Friday, April 13, 2018

Religious repression in Cuba: The half century crackdown on Christianity in Cuba

Dedicated to those whose final words before Castro's firing squads were "Long live Christ the King!"
Priests were taken at gun point and forced out of Cuba in 1961
The Cuban dictatorship has had a hostile relationship with religion since the beginning when it officially declared itself an atheist state and expelled scores of priests on September 17, 1961, cancelled Christmas in 1969 under the pretext to prevent work shortages for the 1970 ten million ton sugar harvest but continued the ban until 1997, and sent mobs to intimidate Cubans attending religious services. In the first years 90% of Cuba's Jewish population fled the dictatorship shrinking from 15,000 to 1,500 persons of the Jewish faith.

The Catholic Church in Cuba was attacked; many of its clergy and religious figures exiled or sent to work camps. Being a practicing Catholic would mean being blacklisted from certain professions such as teaching. Christmas was ended as a national holiday in 1970 and replaced with holidays celebrating the 1959 communist revolution. This means that the ability to separate the political from the personal and the religious has been undermined and atrophied under the dictatorship of the Castro brothers. It was not supposed to be this way.

The revolutionaries in Cuba came down from the hills in 1959 wearing rosaries, and the leadership used this image to reject the charge that they were communists. Fidel Castro claimed throughout the 1950s and in the early days of the revolution that their aim was to restore democracy, but the reality was that they had always planned to consolidate their rule and establish a communist regime.

The Catholic Church, like others in Cuba took them at their word, and initially supported the revolution against the dictator Fulgencio Batista but by 1960 it was clear that a new and worse dictatorship was taking shape. Show trials and arbitrary executions in 1959 that generated fear in the populace and the regime's takeover of student, labor and professional organizations, along with the placement of communists in key government and military positions, and the elimination of the free press. In August of 1960 the Church, in a pastoral letter, alerted Cubans to the evils that would come if the island turned towards Communism.

The Castro regime continued intensifying its anti-religious actions. In May of 1961 the regime confiscated private schools and most seminaries in an effort to eliminate religion. 

Arnaldo Socorro Sánchez
On September 10, 1961 a catholic youth, Arnaldo Socorro, age 20 , was shot in the back by a member of the communist militia in front of the Church of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre in Havana as he carried an image of the Virgin of Charity. But in order to fool public opinion at the time, the regime buried him with the honors of a communist militant.

On September 17, 1961, the Castro regime at gun point collected 131 priests, brothers and a bishop, Boza Masvidal, placing them on board the Spanish ship Covadonga and deported them from Cuba. Below is the list of names and religious orders.

Diocesan clergy
1. S.E.R. Mons. Eduardo Boza Masvidal

2. Mons. Dr. Trinidad Torrebaja Casanova
3. Mons. José Novo Vázquez
4. Mons. Genaro Suárez Muñiz
5. Mons. José Manuel Couce Euchaurren
6. Mons. Angel Valdés Valdés
7. Mons. Salvador Basulto Rodríguez
8. Mons. Víctor Garay Udibiarte
9. Mons. Vicente Jobaní Mas
10. P. Agustín A. Román Rodríguez
11. P. Romeo Rivas Sánchez
12. P. José Cabanas Vila
13. P. Manuel F. Colmena Jiménez
14. P. Francisco Hernández Diez
15. P. Nicanor Valdés y Alvarez de la Campa
16. P. Francisco Quintero Pérez
17. P. José Mocoroa Miranda
18. P. Francisco Oves Fernández
19. P. José Cortina Varona
20. P. Miguel Becerril Blazquez
21. P. Manuel Mendiola Roura
22. P. Orlando Fernández Villar
23. P. Pedro Oriol Miret
24. P. Angel Ribas Cánepa
25. P. Rafael Escala Manday
26. P. Cristóbal Novoa García
27. P. Carlos Comas López
28. P. Ramiro Ribas Pichel
29. P. Fabián Chelala Saravia
30. P. Rolando García Castañeda
31. P. José Lence González
32. P. Mérito González Artigas
33. P. Herculano N. Hernández Caballero

34. P. Carlos E. Madrigal Pentón
35. P. Francisco Parrón López
36. P. Sebastián Marquiegui Sarasqueta
37. P. Teodocio Ylleras Pérez
38. P. Elías Teodoro Olmos
39. P. Regino Alcíbar Guenaga
40. P. Pedro Wong
41. P. Arnaldo Bazán Ventura
42. P. Arnelio Blanco Blanco
43. P. Christián Baguer Chacón

44. P. Celedonio Fernández del Blanco
45. P. Honorio Hurtado Reyero
46. P. Abraham Pablos Escanciano

47. Hno. Lorenzo Prieto Diez

48. P. Angel Melitón Alonso Diez
49.P. Anastasio Martínez Aldea

50. P. Ceferino Ruiz Rodríguez 

51. P. Francisco J. Arnáiz Zarandona
52. P. Félix Feliz Lozada
53. P. Fernando Nova Rodríguez
54. P. Federico Arbesú del Castillo
55. P. Fernando Arango Alvarez
56. P. Teodoro Bercedo García
57. P. Angel Olano Arias
58. P. Esteban Ribas Serna
59. P. Manuel López Rodríguez
60. P. Juan del Río Ratón
61. P. Silvio González Herrero
62. P. José Goberna Costas
63. P. Eutiquio Varona Calle
64. P. Rafael Garrido Vicente
65. P. José Rubinos Ramos
66. P. Juan Manuel Dorta Duque
67. P. Alberto Villaverde Alcalá Galiano
68. P. Francisco Tadeo Herrero
69. P. Severino Hidalgo Juárez
70. P. Francisco Bartolomé Chico
71. Hno. Luciano Cofréces Cea
72. Hno. Estanislao Peláez Nozal
73. Hno. Juan José Muñoz Arriceta
74. Hno. Ramón Pérez Martínez
75. Hno. Esteban Bedoya Gómez


76. P. Rafael Mercader Armengol
77. P. José Miguel Hernández López
78. P. Jorge Du Breuil
79. P. Janos Dluztus Boge
80. P. Fernando Perdomo Perdomo
81. P. Nuncio Bordonaro Giulio


82. P. Jacinto Ortiz de Zárate
83. P. Amador Méndez Alvarez
84. P. Maximino Bea-Murguía Ochoa
85. P. Demetrio Zúñiga Abadía
86. P. Florentino Villanueva López

87. P. Antonio M. Entralgo de la Vallina
88. P. Raúl Arnulfo Palma

89. P. Francisco Botey Vallés

90. P. Segundo Urquía

91.P. Martin Gorostidi Altuna  

92. P. Guillermo Basterrechea Embeitia

93. P. José María Biain Urrutia
94. P. Basilio Guerra Tellería
95. P. Timoteo Urrutia Garategui
96. P. José María Biain Anduaga
97. P. Eduardo Arsuaga y Altuna
98. P. Francisco Hernández Rodríguez
99. P. Victorio Beain Biain
100.P. Jesús Auzmendi Barandiarán
101.P. Julián Zubizarreta Garay
102.P. Tomás Olazabal Galarraga

103.P. José Miguel Aldaz Rabace
104.P. José Luis Sarragoitia Lazpica
105.P. Francisco García Muiño
106.P. José L. Aguirebeña Leceta
107.P. Felipe Izaguirre Odriozola
108.Hno. Apolinar Echevarría Oyarzabal
109.Hno. José Cobo Fernández
110.Hno. Bautista Maiza Artola
111.Hno. Nicolás Larrañaga Garchonea
112.Hno. Pedro Galdeano García

113.P. Feliciano Guerra Bartolomé
114.P. José Sastre Roncero
115.Hno. Hipólito Sutil Calderón
116.Hno. Francisco Hernández de Miguel
117.Hno. Marcelino Martínez Maestre

Missionaries of Quebec 
118.P. Ivan Labelle Lagarde
119.P. Guy Rivard Chabot

120.P. Harry Smith Dupuis
121.P. Louis Gerard Campagna
122.P. Jacques de Cherrete

123.P. Claude Laquerre
124.P. Horace Gauvin

Brothers of Charity
125.Hno. Luc Nolet
126.Hno.. Roland René


127.P. Eugenio Pérez Hermida
128.Hno. Patricio Blanco Jiménez
129.Hno. Feliciano del Val Torrijo

Saint John of God
130.Hno. Eugenio Yoldi Vidal

De La Salle
131.Hno. Augusto Charbonnier Vernet

The Church in Cuba suffered greatly over the 59 years of communism and at key moments has spoken out for the victims of the regime.  The United States Department 2003 International Religious Freedom Report described the next big action by the Castro regime against religion in the 1960s following the forced expulsion of these religious leaders:
From 1965-67 the Government forced many priests, pastors, and others "who made religion a way of life" into forced labor camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPS), alongside homosexuals, vagrants, and others considered by the regime to be "social scum." The UMAP system ended in 1967. However, over the following 30 years, the Government and the Communist Party systematically discriminated against and marginalized persons who openly professed their faith by excluding them from certain jobs (such as teaching). Although the Government abandoned its official atheism in the early 1990s, most churches had been weakened seriously, and active participation in religious services fell drastically.
Sociology professor Juan Clark outlined the mechanisms used by the Castro regime to degrade and destroy religious life in Cuba in his 1998 report on Religious Repression in Cuba.
"The 1960s also saw the dawn of a more subtle, but very effective, indirect repression. This less visible form of repression used education and the work place as its main vehicles. It begun as early as grammar school with simple questions posed to schoolchildren practicing their faith, in an attempt to ridicule them in front of their classmates. Students have a Cumulative Academic Record that supervises "ideological integration" and the religious involvement of students and their parents. This involvement would constitute a "demerit" on their record and would be used to deny access to the university or to careers with social impact to those who had that blotch in their record. This indirect repression followed Castro's religious policy of "making apostates not martyrs," and thus began the slow process of gradually attempting to choke off the religious community."
Priests who remained behind and spoke truth to power sometimes paid a terrible price. The case of Father Miguel Angel Loredo is one example.
Father Miguel Angel Loredo (1998)
Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) published the following brief account of the life of Father Miguel Angel Loredo, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1966, but was released after ten years in 1976 and exiled in 1984:
Fr. Loredo was born in Havana in 1938. When Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, young Miguel Angel had already decided to become a priest. He traveled to Spain where he was ordained on July 19, 1964.

One month later he returned to Cuba, where the tense relations between the Church and new Communist government resulted in the expulsion of 131 priests in 1961.

Fr. Loredo was sent to the Church of St. Francis in Havana. He was also pastor in the city of Guanabacoa. However, his fiery sermons against atheism and Communism enraged Cuban officials who accused him of being a spy for the CIA, hiding weapons and participating in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. He was arrested in 1966.

Fr. Loredo always maintained his innocence, but after a fraudulent trial he was sentenced to 15 years. He spent time in numerous prisons, where he underwent forced labor and beatings for not accepting the “re-education” that the government tried to force upon him.

In a letter dated June 11, 1968, Fr. Loredo told Msgr. Cesar Sacchi, at the time the representative of the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana, that he felt “proud to participate in this struggle with thousands of men of great courage and patriotism like those in this Cuban prison. … I also want to tell you that I am sorry to see how the free West has forgotten us, how everyone is silent and indifferent, except for the complaints of helpless loved ones.”

On February 2, 1976, he was released and ordered not to speak in public or give interviews to the press. However, the government would not accept his appointment as professor of theology at the Seminary of Sts. Charles and Ambrose in Havana, and he was exiled to Rome in 1984.

In 1987 he moved to Puerto Rico, where he continued his ministry, with Cuba and the struggle for human rights always present in his work. In 1991 he was sent to the Church of St. Francis in New York.

In 1998, Fr. Loredo was chosen to be part of a group of priests who would travel to Cuba for Pope John Paul II’s visit. However, the Cuban government refused to allow him to enter the country.

Abel Nieves Morales, one of many prisoners who shared a cell with the priest, said Fr. Loredo “was a very courageous man, firm in his principles and in his faith, and who never ceased to raise his voice to denounce the horrors … in the prisons of Cuba.”
Supposedly things changed for the better in 1992 with the abandonment of the goals of an atheist state for a secular one and with Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 which led to the restoration of Christmas after a nearly 30-year absence, but despite cosmetic improvements new laws were passed that increased repression against religious practitioners and pastors are being sent to prison for their faith today.

On August 16, 2016 Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that the pace of church demolitions in Cuba was increasing. According to CSW in their 2016 report on freedom of belief or religion there were 1,606 separate violations between January and July 2016.  This worsening situation compounded the explosive growth of repression the previous year. In 2015 there was a tenfold increase in religious repression compared to 2014 with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.

Rev Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso arrested and taken away March 20, 2016
 Carey Lodge, a journalist for Christian Today reported on March 21, 2016 that a day earlier:

"Rev Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso's home and church were surrounded by police and state security agents early in the morning on March 20, he told Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) ahead of his arrest.  The pastor was then arrested and taken away by officials, while his wife, Yoaxis Marcheco Suarez, was placed under house arrest. She and the couple's two young daughters have been locked inside their home, in Taguayabon, Villa Clara Province, and their phone connection has been cut.
Before being cut off, Marcheco Suarez was able to speak to CSW over the phone. Though the family and church have not been allowed to speak to Barroso directly, she said she'd been told that her husband had been taken to the city of Santa Clara, and was being refused food or drink.

She added that the pastor had already been ill over the weekend, after a stranger pricked him with a pin while he was on public transport last week."
 The March 20, 2016 arrest just hours before the start of President Obama's official visit to Cuba speaks volumes of the nature of the so-called normalized relations between the Obama administration and the Castro regime as does the exponential increase in religious repression since the December 17, 2014 announcement that relations would be normalized. The shift in tone and policy with a new Administration coincided with the threats of demolition against the 2,000 churches made in 2015 and 2016 being rescinded in 2017. However there continued to be 325 new Freedom of Religious Belief violations in 2017. Political prisoners in Cuba today are denied visits from a priest and access to a Bible. 

Over the past 59 years there have been Christian martyrs in Cuba. I will close by highlighting four. Two from 1961 and two from 2012.

Virgilio Campanería Angel, who was born on August 5, 1938, studied at Belén and Baldor, and graduating high school he started studying Law and Journalism at the University of La Salle and the University of Havana. He had aspired to be a member of the University Catholic Association [Agrupacion Católica Universitaria].  Another was Alberto Tapia Ruano, who was born on August 7, 1937, attended high school at La Salle and graduated in 1955. He was a member of the University Catholic Association [Agrupacion Católica Universitaria].

Virgilio Campanería Angel, founded the movement "Salvar a Cuba" [To Save Cuba]. Alberto Tapia Ruano joined To Save Cuba and both later joined the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil [Revolutionary Student Directorate] in an effort to bring an end to the emerging communist tyranny in Cuba.

Virgilio's brother, Néstor Campanería Angel, in an online essay, tells what happened.  Virgilio was arrested along with Tomas Fernandez Travieso and Alberto Tapia Ruano on March 27, 1961. The Cuban secret police [G2] found them with weapons. 

In the span of 23 days they are subjected to a political show trial and condemned to death along with six others.  Tomas Fernandez Travieso, who was under age, had his death sentence commuted to 30 years in prison.  In the early morning of April 18, 1961, while the Bay of Pigs invasion was underway, Virgilio, and Alberto were executed along with six others. Tomas Fernandez Travieso survived and is a living witness of how these young men faced death. Their last words were "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" [Long Live Christ King!] as they faced the volley from the firing squad. 
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante
 Harold Cepero Escalante was born in the town of Chambas, then in the province of Ciego de Ávila ( but had been Camaguey until 1977), on January 29, 1980. He was drawn to his local Catholic Church in Chambas while in High School. In 1998 at age 18 he moved to Cuba's third largest city, Camaguey, and began his studies at the University of Camaguey. He also began, along with other university students, to take part in informal conversations with Father Alberto Reyes Pías.

In 2002 Harold together with other university students signed the Varela Project.
The Varela Project, named after the 19th century Cuban Catholic Priest Felix Varela who resisted Spanish colonialism, was a citizen initiative that gathered signatures to hold a referendum to change existing laws in order to reform the Cuban legal system to bring it in line with international human rights standards. The Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) had followed the letter of the law in organizing the campaign.

 On May 10, 2002, after CLM turned in 11,020 signatures exceeding the 10,000 required by the regime,  the dictatorship's response to the nonviolent citizen's initiative was to first coerce Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable.

Harold knew that this regime pushed petition drive was a direct reaction to the Varela Project and refused to sign it. He also began to explain this among students at the university in the dormitories and hallways without fear. This is when the threats of expulsion from the university began.

The dictatorship's "petition" quickly passed through the rubber stamp legislature without debating the Varela Project, which according to the Cuban law drafted by the regime meant that it should have been debated by the National Assembly.

On November 13, 2002 State Security organized a mob to judge and expel Harold Cepero and Yoan Columbié, another youth who signed the Varela Project. They were screamed at, insulted, threatened and finally expelled.


This is the letter that Harold wrote in protest following his expulsion from the University.
 With all due respect and the sincerity that they deserve, I think the arguments abound for our defense. Apparently the motive for this act, or I do not know how to call it, is our bad attitude towards the politics that prevail in our country today. The other, our approval of the Varela Project.I will start by saying that said project is a project of law signed by over eleven thousand Cubans (electors) and gathers up the fundamental needs of our people. I do not know why they are attempting (you who are now in a privileged situation with respect to us and those who think like us) to repress something that is not motivated by, nor has its origin in the hatred of the people, but rather in  openness, mutual respect, and dialogue.

They from their condition as: students, professors, PCC, UJC, etc., are breaking the law of the Republic. They are trying to trample on our dignity, that is of equal worth to theirs, a recognition and legal status to develop fully. Therefore, I think it totally unfair what they are attempting to do. This is a violation of international law, the Constitution and above all against our people.

The Varela Project is totally legal and recognized publicly by Fidel Castro. Also, if we support it because we believe it is just and so I would like them to consider it. The things we ask for do not exclude anyone, we simply want a space (which belongs to us) in the social life of Cuba.

Expelling us is not the solution neither for them or for us, it would be better to ask yourself why are there young people who are filled with concern and worry for the welfare of the country. It would be good that they explain to the students and to the people what the Varela Project is, what does it ask, and so give everyone the right to think and choose.

Today we are kicked out of the university for this. Tomorrow it could be one of you for just being different, for permitting yourself to think.

They are wanting to perpetuate something that it is not even known if it is fair, and in this manner they are denying the progress of a society that wants something new, something that really guarantees a dignified place for every Cuban. They are pressuring people or preventing them from expressing their true feelings, they are cultivating fear in the nation.

Under the pretext of defending freedom they are attacking it. Martí would say it like this: "The knife that is stabbed in the name of freedom is plunged into the chest of freedom". They should think if at the bottom of this attitude there is a real respect for freedom, because to say freedom, to be free, is not to snatch the freedom of others. I therefore ask that before they expel us ask themselves how long can they keep silent the mourning and the reality of Cuba, and remind them that the damage they can do to us is damage that they do to themselves. And more: it is a direct threat to every Cuban.

Those who steal the rights of others steal from themselves. Those who remove and crush freedom are the true slaves.
Scores of Varela Project activists were arrested less than a year later in a crackdown that started on March 18, 2003 and became known as the Cuban Black Spring. Within days 75 human rights defenders, independent journalists, and Varela Project organizers were sentenced to long prison terms and recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Other Varela Project petitioners were threatened with the death penalty.  

In 2003 Harold entered  the Seminary of the City of Camaguey and spent the next two years there. In 2005 he is transferred to the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana. In 2009 Harold leaves the seminary and joins the Christian Liberation Movement and begins to coordinate its youth group and became a member of the Coordinating Council of the CLM.  He organized workshops on leadership training.

Three years later on July 22, 2012 Harold Cepero Escalante was killed along with Oswaldo Payá, the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement. 

On February 23, 2016 at the 8th edition of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy Rosa María Payá  addressed what happened to her dad Oswaldo Payá and friend Harold Cepero, on July 22, 2012: 
"On July 22, 2012, my father was extrajudicially  executed by agents of the political police, together with my dear friend Harold Cepero, staging a car crash that never took place, in a location of Cuba that remains to be  determined. Not satisfied with this double crime, my family was threatened with death..."In the summer of 2015 a special report was released by Human Rights Foundation, where all  evidences indicate that this was a crime against humanity, with the involvement of Cuban  authorities.  We’ll never give up on justice, because there can be no reconciliation without the recognition  of the whole truth. A nation that pretends to forget the violence against its innocent people  will remain a captive nation. And it will be a nation condemned to suffer such violence over  and over again."
In 2013 Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for the Democracy when posthumously awarding the 2013 Democracy Award addressed the character of Harold Cepero Escalante:

"A friend of Harold’s recalls that on an organizing trip for his Movement, the two of them were once at a bus station when a hungry man asked for money to buy food. Although they themselves had very little, Harold not only gave him his own spending money but also brought the man to the table to sit and eat with them. Such was his compassion and generosity of spirit."
Harold Cepero understood the dangers of advocating for freedom in Cuba under the Castro regime. In 2012, shortly before his death he explained the cost of resistance:"Christians and non-Christians who have the courage and the freedom to consider the peaceful political option for their lives, know they are exposing themselves to slightly less than absolute solitude, to work exclusion, to persecution, to prison or death."

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