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.

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‘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.

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“Un nuevo frente” en búsqueda de la justicia en Cuba

En la noche del 28 de febrero, la policía cubana y agentes de la Seguridad del Estado realizaron un allanamiento, apresando a un hombre al que buscaban desde hacía 44 días. Lo llevaron a un centro de interrogatorios y le dieron un ultimátum: Abandonar el país en una semana o pasar los próximos 30 años en una prisión de máxima seguridad. A principios de marzo, el hombre se despidió de su esposa y de su pequeña hija y abordó un avión rumbo a Europa. Dieciocho horas después, presentó una solicitud formal de asilo en Suiza.

El hombre no había cometido ningún acto de violencia, ni había robado nada. Él es un pastor. Su único delito fue haber extendido su labor pastoral para alcanzar y orar con las familias de los presos políticos.

El gobierno cubano ha temido durante mucho tiempo cualquier vínculo entre grupos religiosos y disidentes políticos y, durante décadas, ha hecho un gran esfuerzo para mantener a ambos lo más separados posible. Esta es en parte, una estrategia general para aislar socialmente a todos aquellos que considera disidentes, incluidos activistas políticos, defensores de los derechos humanos y periodistas independientes, con el fin de debilitarlos y, en última instancia, neutralizarlos. Sin embargo, es también, lo admita o no alguna dirigencia del Partido Comunista de Cuba, un reconocimiento del poder que se produce por la combinación de la espiritualidad con la lucha por la justicia y la libertad.

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‘The Church was left without a place to worship’ – The story of Alain Toledano Valiente

‘We were evicted for the first time in 2007. The government came into our house [and] threw us out into the street – they took everything from us and threw it into the street. We were left homeless. At the same time, the government demolished our place of worship, Emanuel Church. They destroyed the floor and took it away. They left everything in ruins. They confiscated our land. This was the first violation of that scale. They demolished everything and took everything from us, our family possessions, music and audio equipment. Everything the church had was seized, all our technology was taken away. The church was left without land, its property and possessions, without a place to worship and we were left homeless in the street.’

Pastor Alain Toledano Valiente in an interview with CSW, September 2020

Less than ten years later, Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba was subjected to a second major attack. At 5am on Friday 5 February 2016, military, state security and police officers surrounded the property where the church was located and where the Toledano family was living. Pastor Toledano was abroad at the time, but his wife was taken into custody by government authorities and held incommunicado for the duration of the demolition from 5am to 7pm. Around 40 church members were also detained, and the church and home were demolished.

These incidents – the demolitions of November 2007 and February 2016 – are two dark threads in a disturbing tapestry of the Cuban authorities’ violations against Pastor Toledano, spanning over two decades. More than six years after that second major church demolition, attacks against Pastor Toledano, his church, and their right to a place of worship continue to escalate. 

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Living in exile: “As long as the same government is in power I do not dare to return”

Samuel[1] is a Nicaraguan teacher and lawyer who was forced to flee his country in April 2019 after being repeatedly arrested in retaliation for his reporting on human rights violations committed by government forces.

For the latest instalment in our Living in exile series, CSW spoke with Samuel to hear his story.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

“I am a Nicaraguan citizen from the Department of Chontales. I am a teacher and a lawyer. I am currently in exile in Panama as a “Refugee in Process”, and have been since 16 April 2019 through Executive Order No. 5 for the Protection of Refugee Applicants from the Government of Panama, through the National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR).

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