US adds Cuba, Nicaragua, Wagner Group to religious freedom blacklist

The United States added Latin American adversaries Cuba and Nicaragua as well as Russia’s Wagner Group to a blacklist on international religious freedom, opening the path to potential sanctions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Wagner Group was being designated due to involvement in abuses in the Central African Republic, where nearly a decade of bloodshed has had religious overtones.

“The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses,” Blinken said in a statement.

Cuba and Nicaragua were both newly designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” under the annual determinations, meaning that the two leftist-led states — already under US sanctions — could face further measures.

Blinken kept on the blacklist all Countries of Particular Concern from 2021 — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Nicaragua’s increasingly authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, has clamped down on the Catholic Church since accusing it of supporting 2018 anti-government protests, which were crushed at the cost of hundreds of lives.

A bishop critical of the government, Rolando Alvarez, was put under house arrest in August with other priests and seminarians arrested on unspecified charges.

The designation of Cuba is the latest sign of pressure on the island by the administration of President Joe Biden, which has largely shunned previous Democratic president Barack Obama’s Vatican-blessed effort to seek an opening with the long-time US nemesis.

In its latest annual report on religious freedom issued in June, the State Department pointed to violence and arrests of Cuban religious figures over purported roles in rare public protests as well as restrictions on non-recognized Protestant churches.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez rejected the US blacklisting, calling it “arbitrary” and “dishonest.”

“It is known that in Cuba there is religious freedom,” Rodriguez tweeted.

The report had separately pointed to abuses of Russia’s Wagner Group in the Central African Republic, citing Amnesty International in linking the mercenaries to killings and sexual violence against Muslims.

The designation comes as US senators introduced legislation to slap a terrorism designation on the Wagner Group, which has also been involved in Mali and been accused of rights violations in Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

The Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries, was plunged into civil war in 2013 when a Muslim-dominated rebellion overthrew the president, sparking reprisals from predominantly Christian and animist militias.

Blinken added the Central African Republic to a watchlist, meaning that it will be designated among Countries of Particular Concern without progress.

Also newly put on the watchlist was Vietnam. The State Department report said the communist authorities have harassed non-recognized religious groups, including Christian house churches, independent Buddhists and members of the century-old Cao Dai movement.

Algeria and Comoros remained on the watchlist from 2021.