neoconservatism to come explicitly to national television to know all this? Definitely not. Any attentive look could identify these and other processes without such a program.
Does this debate only have to do with the Family Code? No. Everything said, including the contents of plan B, draw the contours of the neoconservative program beyond that regulation.
Was there anything else to attend to from “Palabra Precisa”? Yes, above all, the support for the Code from other faith communities. The religious actors who defend rights are key to this political discussion, and they need to be made visible.
Can the presence of Pastor Bárbaro Abel Marrero be read as a pluralist gesture on state television? Hardly. It seems rather the result of a political struggle to which others do not have access. The short term will tell. Will critical voices of the new Penal Code be able to go on national television; defenders of the Comprehensive Law against Gender-based Violence; part of the LGTBIQ+ community that advocates for the Family Code and also speak out with concern for the people of that community imprisoned for the demonstrations last July?
Are the policy on sexual morality and gender relations and the Family Code a smokescreen against other matters and regulations of collective interest? Finally, no. Sex and gender politics is a field of global dispute, connected with other geopolitical, economic, legal, political and cultural fields. There, human rights are settled, or expansive programs of de-democratization are fermented. To describe this debate as a smokescreen is to turn our backs on concrete lives and fundamental rights. It is also fertilizing a myopic view of the Cuba we have, and tremendously limiting the Cuba we deserve.
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