Cuba is one of the few remaining communist governments in the world. Ten years ago, the country’s ageing leader, Fidel Castro, was replaced by his brother, Raúl, but the government stayed essentially the same and desired changes did not take place, although there have been relaxed controls over some areas of life.

Cuba continues to isolate itself from the rest of the world and to function under totalitarian control. The “engines” of persecution of the Christian Church are communist and post-communist oppression. In recent years, a set of internal and external factors – whose scope and impact are not yet visible – bear the potential of bringing about a certain degree of political change.

Cuba, a communist state since the 1959 revolution, has seen very little change in its political system for decades. Ever since Fidel Castro took power, the country has been ruled by a typical communist regime – “an authoritarian brand of socialism”, as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index of 2012 describes it – where political rights and civil liberties are to a large extent restricted.

Accordingly, Cuba ranks as “Not Free” on the US’s Freedom House Index, indicating the undemocratic nature of the regime, with no separation of powers or guarantee for the rule of law. Also, issues such as press freedom and the basic human rights situation are below internationally accepted standards.

The succession of Fidel Castro by his brother in 2006 raised hopes that the country might move towards the implementation of some democratic reforms. But ten years later, this expectation has not been satisfied. Although Raúl has implemented certain cautious transitional reforms, the political system remains virtually unchanged and too much optimism is out of place.

“New Castro, Same Cuba”, wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2009 report, which has continued to report human rights violations in subsequent reports. Whether the coming years will bring more reforms in the political space will have to be seen, although US-based global intelligence company Stratfor in 2012 noted that “key reforms, such as making credit and private property available to individuals, are under way, and similar reforms, including attempts to loosen travel restrictions, can be expected in the next year”.

Indeed in September 2010, major economic reforms were launched, based on the Chinese model, implementing very limited liberalisation. These reforms included more self-employment – with some possibilities to develop small businesses, leasing of state land to private farmers and in general reducing the state’s economic role.

According to Bertelsmann, the growing influence of China in the country was one of the reasons behind these reforms.

The persecution of Christians, more severe decades ago, is slowly changing. While in the past it included beatings, imprisonment and sometimes murder, now it is generally more subtle. It continues in the form of harassment, strict surveillance and discrimination, including occasional imprisonment of leaders.

All Christians are monitored and all church services are infiltrated by spies. Christians are threatened and suffer discrimination in school and at work. The totalitarian regime allows no competitors of any kind. Pastors and Christians are sometimes pressured to stop evangelising and to limit their activities to their own church premises. Permission to print Christian literature locally is hard to obtain. Bibles, Bible study materials and Sunday school materials are in extremely short supply.

Everything is restricted. Existing seminaries and church buildings may be used, but new churches and seminaries cannot be built. Legal procedures are possible, but are excessively slow. Foreigners who enter the country can bring Bibles with them, but only a maximum of three Bibles. Mail can be sent, but only a maximum of two kilograms, and all mail is checked and censored. Christianity can be preached, and foreigners can even request a ‘religious visa’, but it is not possible to mention the human rights situation and politics. It is possible for Cubans to leave the country, but administrative processes are intentionally slow.

In Cuba, religious organisations are the only authorised assemblies. Interest groups, as such, do not exist, and are not allowed to exist. The only exception is the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference and, to a lesser extent, the Cuban Council of Churches. The Catholic Church is assuming a growing political role, and has large internal autonomy. Religious manifestations initiated by these organisations are being increasingly tolerated, opening a window of opportunity for social change through the activities of the Catholic Church. As there is no democratic pluralism, political change can only come from the Church. Raúl Castro’s effort to seek increased contact with the Catholic Church has strengthened its public role.

*Paul Groen is an analyst for Open Doors, a charity that supports Christians under pressure for their faith.