One year later: How Cuban evangelicals powered the ‘11J’ revolution (I)

That July 11, 2021, called “11J” by Cubans was the largest protest seen in Cuba in 62 years, triggered by a shortage of food and medicine and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

20 JULY 2022 · 10:00 CET

Pro-Cuban government protesters in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on July 11, 2021.,
Pro-Cuban government protesters in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on July 11, 2021.

Marcos Évora’s camera shuttered. Skinny arms, full of tattoos, were held high in front of a row of police officers. Again it clicked. A military man in a black beret raised a baton in front of unarmed people. Click. Hundreds of Cubans, mostly young men, marched in front of the Capitol.

That July 11, 2021, called “11J” by Cubans, was immortalized in the young man’s Canon camera, the same camera that helped him launch his photography business and capture memories at his Baptist church.

It was the largest protest seen in Cuba in 62 years, since the socialist Cuban Revolution. And Évora’s camera let the world see the courage of everyday Cubans risking attacks and harsh jail sentences to speak out against their government, many inspired to do so by their Christian faith.

The series of protests against the Cuban government and ruling Communist Party lasted seven days, triggered by a shortage of food and medicine and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I didn’t hear it, they didn’t tell me, I didn’t see it on the Internet,” he recounted on Facebook. “I was there, together with many brothers marching and seeing, for the first time, a hope for my Cuba. I was surprised at how everyone walked with their hands up in a sign of peace, shouting ‘Libertad!’ and saying out loud what for many years they couldn’t shout freely for fear.”

His camera also captured the brutality of the police crackdown, resulting in nearly 1,500 arrests. Today 701 Cubans remain in jail, facing sentences on charges of sedition, sabotage and public disorder.

His images of the protests went viral after more than 7,000 people shared his post on Facebook and news agencies republished his photos.

“It hurts me to think that one day I will have to live outside of (Cuba) because of people who don’t know how to do things,” Évora said earlier this year. Today, like many other Cubans who were part of the protests, Évora has resettled abroad. He now lives in Madrid.

One year later, many Cubans are still inspired by the protests. Faith leaders are accompanying the victims of the repression and sending messages of hope to those affected by the arrests.

At the same time, many faith leaders are leading a movement to stop the Communist government from introducing a swath of reforms, including one that would legalize same-sex marriage, by updating a family code that dates back to the times of Fidel Castro in 1975. 


What the protests were like

As Évora found himself in the middle of the crowd that day last summer, a friend called him on his cellphone. He advised him to leave the demonstration, saying, “many ‘civilians’ were arriving with sticks.”

By the time Évora realized the men were actually State Security officers, the political police and socialist sympathizers, it was too late.

The plainclothes police, armed with batons and pistols, along with a mob carrying sticks, surrounded Évora and other protesters in Máximo Gómez Park in Old Havana, Évora said.

Évora said he wasn’t able to take photos of them for fear that they would break his camera. The Cubans protesting held only cellphones and a few bottles of water, he said, yet officers advanced on the demonstrators.

“They were hitting and beating, and the special forces supported them by threatening anyone who came to help,” Évora said.

He escaped “with God’s help and unique mercy,” he said, with two friends from the Evangelical League of Cuba.  

At the same time, sisters Maria Cristina Garrido and Angélica Garrido were protesting in a small town in Mayabeque province called Quivicán.

Maria Cristina alternated between adjusting her face mask and — with shouts of “Freedom!” — urging several people who were walking next to her to exercise their right to public protest.

In a Facebook live video she shared, a group can be seen advancing peacefully along the dusty sidewalks of the town toward the central park.

There, Ministry of the Interior forces waited for them, said María Cristiana shortly before the end of her Facebook live transmission. They arrested the sisters.


Those waiting in jail

The sisters belong to an independent evangelical community in Quivicán. Jennifer Reyes Garrido, one of María Cristina Garrido’s two daughters, explained that they — her mother and aunt — do not belong to any denomination registered in the government’s Registry of Associations.

“My mother used to meet at the church in Havana, specifically in Lawton,” she said. “I can’t tell you the name of the pastor because there isn’t one. There is no status like in the traditional denominations; we are all pastors. And we used to meet in Quivicán too.”

In early January, Michael Valladares, Garrido’s husband, said to Martí Noticias that the prison authorities prohibited both young women from meeting with their families at the same time during prison visits.

According to him, the government seeks to separate the family and force them to travel twice a week to the prison, far from their place of origin.

The host of the forum Prisoners of Castro, Claudio Fuentes, added that this placed greater economic strain on the family, a considerable burden in the midst of the nation’s gravest crisis of the 21st century.

On Jan. 18, 2022, the Cuban writer Amir Valle — also an evangelical and exiled in Germany — published through his publishing house, Ilíada, a collection of poems by Garrido titled, “Of Poetic Excellence.” The proceeds were meant to support her.

Valle wrote of her, “She has stood up for many of her fellow writers and intellectuals on the island who remain silent. Let’s not leave her alone!”

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, the U.S. Embassy in Havana in a tweet denounced the arbitrariness of the process against the Garrido sisters and condemned that they had been physically and psychologically mistreated in prison.

Luis Rodríguez, Angélica Garrido’s husband, told Martí Noticias that in the last visit before the trial at Women’s Prison of the West in Guatao, Havana, she was “firm in her ideals, in her faith in the Lord,” although “she was somewhat anxious about what may happen to her.”

On Thursday, Jan. 20, the trial against the Garrido sisters and 22 other participants in the 11J protests in the province opened. Angélica was facing a 10-year prison sentence for the alleged crimes of contempt, attempted assault and public disorder.

María Cristina faced 15 years for the same charges. Her Facebook broadcast let the world know that a small town called Quivicán was also joining the national rebellion.

After 11J, other Cuban believers — more public figures — took advantage of their visibility on social media to speak in favor of the peaceful demonstrators and against the police violence committed by the Communist Party.

YouTuber Ivan Daniel Calas, who directs the “Voice of Truth” channel, highlighted in a July video that there were pastoral families crying for imprisoned members. He was referring to those of pastors Lorenzo Rosales, Yéremi Blanco and Yarián Sierra.

The Christian rapper Danay Suárez, nominated for the Grammy awards multiple times and winner of the Gaviota de Plata award, said, “Cubans are manifesting spontaneously, tired of the toxic government-people relationship,” adding, “the authoritarian party in its constant monologue does not listen, does not protect, does not love, and does not liberate.”

“Cuba’s solution is not to get out of a bad marriage to enter into another one. Those who give combat orders to armed children against their unarmed siblings should not talk about the ‘Family Code,’” she posted, in reference to the controversial draft legislation that limits the right of parents to choose the education of their children in a preferential manner and introduces gender ideology.

She challenged popular Cuban artists: “Where are you? Will you now wash your hands like Pontius Pilate?”

On her Facebook profile, Suárez denounced how “at the work centers they ordered the workers to congregate and march in a public act of repudiation of the demonstrations that occurred spontaneously; it will surely be in the so-called anti-imperialist tribune to be televised worldwide.”

Since the state is the largest employer, it is easy for the unions — unified under the command of the official Workers’ Central Office since the 1960s — and organizations such as the Party and the Union of Youth to pressure the citizenry to attend mobilizations of “revolutionary reaffirmation.”

Reggaeton artist Yomil, singer Leoni Torres and actor Yuliet Cruz also raised their voice against the repression. But they were the exception among the best-known Cuban artists.


Spreading hope

Another Facebook post she shared, using the hashtag #OramosPorCuba (We Pray for Cuba), included a video clip from her her song “With love, without a revolver,” filmed in Havana.

She sings, “Heaven is moving in favor of Cuba, God has already heard the lament of his people and cannot be silenced.”

Meanwhile, the most important Christian troubadour of the moment, Eric Méndez, shared on social media another song, this one in its entirety.

“I dream of a country that is multicolor, / where there is room for all of us. / A nation where we care about the pain / of him who thinks like me and him who doesn’t. / Where you don’t hate me because I believe in God, / and I don’t hate you because you don’t. / Where you can rise up and say ‘Yes’ / without having to veto me for saying ‘No.’ …

“Where to live not be something / decreed by the party. / Where it’s not always zero in the numbering / While your luck wins out whether it’s fixed or continuous. / A country where we don’t talk about the sense / that punishments are coming. / And not wear the heart in mourning, / because of the rejection that clouds our reason. / All the poets have said that love / cannot be removed from the equation.”

Yoé Suárez, journalist in Cuba. This is the first of three parts of this in-depth report that first appeared in English at Religion Unplugged. Re-published with permission.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Features - One year later: How Cuban evangelicals powered the ‘11J’ revolution (I)