Cuban Zersetzung: The disruptive Stasi tactics employed by the Cuban government to disintegrate church life in Cuba

The Ministerium für Staatsicherheit, more commonly known as the Stasi, was the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), one of the most repressive and well-known secret police agencies in history.

From its foundation in February 1950, to the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989, the Stasi created a vast intelligence network, gathering information and targeting individuals and groups in every sphere of life with ruthless and insidious efficiency.

The Stasi employed several staple techniques in their attacks against individuals and communities. Persistent questioning, the spreading of slanderous information, repeated arrests, physical attacks and the targeting of family and friends as leverage were all commonplace. These techniques formed the basis of Zersetzung, a mission with the objective of disrupting or ‘disintegrating’ the structure and work of groups and the lives of individuals.

The tactics which form the basis of Zersetzung are sadly not extinct but are still employed in several countries around the world today. In Cuba, all the techniques listed above are routinely used by state security to target anyone perceived as a threat to the state. This includes those peacefully exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

Emanuel Church

Sunday 6 February 2022 marked six years since the demolition of Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba by state authorities. CSW published a blog at the time to remember the event and to recognise the routine and systematic violations that continue to be perpetrated against Pastor Alain Toledano Valiente, who has led Emanuel Church since its foundation in 1999.

But many more stories still need to be told.

The Cuban authorities are responsible for a far-reaching web of violations perpetrated against individuals connected to Pastor Toledano and Emanuel Church.

Much like the Stasi, Cuban State Security’s list of targets is extensive and pervasive. Toledano’s family, co-leaders of the church and members of the congregation have experienced harassment, threats, arbitrary detention, illegal fines, confiscation of property and physical attack at the hands of the Cuban authorities because of their faith.

Church leaders, State Security targets

From the 1950s to the 1980s in the GDR, the Stasi used both covert and overt techniques against their targets. One of the primary goals of Zersetzung was to create a sense of insecurity and paranoia for a target and their friends and family, often through questioning, repeated stop and searches and the confiscation of property. 

These are tactics with which Pastor Toledano’s fellow church leaders are all too familiar.

On the morning of 2 July 2020 Wilberto Quida Sánchez, one of the leaders at Pastor Toledano’s church, was intercepted by two State Security agents as he travelled the 30-mile journey from his city of Palma Soriano to Santiago de Cuba.

Mr Sánchez is a carpenter by profession, and his aim that Thursday morning was to deliver a wood-carved pulpit and two cabinets to Emanuel Church. The State Security agents told Mr Sánchez that they would not allow him to deliver these pieces of furniture to Pastor Toledano’s “illegal church”. The officers were ordered by an inspector to confiscate the items from Mr Sánchez and impose on him a fine of 60 Cuban pesos (approximately GBP £19).

In his defence, Mr Sánchez presented documents accrediting him as a carpenter and proving the legal origin of the wood used to make the furniture. The State Security agents responded by telling him that his actions were still considered illegal, not because of his job, but due to his support of a counter-revolutionary church.

Zersetzung places an emphasis on both psychological and physical harassment. Questioning, arrests and threats were routine in the GDR in the second half of the twentieth century and they are routine in Cuba today.

On Monday 4 October 2021 Manuel Cecilio Ramos, another leader at Emanuel Church, was at home when he received a police summons to present himself at La Motorizada Unit #3 Police Station the next day. He obeyed the summons and was met by a State Security officer who took him into an interrogation room.

During the interrogation, Mr Ramos was threatened with imprisonment if he did not resign from his work at the church. The officer warned him that his work at the church was considered by the Cuban government to be illegal. He was threatened again and again over two hours, but remained firm in his convictions throughout.

Manuel Cecilio Ramos

Mr Sánchez and Mr Ramos are just two examples of the way leaders at Emanuel Church are persistently targeted by Cuban State Security because of their faith and their association with Pastor Toledano’s ministry. Threats and harassment are the most common form of violation. Religious leaders are often arbitrarily and repeatedly summoned to local police stations to be interrogated and threatened, or visited at their homes by State Security agents with the sole intent of intimidation.

Pastor Toledano’s family

One of the most pervasive and damaging aspects of Zersetzung was the way it attacked the family structure. The Stasi frequently used family members as leverage against targets, either as a method of blackmail or persuasion.

This is also something that Pastor Toledano’s wife and daughters understand all too well.

On 25 March 2013, Pastor Toledano’s daughter, Elisama Toledano, who was still of school age at the time, was physically beaten by the father of a fellow student whilst in the school yard. Pastor Toledano and his wife, Marilín Alayo Correa, filed a report with the police, but they were never contacted for an investigation. Pastor Toledano and Ms Alayo Correa told CSW at the time that they believed the attack was part of an ongoing campaign of harassment targeting the family to push them to cease their religious activity or leave the country.

One of the most common tactics deployed by the Stasi was to spread slanderous information and rumours about a target or their family members, with the aim of destroying their confidence and support network.

Between 3 September and 23 September 2019, a period of less than three weeks, three defamatory articles targeting Pastor Toledano were published by the ‘Teo Pereira’ blog. According to Henry Constantín, the representative for Cuba of the Inter-American Press Association, the Teo Pereira blog is run by Cuban State Security. A number of pro-democracy and human rights activists in and outside the country have confirmed that the blog’s mission is to politically and socially discredit individuals recognized by the state as enemies under the guise of a gossip website.

The first of these blog posts, published on 3 September 2019, directly maligned some of Pastor Toledano’s children and attacked his personal integrity and marriage with salacious and false accusations. The articles included multiple photos of Pastor Toledano, his wife and his daughters. The nature of the blog and its connection to the Cuban government meant that the family had no recourse to challenge the content of the articles or to pursue a retraction, meaning they remain online.

The State Security system: ruthless but not unassailable

Though the Stasi was ruthless and effective in its purposes, it was not completely unassailable. The state police agency made several errors, a number of which are seen replicated in Cuba.

Chief among these is that the Stasi frequently underestimated the dedication of groups or individuals. Even in the face of unknown informants, threats, harassments, physical attacks and slander, a targeted group would rarely be disheartened.

A similar strength and refusal to be disheartened can be seen in the people of Emanuel Church.

In an interview with CSW in 2020 Pastor Toledano spoke about the suffering faced by Emanuel Church. He said: “it has brought us together to become human rights defenders. Not only for the sake of being able to exercise our right, but to fight alongside those who are also being abused. To be the voice of those who cannot speak and to demand [our rights], not only for oneself, but for a homeland free from repression and human rights violations and to demand that the Church is able to develop its ministry, blessing and freedom to worship God.”

In the face of continual harassment by State Security, the members of Emanuel Church continue to stand firm. They continue to hold unswervingly to the hope they profess. We too must stand with them in this hope and against repression.

By CSW’s Advocacy Intern Freya Vickery

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