2009 marks the 50th anniversary of what Cubans call “La Revolución,” which culminated in the overthrow of the regime of Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro and his Marxist guerillas. For Catholics in Cuba, the anniversary is a poignant reminder of just how long the Church has had to endure the state’s stifling of religious freedom, which began immediately after Castro seized power and included the closure of hundreds of Catholic schools, the expulsion from the island of thousands of priests and nuns, and the seizure of all Catholic media outlets.
But the Church perseveres in Cuba. And, as one of this piece’s authors discovered during a recent three-week trip there, that perseverance is manifested most clearly in those whom the Castro regime has treated most unjustly: Cuba’s prisoners of conscience.
When discussing the island nation located just 90 miles from America’s border, the Western news media almost invariably focus on the 200 to 300 prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. This has been especially true since President Barack Obama’s decision during his first week in office to close the military detention facility on Cuba’s southeastern shore.
Often overlooked, however, are the 200 to 300 Cuban prisoners scattered across the island, imprisoned not as terrorist suspects but as nonviolent political prisoners whose only “crime” is that of promoting human rights in a nation in which two generations have grown up without them. Arrested and given lengthy, often decades-long sentences for offenses like “dangerousness” and “pre-criminal activity,” they are Cuba’s prisoners of conscience.
Oswaldo PayÁ Sardinas is considered Cuba’s most prominent political dissident. As co-founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, which works on behalf of human rights for Cubans, PayÁ has won many international human rights awards.
During an interview in his home in Havana, PayÁ spoke about the early days of the revolution. He said, “The regime since very early on…initiated a process of de-Christianization of culture, society, of the Christian memory of the people.”
PayÁ, who is Catholic, believes that the Castro regime “would like to occupy the same role as God, because it seeks to occupy all dimensions of life. It wants to dominate not only politically but also dominate all people and take over their souls.”
PayÁ said that once when he was a child Cuban authorities “came and told us to place a poster [on our door] which read, ‘Thank you, Fidel.’ My mother told them, ‘No. The only poster that exists on this door reads, “With God everything, without him nothing.” After this, we were marked. For many years, many Cubans, it’s painful to say, did not have the courage to say the words ‘Thank you, God.’” As a teenager, PayÁ was drafted into the Cuban military but was subsequently arrested and sentenced to three years of hard labor for refusing to participate in the transporting of political prisoners.
THE VARELA PROJECT
In 1998, PayÁ started the Varela Project, an initiative whose purpose was to advocate democratic political reforms in Cuba, including amnesty for political prisoners. The Varela Project is named after Fèlix Varela, an 18thcentury Cuban priest beloved by many Cubans for his work to abolish slavery in Cuba and for his advocacy for Cuban independence from Spain (which Cuba received in 1898).
Cuba’s dissident movement suffered its worst setback in Cuba’s “Black Spring” of 2003, during which some 90 pro-democracy activists and journalists were imprisoned. (Cuba has imprisoned more journalists than any other country except China, according to the Commitee to Protect Journalists.) Over half of those arrested were Varela Project activists, many of whom were arrested for “dangerousness,” defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by his conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Those arrested were given prison sentences ranging from six to 28 years.
PayÁ was not imprisoned, however, almost certainly because, as a prominent dissident leader, his incarceration would have focused the bright light of the international press on Cuba’s corrupt justice system.
Only a couple of months before Cuba’s Black Spring crackdown, the regime arrested Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. A physician and founder and president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, Biscet has been confined to a prison cell for all but 36 days since 1999. He first drew the ire of the communist regime by exposing its use of infanticide and forced abortion. (Cuba has one of the world’s highest abortion rates.) Biscet was fired from his job as a specialist in internal medicine at the Hospital of the Hijas de Galicia. His wife, Elsa, also lost her job as a nurse, and the couple later sent their children out of the country in fear of further retribution.
In 1999, after hanging a Cuban flag upside down in protest, Biscet was given a three-year sentence for the crime of “disrespecting patriotic symbols.” In 2003, following only a month of freedom, Biscet was re-arrested and is now serving a 25-year sentence for “counterrevolutionary activities” for his peaceful promotion of democracy in Cuba.
Held captive in a tiny, windowless cell at the Combinado del Este prison outside Havana, Biscet is denied most family visits as well as essential medicine. He suffers from a variety of chronic ailments and reportedly is losing his eyesight.
But Biscet endures in prison, praying for freedom and justice while writing letters of encouragement to his supporters and continuing to defy the regime. All of which makes Biscet almost as much of a menace to his captors in prison as he would be on the outside. In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Biscet, in absentia, with the presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civil award.
In an interview last December in Havana, Biscet’s wife Elsa explained that it was her and her husband’s faith that “motivated us to speak out nonviolently in the streets against abortion, against the death penalty, and speak out for human rights and also democracy for our country.” In a recent letter smuggled out of prison by Elsa, Biscet wrote that the government’s suppression of freedom has compelled many Cubans “to pray and fast, beseeching the God of the Bible” to give them the strength to continue to work for “the achievement of basic rights through civil disobedience.”
THE FIRST BEATIFICATION ON CUBAN SOIL
Given the plight of Cuba’s political prisoners, it was encouraging to see the crowd that gathered in the small central Cuban town of Camaguey on November 29. Thousands had assembled at the Church of the Virgin of Charity to witness the first ever beatification on Cuban soil, of Fray José Olallo Valdes, a 19th-century member of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God. Known as the “father of the poor,” Olallo dedicated his life to caring for the poor in Camaguay, notably during Cuba’s mid-19th century cholera epidemic.
Cardinal José Saraiva of Portugal led the Mass in the Plaza de la Libertad. Also present were the papal nuncio, Msgr. Luigi Bonazzi; Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, the archbishop of Havana; Camaguey Archbishop Juan Garcia; and many bishops and worshipers from across Cuba (though, judging by the hand-held signs and comments of congregants, many believed they were attending a canonization, not a beatification).
To the extent that the Western journalists covered Father Olallo’s beatification, they typically portrayed it as evidence of warming relations between the Cuban government and the Church. This impression was reinforced by the unexpected presence at the Mass of Raúl Castro and other top government officials.
Near the end of the Mass, one of the authors of this piece (Jordan Allott) met a local Cuban whose father, a doctor, had participated in the miracle associated with Father Olallo. (A young child was miraculously cured of terminal lymphoma cancer through Father Olallo’s intercession.) He said that while the beatification Mass was a time of joy for all Cubans, and a step in the right direction for the government, it was still very difficult to be a Christian in Cuba. Then, becoming emotional, he paused before striking a hopeful note: “It is very hard to educate, to talk or speak about God, but not impossible. Anything is possible with God.”
Traveling across Cuba, one is struck by the despair that grips many Cubans. It is evident in the young men who hustle Westerners out of a few bucks because their government jobs pay them a pittance and offer little incentive to work. It is evident in the young women who approach Western men with marriage proposals. It reveals itself on the faces of the diminishing group of older Cubans who can remember a time of prosperity and freedom in Cuba.
Yet, amid the despair, there is a real, if repressed, thirst for faith, a glimpse of which was seen in the overwhelming turnout for Father Olallo’s beatification Mass. Many Cubans continue to embrace the hope, evident in the sentiments of those interviewed above, that someday freedom will be restored to the island that Columbus, upon his arrival in 1492, called “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”
During another visit with Elsa Biscet, she was beaming after having just returned from a visit with her husband. She spoke about the future. “We are optimists,” she said. “We always see the door of hope open, we believe that all of this suffering that he has endured… will be absolved by the powerful hand of Jesus Christ.” Elsa was speaking of her and her husband’s hopes. But she might as well have been speaking of the hopes of all the faithful in Cuba.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!