‘11J’: A turning point in the repression of evangelicals in Cuba (1)
Clashes with the State and punishments of Cuban evangelicals have increased in recent years, but without a high number of imprisoned pastors. Until 11 July 2021 came.
La HABANA · 17 JANUARY 2022 · 11:45 CET
This is the first part of an in-depth analysys article authored by Cuban journalist Yoé Suárez. It was first published by Diario de Cuba and Cubanet and translanted into English with permission. The second part will be published soon.
On 11 July 2021 in Cuba, thousands of people of all kinds took to the streets with various demands. It was, so far, the greatest display of the power of civil society in this totalitarian country, where the Socialist State tries to control its citizens as much as possible.
It is impossible to know who exactly the demonstrators were, but some of them are part of the growing community of evangelical or Protestant Christians, who, according to a 2015 survey, represent around 7 percent of the population.
It was the case of Carlos Macías, who lived that day of large anti-system demonstrations in Cuba between two dilemmas. The first was related to his vocation: "to be a pastor of a historic denomination like the Methodist Church, under the stigma that Christians do not participate in politics, and at the same time to want to exercise my civil rights and freedoms as a citizen", he said in an interview.
The other dilemma was "between the need to express myself and make use of freedom of thought" and "the fear of the consequences that this could have on a personal level". In another time, as so many Cubans have always done, the pastor might have opted for self-censorship, for staying at home. But that 11 July 2021, known as '11J', something seemed to change.
In the battered streets of Jovellanos, Matanzas province, a crowd chanted freedom. The same was happening in more than 60 other localities all over the country. Carlos and his eldest son left the church house to join in. He understands that, as a religious leader, it is not his mission to call for a protest. As a believer, of course, he recognises "the right to participate in a demonstration demanding justice".
Tensions between some of the leaders of the evangelical community and the State had increased over the past three years. Since 2018, the main Protestant churches had been demanding more independence from state organisations that try to control them or do not recognise them as having legal status. They had also strongly rejected State mandates such as, for example, the so-called "Comprehensive Sexuality Education Programme with a focus on gender and sexual and reproductive rights in the National Education System", the promotion of same-sex marriage, and had demanded the right to live and educate their children according to their religious principles and beliefs.
Although clashes with the State and acts of punishment or intimidation of these churches had multiplied since then, they had not escalated to the point where a large number of pastors were imprisoned for days, weeks or months. Until ‘11J’ came along.
This time, the religious leaders as part of a population demanding food, medicine, and, above all, shouting: freedom
On that day, Carlos Macias and other Protestant leaders who had never before taken to the streets to protest, did so. They joined thousands of other citizens, who had also never demonstrated before. And this time, the religious leaders did not demonstrate only for the above reasons, they joined as part of a population demanding food, medicine, and, above all, shouting: freedom.
Since then, a persecution has been unleashed against some pastors that continues to this day and has contributed to an increasing number of religious leaders and churches questioning police repression or speaking out against the regime.
Protestants were, in fact, the religious group with the most leaders repressed as a result of '11-J', according to a tally by the group Justicia 11-J, which compiles an inventory of the arrests and legal proceedings being suffered by those who demonstrated on that day.
Subsequently, in late August, another community leader, who had been openly critical of the regime and shared images of the 11-J protests on social media, was also captured and prosecuted.
In all these cases, the pastors were not detained as part of larger groups. Either the authorities were waiting for them in their homes or churches, or they were taken from the crowd.
Although they all went out as individuals, without inciting their congregations to demonstrate, they received the same treatment as other civil society leaders or more overtly political opponents: arrests and criminal prosecutions.
"The government views religious groups as the largest independent civil society sector and fears their potential to mobilise large groups of people. The involvement of believers and some religious leaders in the '11-J' protests fed the government's paranoia," a spokeswoman for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an international organisation that promotes religious freedom, said in an interview for this report.
"The government wants exemplary cases to show other religious leaders what the consequences will be if they don’t follow the rules," said the source, who asked not to be identified because of CSW's work in Cuba.
The case of Carlos Macías
Carlos Macías recalls how on that day "everyone said what they wanted to say: basically despair and disagreement with what is happening. Many people, almost 1,500 people of different ages, began to walk peacefully through the streets of Jovellanos", he explained in a video shared on social media.
According to his testimony, in the protest "there was no violence on the part of the demonstrators". However, that did not prevent "a group of Cuban government sympathisers and plainclothes officers" from entering the rally to try to arrest him and his son. "They insulted us, blasphemed us and called us dogs. They were trying to destabilise us mentally, they were looking for strife," the pastor said.
In the middle of the crowd, Carlos recalls that someone shouted "They want to take the pastor away!". Then "part of the people intervened and thwarted the arrest. That's when we understood that we had to get out of the chaos that was emerging in the place and return with my wife and my youngest son.
After returning, the church house was guarded by members of the Ministry of the Interior (Minint). Carlos was warned that if he left, he would be imprisoned. He was under house arrest without charge.
Carlos recalls that someone shouted "They want to take the pastor away!". Then "part of the people intervened and thwarted the arrest. That's when we understood that we had to get out".
Carlos had previously spoken out against abuses of the State through teachings and social media posts. When San Isidro Movement artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara went on hunger strike in April 2021, he expressed his solidarity with him on social media.
Hence it was natural for him to take to the streets on 11J. In a video on his Facebook account, he said: "Today I had the honour of participating in a spontaneous demonstration. I want to say that no one here was paid a penny to participate".
"Díaz-Canel, a president I did not elect, in the framework of these demonstrations called for bloodshed, for confrontation," he denounced, "and he will be responsible for every drop of blood of Cubans who" for thinking differently "are wounded or die in the attempt".
"The time has come to speak out, it is dangerous because we live in a dictatorship. But I don't think we can stand it any longer," he said. "In Cuba we live dignified Cubans who are not willing to keep silent to please a family". The Castros.
His motivation, according to himself, was not due to "political or ideological reasons", but to "biblical, theological and doctrinal principles related to freedom and truth".
Imprisoned in his house, Carlos lived the hours as if inside a large drop of amber. The heat and the uncertainty of what would happen to him and his family slowed down time.
Assemblies of God: "A government that proclaims the inclusion of all citizens must have the wisdom to promote dialogue and not confrontation"
Meanwhile, Ricardo Pereira, Bishop of the Methodist Church, contacted the authorities in person to lobby for his release. After two days in detention, the pastor was summoned to the Jovellanos police station. Several plainclothes and uniformed officers threatened him with reprisals if he demonstrated publicly again, and the house arrest was lifted.
A few days later, the board of directors of the Methodist Church published a statement on their social networks with unusually direct language critical of the government. In it, they said they rejected "the repressive manner used against the demonstrating population".
"Cuba must be a free and sovereign country, where all its children are respected, both those who support the Revolution and those who do not sympathise with the socio-political system," they said.
Other large churches issued similar statements. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God directly questioned Díaz Canel, blaming him for the violence that occurred on 11-J. "A government that proclaims the inclusion of all citizens must have the wisdom to promote dialogue and not confrontation. We believe that slogans devoid of peace and sanity will not resolve the situation in which the country finds itself, but rather destine the nation to total chaos and destruction," the text stated.
Yoé Suárez, journalist in Cuba.
Published in: Evangelical Focus - Features - ‘11J’: A turning point in the repression of evangelicals in Cuba (1)