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

04 December 2022
US adds Cuba, Nicaragua, Wagner Group to religious freedom blacklist
The US Capitol building is illuminated by the rising sun on November 9, 2022 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

The United States on Friday added Cuba, Nicaragua and Russia's Wagner mercenary group to a blacklist on international religious freedom that includes Myanmar, 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 fighting has pitted Christians against Muslims.

Violations of religious freedom "sow division, undermine economic security and threaten political stability and peace," Blinken said in a statement.

"The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses."

Cuba and Nicaragua were both newly designated as "Countries of Particular Concern" under the annual determinations, meaning that the two leftist Latin American 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 protests against his government, 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.

After Pope Francis called for dialogue in September, Ortega branded the church a "dictatorship."

The designation of Cuba is the latest pressure on the island by the administration of President Joe Biden, which has largely shunned previous Democratic president Barack Obama's policy of seeking an opening with the longtime US nemesis.

In its latest annual report on religious freedom, the State Department said there was growing harassment of Christians in Cuba, pointing to violence and arrests of religious figures over purported roles in rare public protests.

Blinken also newly added the Central African Republic and Vietnam to a watchlist, meaning that they will be designated as Countries of Particular Concern without progress, alongside Algeria and Comoros, which remained on the watchlist from 2021.

Rights activists have long pushed the United States to designate Vietnam over the communist government's treatment of Buddhist and other religious groups but successive US administrations have been building ties with the former US adversary.