‘A new front’ in the pursuit of justice in Cuba

On the night of 28 February, Cuban police and State Security agents carried out a raid, capturing a man who they had been searching for 44 days. He was taken to an interrogation center and given an ultimatum: leave the country within the week or spend the next 30 years in a maximum-security prison. In early March, the man said good-bye to his wife and baby daughter and boarded a plane to Europe. Eighteen hours later, he submitted a formal request for asylum in Switzerland.

The man had committed no act of violence, nor had he stolen anything. He is a pastor. His only crime was to have extended his pastoral work to reach out to and pray with the families of political prisoners.

The Cuban government has long been fearful of any link between religious groups and political dissidents and has, for decades, gone to great effort to keep both as separate as possible. This is in part a general strategy to socially isolate all those it considers to be dissidents, including political activists, human rights defenders and independent journalists, in order to weaken and ultimately neutralise them. However, it is also, whether any of the Cuban Communist Party leadership would admit it or not, a recognition of the power in the combination of spirituality with the fight for justice and freedom.

The government keeps a close eye on both dissidents and on religious groups. Informants sit in congregations and report regularly to the local authorities, including on who attends religious services. If a dissident is identified in a congregation, even merely as a guest or visitor, typically government agents will visit the pastor or priest and advise them to expel the individual immediately or face consequences for the wider church. In many cases, the church leader will then have a quiet word with the person in question and explain the situation, leading to the person voluntarily withdrawing from the church, not wanting to cause trouble by their presence.

Over the twenty years CSW has worked on Cuba, countless church leaders have shared the agony of having to make a decision to ask one person to leave because the alternative is that the whole church is shut down, affecting so many more. If an individual church leader resists this pressure and if they are part of a larger denomination or religious group, pressure is often put on their leadership to expel, isolate or reassign the church leader who is then viewed as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ and a dissident in their own right.

On Tuesday 4 December 2007, State Security agents stormed the Santa Teresita del Niño Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Santiago de Cuba. After kicking in the door, they released tear gas into the sanctuary. Inside, Father José Conrado Rodríguez was officiating Mass before a congregation that included 18 human rights activists. One of them, Jaqueline Echevarria, the wife of then political prisoner Gerardo Sanchez Ortega, had held a fast and prayer vigil at her home, before marching peacefully with the other activists from the cathedral in the city centre to attend the services at the Santa Teresita del Niño Jesus Church. The 18 activists, including Jaqueline’s son who has cerebral palsy, were brutally beaten in the church before being arrested.

When Father Conrado asked the authorities what they were doing, they responded with insults. Following this incident, the priest and his church were put under heavy surveillance. Dissidents could no longer get anywhere near the church, and ordinary worshippers were wary of the consequences of being associated with a priest like Father Conrado. When CSW attempted to visit the priest in early 2008, we were blocked from even crossing the street to approach the front of the church. Not long after, Father Conrado was transferred to another church across the country.

In 2010, the late Reverend Homero Carbonell, released a twelve-page open letter to CSW, publicly resigning from his role as lead pastor at the Trinity First Baptist Church, a historical and legally recognised church in the city of Santa Clara. Reverend Carbonell had served for over 50 years as a leader in the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, a registered denomination. In the preceding years he had found himself and his church in the government’s crosshairs after he decided to push back on attempts by the police and state security to pressure him to remove dissidents and the families of dissidents from his congregation.  He told the authorities that Christ’s doors were open to all, including to them, and he would not be the one to close them.

In retaliation, the government put Reverend Carbonell and his family under surveillance and froze the bank account of the church, preventing it from accessing aid that had been donated from abroad to make critical repairs to the church roof. Despite his resignation, the pastor and his family remained under pressure, now viewed as counter-revolutionaries themselves. In 2014, Reverend Carbonell and his wife left Cuba, and on 4 January 2021, he passed away in exile.

This government’s fixation with keeping dissidents and religious communities as far apart as possible is perhaps best exemplified by the way in which the Cuban government deploys scores of police and state security agents to the homes and neighborhoods of women across the country each Sunday to stop them, in many cases violently and by arbitrarily detaining them, from attending Mass.

The country-wide operation has taken place weekly for over 15 years and the government justifies its actions by claiming that the effort by the women, all members of the Ladies in White, a group of women whose relatives are political prisoners, to attend Mass takes place before they hold a silent protest march through their respective city centers. If the government was simply concerned about the women protesting, it must have occurred to someone by this time that it would take far fewer resources to deploy police and security agents outside the church doors to stop the women from marching after Mass. The government’s massive and ongoing investment in terms of manpower and other resources in stopping the women from even getting inside the church doors (it is worth noting that many of the women report that they are stopped from attending any religious services, not just Sunday Mass), exposes its real objective: to separate the women from their communities of faith.

Left to right: The leader of the Ladies in White Berta Soler, Father Conrado, Berta Soler’s husband Angel Moya, and Father Castor.

The pastor who fled the country in early March had taken his work a step further, beyond simply allowing dissidents or their families to worship in his church, and was regularly meeting them in their own homes, offering prayer and spiritual support. This was the response of a pastor who saw a need in his community following the 11 July protests, when hundreds of men and women and some children, the majority of whom were not dissidents, were swept up in a harsh crackdown which continues to the present.

Members of his community were at first upset over the injustice of their sons or daughters or spouse’s imprisonment and later distraught when the government began handing down lengthy sentences after summary trials. When people heard that a pastor was visiting one such family to pray with them, they began to come, in search of spiritual support themselves, and the home became a ‘House of Prayer’. When families of the unjustly imprisoned in other towns and cities learned about the House of Prayer, they asked the pastor to visit them as well, and soon there were multiple houses of prayer growing across the region.

On 15 January the police and State Security raided one of the Houses of Prayer. Those present, with the help of members of the larger community, spirited the pastor away through a back door and he was able to get away. He went into hiding, but in Cuba, an island with an intrusive intelligence apparatus, it was only a matter of time until they found him. On 28 February they did.

On 10 March CSW met with Father José Castor Álvarez Devesa, a Roman Catholic priest based in the city of Camagüey, who was beaten and detained overnight after he attempted to go to the aid of a young person being beaten by the police during the 11 July protests. He was subsequently charged with unspecified criminal offenses and prohibited from traveling. The charges were quietly dropped at the end of 2021.

Despite his treatment, Father Castor is unbowed and expressed how encouraged he was at the way more and more religious leaders, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have continued to openly express criticism of unjust legislation and actions by the government. He wept when recalling how alone he had felt in the past and noted that the feeling of aloneness and isolation is precisely what the government wants people like him to feel. “There will be a new front,” he said, “and it will be in the work of the Church with dissidents and the families of political prisoners. The government will use everything in its arsenal, but we will not abandon them.”

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna Lee Stangl

Click here to read CSW’s latest report on Cuba, entitled ‘Homeland, Faith, Life: A call for freedom in Cuba’.