Cuba’s rising cry
As the Cuban people protest a lack of food, medicine, and basic freedoms, pastors in the Caribbean nation say they, too, can no longer stay silent
Jatniel Peréz recently sat in a Cuban airport waiting to travel to the United States and doubting he’d make it out of the country. When Cuban officials asked for his passport a second time, the Reformed Baptist pastor thought: “Well, that’s it. I’m not going.”
Three weeks earlier, Peréz had publicly demanded the release of two pastors detained by Cuban police on July 11 during the largest street demonstrations against the Communist regime in decades.
As thousands chanted for freedom, President Miguel Díaz-Canel declared an “order of combat” and called on citizens to confront demonstrators in the streets. Police violently clashed with protesters and detained hundreds across the country. Some may face decades-long prison sentences.
That evening, Peréz received a text message at his home in Velasco, a city in the island’s eastern Holguín province. Police had jailed two pastors who teach at the seminary Peréz founded several years ago. Peréz called for their release on social media and spread the news to contacts overseas, including in the United States.
Peréz says security officials called several times, ordering him to stop. He refused and responded on Facebook, saying he was unafraid of their threats: “I am Jatniel Peréz Feria. National President of the William Carey Biblical Seminary in Cuba and pastor of the Independent Evangelical Church in Velasco, Holguín. I am responsible for all the pastors and brothers who study in our seminary,” he wrote. “If it bothers you that I am saying these things, then you know very well where I live.”
It was a bold statement for a Christian pastor in a communist nation.
Others were bold, too: Several Cuba-based evangelical denominations and Catholic groups released statements denouncing violence and calling on Cuban officials to answer the demonstrators’ pleas. The unusually vocal criticism of the Communist regime is part of a growing willingness among some Cuban Christians to push back against their government, even as conditions deteriorate and the United States grapples with how to respond.
Police didn’t show up at Peréz’s house after his public Facebook post. He was surprised when airport officials allowed him to board a flight for a ministry-related trip to the United States he had planned with his father weeks before the demonstrations.
A few hours after landing in Miami in early August, Peréz and his father, Daniel Josue Peréz, talked about their work in Cuba and their readiness to address issues the Cuban government deems too political for pastors. Jatniel Peréz said a good pastor helps his people when they are suffering. His father, Daniel, said a good pastor also isn’t afraid to denounce abuse, even when it’s costly: “God is a God of justice, and we must imitate Him.”
IF THE LITTLE HAVANA neighborhood in Miami, Fla., seeks to imitate the capital city of Havana, Cuba, it was probably a bit too festive on a recent Saturday afternoon. Tourists packed the famous strip along Calle Ocho, drinking fruity concoctions and waiting in long lines to buy boxes of cigars while Cuban bands played Caribbean tunes.
At the neighborhood’s famous Versailles Restaurant, customers squeezed around tables filled with plantains and empanadas next to the parking lot where thousands of Miami residents rallied in July to show support for Cubans.
At a Cuban café in a much quieter neighborhood nearby, Alberto Reyes adjusts his clerical collar, orders a strong cup of coffee, and explains why he is willing to speak about the fears of many Cubans: “We are tired. … Life in Cuba is really, really hard.”
The Catholic priest arrived in the United States for a work-related visit two days before the July demonstrations, but he says conditions have grown worse for months: “The first question a mother asks when she wakes up in the morning is, ‘What am I going to put on the table today?’”
Food shortages and inflated prices are common in the government-run economy. The state’s complicated overhaul of its currency system left many Cubans without access to cash to buy extra food, even if they could find it.
Meanwhile, officials raised salaries for some workers, but increased prices far more. Reyes says a woman in his parish told him she now earns more money but can’t afford the same amount of food she was buying before.
Hospitals lack basic medicines, particularly as COVID-19 has surged, and public transportation often breaks down in a country where many people don’t own their own cars. A simple visit to a doctor in a nearby town can feel impossible, says Reyes: “You don’t know if you can make it back in the same day.”
Though Reyes wasn’t in Cuba during the demonstrations, he’d written about the country’s problems before. In a series of Facebook posts he called the Northwest Chronicles, the priest explained why he decided to speak publicly in a country that doesn’t encourage dissent.
During a motorbike ride to a village to visit parishioners, Reyes says, a lightning storm and a near-collision with a bus frightened him. But he realized he wasn’t afraid of dying. He was afraid of dying without saying things he had wanted to say, including “Communism is a big lie.”
That’s an unwelcome message in Cuba, where government officials tightly regulate local churches through the Office of Religious Affairs. A church building in Reyes’ parish was destroyed in a hurricane two years ago, and the priest says he still can’t get a permit to rebuild. He says he’s free to conduct worship services, but he knows the government has informants in the churches.
Reyes resists the notion that priests shouldn’t talk about politics, especially when pressing issues overlap with the Bible’s teaching about oppressing the poor: “If people are suffering because of a system, you have to denounce it.”
Reyes faces pressures over his outspokenness, and he isn’t sure if that will worsen when he returns to Cuba. “But I have decided to be free,” he says. “If you don’t fight for justice, you have to pay a price. If you fight for freedom, you have to pay a price. So, I prefer the second way.”
As the political and social climate deteriorates, the priest says he doesn’t want to face a parishioner who tells him, “I was in prison, and you didn’t say anything.”
“Not to talk,” he says, “is to leave people alone.”
JATNIEL PERÉZ DECIDED he couldn’t leave people alone either.
The Baptist pastor started William Carey Seminary in Velasco a few years ago. Visiting Bible scholars from the United States and Canada obtain religious visas to teach seminars, and Peréz says he’s been able to operate with little interference from the government. (He says Cuban officials do sometimes discourage local pastors from studying at the school because of its connections with Peréz and outsiders, but the work continues.)
His father, Daniel Peréz, has had more difficulties. After restarting a seminary closed by Communist officials long ago, Daniel says, authorities confiscated the property again two decades ago. He says he became a pastor after Cuban officials dismissed him from a job teaching English because of his religious views and association with a church his own father served for years.
In the church in Velasco, the younger Peréz says, he’s free to preach but is aware informants sometimes sit in his services. “We know faith comes by hearing,” he says. “So we are glad they can hear the gospel.” (Daniel Peréz says some informants have professed faith in Christ after surveilling services.)
Other forms of ministry are more difficult, particularly when it comes to helping the local community with material needs. Communist officials see such service as a duty of the state. Even if the cash-strapped government can’t or won’t help, officials don’t want churches offering assistance. Peréz says when his church recently distributed basic cleaning supplies, a Cuban official told him to stop. He continued anyway.
It’s part of a wider dynamic reflecting the government’s definition of religious freedom: Most activities within the walls of the church are OK, but those freedoms don’t extend to serving the wider community or applying faith to other areas of life. (Last year, another pastor and his wife served jail time for homeschooling their children.)
Teo Babun, head of the Miami-based evangelical group Outreach Aid to the Americas, says Cuban officials often target pastors by charging them with crimes not directly related to religious activities but still intended to blunt their work.
For example, he says his group assisted a pastor in Cuba who bought meat for a group of elderly people living in a home served by local churches. Police later demanded the pastor show a receipt for his purchase. When he didn’t have one, they charged him with theft. The pastor went to prison.
Babun says his organization has helped dozens of Cuban families enduring financial hardship after pastors have faced various charges and jail time.
In 2020, the advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that the Cuban government “violated freedom of religion or belief routinely and systematically” through arbitrary detentions, false charges, threats, and harassment of religious leaders. The U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the U.S. State Department keep Cuba on its special watch list for countries tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.
Jatniel Peréz says religious freedom should mean a Cuban can be a Christian outside the church walls: “That I can be a Christian on Tuesday at work. I can be a Christian on Wednesday at a meeting in the park.” His father adds: “And I can criticize what is unjust.”
The thousands of Cubans criticizing an unjust government on July 11 seemed to pour into the streets spontaneously after images of demonstrators spread on social media across the country. (The Cuban government quickly cut internet access to the island, though some Cubans were able to work around the blockage.)
Peréz received a text message in the evening, saying police had detained Yarian Sierra Madrigal and Yéremi Blanco Ramírez, Baptist pastors who teach in his seminary, during demonstrations in the province of Matanzas.
The ministers remained in jail for 13 days before police released them. They’re now under house arrest, but even that has grown complicated: Madrigal’s family said their landlord evicted them from their home after facing threats from police. CSW reported another pastor, Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, had been detained on July 11 and transferred to a maximum security prison in early August.
Peréz says Cubans are “just asking for simple things. For milk. For food. For liberty. That they can go and live a regular life.” He says he hasn’t been this outspoken about the difficulties in Cuba before, but, “What are you going to do as a pastor? Are you going to be with people in the middle of their needs?”
THE JULY 11 DEMONSTRATIONS weren’t the first time some pastors have criticized the government. In 2019, a group of churches formed the Cuban Evangelical Alliance, in part to push back against proposed changes to the country’s constitution.
The effort gained attention for the churches’ objections to a change that could have allowed the legalization of same-sex marriage, but Moisés de Prada says the alliance had plenty of other concerns as well. The head of the Assemblies of God in Cuba says the coalition asked for measures to strengthen freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of assembly. Catholics made similar pleas.
The advocacy drew derision from the Cuban government. In 2019, NPR reported that Mariela Castro, daughter of former President Raúl Castro, called the church “the serpent of history.”
Pastor de Prada says officials intensified their harassment of ministers and regularly called some of them for questioning. (The constitution passed without a new provision explicitly permitting same-sex marriage, but CSW reported some of the changes weakened the language meant to protect freedom of religion and conscience.)
During a visit to Miami in August, de Prada said he expects pressures to intensify for pastors criticizing the government. “If you talk about anything, it’s seen as political,” he says. “Just talking about freedom in Christ is seen as political. But the church can’t stay silent where there’s abuse.”
The recent demonstrations also raised questions about how the U.S. government should respond. Cuba’s president largely blamed the U.S. trade embargo for the country’s woes. While de Prada says the embargo affects the island, “it’s not the driving factor of poverty, and it’s not the reason people are protesting. … It’s the failed system of Communism.”
Although the U.S. government does restrict trade and prohibit tourism to Cuba, a 2019 report from the U.S. State Department noted that the United States is “the largest provider of food and agricultural products to Cuba, with exports of those goods valued at $220.5 million in 2018.”
For Cubans seeking to flee, President Joe Biden said the United States would continue to enforce current policy that doesn’t give automatic legal status to Cubans who arrive here, whether by boat or by land. In part, the policy seeks to discourage dangerous crossings by land or sea, but Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said it also prevents the Cuban regime from escaping pressure (or attempting to blackmail the United States into lifting the embargo) by allowing large numbers of Cubans to flee—a tactic it has used in the past.
Matthew Soerens of the evangelical agency World Relief says it’s important for the U.S. government to allow more refugee resettlement in general, after a dramatic decline in recent years. He says resuming resettlement of Cuban nationals with a credible fear of persecution “would be among the most compassionate and just things the U.S. government could do to save lives and make a clear statement against communist authoritarianism.”
Soerens says the same would be true for those fleeing a credible fear of persecution in other countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua. He hopes the United States will “offer processing and vetting close to home that would allow people to arrive safely in the U.S. via airplane and be met by a team from a local church helping them integrate.”
For now, the Cuban pastors I spoke with in Miami are already anticipating their return to Cuba after their short visits to the United States, and hoping they don’t have trouble getting back into their homeland. Pastor de Prada says some have urged him not to go back, but he responds: “If everyone leaves, nothing changes.” Peréz agrees: “I need to be there.”
Reyes, the Catholic priest, says he’s also had friends encourage him to remain in the United States, but he demurs. “I deeply feel my place is in Cuba,” he says. “I absolutely want to be there with them.”
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