In several Latin American countries, religious leaders often take on the roles of community leader and human rights defender. As a result, these leaders often face harassment, intimidation and even violence at the hands of state and non-state actors. Over the past few weeks CSW has been presenting interviews with religious leaders working in the region to highlight their experiences on the frontlines of freedom of religion or belief.
Yilber is a Protestant pastor based in Cuba.
“I have received so many threats in my life as a Christian that there are, honestly, too many to count. This is something I want to describe, and to do this I won’t rely on generalisations or abstract, subjective examples, I will expose the scars borne by my family ever since we left our town to do pastoral work.
I have been a pastor for nine years. I began in a growing denomination known as the Council of Christian Missionary Churches. Although it is assumed that the work of religious leaders does not have a political focus, we have consistent problems with the authorities when people come to know the word of God because of its liberating effect on them.
In a repressive system like ours, when someone is ‘freed’ from something, the authorities begin a relentless campaign of hatred and discrimination against the church.
In 1959 the Cuban Communist Party abolished the Law of Worship which used to regulate and allow for the registration of new religious groups. Only historic denominations like the Catholic Church and the Methodist Church have managed to obtain some respect for their internal governing structures and some of their buildings, with the passage of time and as a result of some international pressure. However from that date  to the present, all religious movements which have since been established on the island are considered to be illegal or are labelled a non-governmental church; we are a thorn in the side of the system, as in a communist country everything must belong to and blindly submit itself to the government.
In February 2010 our denomination assigned us to a small congregation – no more than 25 people – in an isolated community near the Sierra de Cubitas municipality in Camagüey. We didn’t understand, and honestly weren’t interested in, politics. Despite this, after two weeks of leading the congregation we were visited by Alexander Pairet Saura, a government official from the Municipal Ministry of Justice. He was accompanied by a delegate from the [National Assembly of] People’s Power. Ironically, this office is meant to represent the citizens of Cuba, as a body which supposedly looks out for the needs of the population. On this occasion, however, they pressured us to abandon our mission. They made us sign a pre-arrest warrant which was nothing more than a long list of threats of all the things which could happen to us if we didn’t leave. At the time we had a ten month old baby, and my wife was two months pregnant with our daughter.
The next day, we were awoken by a mob of people shouting outside our house. They were shouting insults, swear words and threats at us – in Cuba this is known as an ‘act of repudiation.’ They called us ‘traitors to the Revolution’ and ‘mercenaries’. They also threw stones at us; one came through the window and hit me hard on the edge of my eyelid making me bleed so much that it provoked cries of panic and terror from my wife and baby.
The government does not involve itself directly in these types of acts. State security officials and national police don’t want to be seen and condemned by the international community. Instead, they have created subordinate political and civil organisations like the Federation of Cuban Women, The Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, The Union of Young Communists and The National Sporting Institution of the Revolution. The latter of these is made up of athletes trained in combat, karate, judo, wrestling and boxing; they are chosen by the government because of the strength with which they can hit people. These organisations, also known as Rapid Response Groups, are mobilised to do the government’s dirty work and to tell the international press that it was the reaction of the people in defence of their revolution.
Indeed, we were forced to leave the community because of the harsh methods used by the government against us. It was so extreme that even the doctor at the only clinic in the area refused to see my pregnant wife, because the government had prohibited him from doing so. Everything was very difficult. Everyone’s hatred was ever present, from those selling food in the shop, to the only horse and cart taxi driver in the area. The worst damage was to our congregation because, out of fear of reprisals, everyone completely abandoned us.
As we had no home, we accepted the help of a relative and returned to Nuevitas, the city of our birth, in northern Camagüey. Towards the end of 2011 we entered into a verbal contract to buy a small room which was not actually habitable as it did not even have a bathroom. However, despite the fact that in Cuba the Law of the Purchase and Sale of Property was already in force, the landlords suddenly refused to legalise our purchase and began to threaten us with eviction. To our surprise, three government authorities, the Director of Housing, the Legal Department and an inspector named Maité, had threatened our landlord in order to stop him from selling us the property. They even threatened to involve the Juvenile Police, saying that they would take our children away. In the midst of this situation a friend of mine contacted Radio Martí on Twitter who gave us enough retweets that we were at least able to stop the eviction.
It appeared that they were leaving us in peace for a while, until May 2012 when we once again decided to open our home for some believers to meet in. This prompted a new type of attack, this time against our congregants.
A little while later and during an evangelistic outreach 20 people made the decision to join our congregation. The next week we visited each one but were shocked to learn that State Security had arrived before us, visiting each of them and threatening them with the loss of their jobs and even imprisonment if they continued to meet with us.
Over all these years we have experienced all kinds of violence, but the thing that has hurt my family the most, especially my children, is the discrimination and hatred we receive from people with whom we have to interact. The teachers at my children’s school constantly mistreat them, hitting them and giving them bad reports from teacher to teacher, one grade to the next. They have even managed to turn their classmates against them.
This has caused my children a lot of frustration; many times I have seen them crying because they are trying so hard to be the best students and yet they never receive any recognition from their teachers.
Boys and girls at school are encouraged from a very young age to become ‘Communist Pioneer Children,’ a programme through which the government begins to indoctrinate them with its ideology. Each student receives a blue scarf which they can proudly wear. Many parents, like us, do not allow our children to wear this badge, even though not wearing it provokes constant discrimination which our children face with dignity.
One of our buildings in the Camagüey province was destroyed on 8 January 2016. I travelled there to offer my support, and when I returned home I found my two children barefoot in the street. The police had broken into our home and detained my wife, leaving two children, aged five and six, in the street.
After this, the growth of our church stagnated so much to the point that it became illogical to continue – each time fewer people came to church, and all of them were under threat from the authorities, who focused on creating slanderous campaigns against us. They said that we were terrorists, mercenaries and traitors to the country.
By this point we had changed our denomination because we thought that it was the main reason for the persecution. In 2014 we joined the Apostolic Movement which is part of an international network called ‘Fire and Dynamism.’ Instead of reducing the persecution, it resulted in the complete opposite. It got to the point that our leader, Apostle Bernardo de Quesada Salomón, suggested that we leave the ministry for a time, and we had to put the few remaining members of our church in the care of another pastor from the city.
The time of rest strengthened us as a family and three years later, in 2017, we mustered up the faith and courage to open the church once again. This time we worked in virtual secrecy, in small cell groups and in different places across the city. We had over 30 members when we went public. The authorities have not been able to stop us, even though they continue to harass us and to threaten us with demolition. The harassment has been constant, and it does not appear that it will end any time soon.”