One of the myths concerning President Obama’s government is his historic reconciliation with Cuba. Many are unaware that it was under his administration that Cubans were denied amnesty once they touched American soil after fleeing Castro’s totalitarianism on rafts, which had previously guaranteed their legal stay in the United States.
President Obama’s agreement with Castro only worked to intensify the persecution of the opposition, as more tourists meant a greater need to hide the dissatisfaction among Cubans. This includes religious Cubans; the regime leaves no room for competition when it comes to worship.
In an exclusive interview for PanAm Post, we learned about the story of a Christian couple who were persecuted by the regime and how that affected their entire congregation.
Yoaxis Macheco Suárez, missionary with master’s degree in theological studies, and her husband Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor and founder of the Patmos Institute, which promotes interreligious dialogue and monitors religious freedoms in Cuba, went into exile in the U.S. a year and a half ago with refugee status, at the request of the congregation, as they told him that “we prefer for him to live far away than to die here,” after multiple threats against their lives.
Each time a prominent political or religious figure visited the island, like Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, they were arrested or surrounded and kept under surveillance. When Barack Obama went to Cuba, in March 2016, Mario was arrested and violently taken to the Provincial Criminal Investigation Unit of Santa Clara, “as if he were a vulgar criminal”.
After his release, the couple remained under surveillance 24 hours a day. If they traveled, they were subjected to interrogations. The regime confiscated innumerable personal objects: between books, electronic devices, contact cards, etc.
In 2014, their computers were confiscated. The persecution reached the members of the church. They were threatened with losing their jobs. State security threatened to retaliate against them or against their relatives if they continued to congregate in the churches linked to the couple.
Now, in exile, the pastor serves a congregation of Hispanic immigrants near Washington, D.C., where he advocates for the rights of Cubans while communicating with his parishioners in Cuba via radio.
He is still in touch with parishioners and sends assistance according to their needs, particularly during hurricane season; having in mind that all services are run by the state and often the regime does not help whoever it determines is an enemy of the revolution.
Persecution in numbers
If we take into account that the Office of Attention to Religious Affairs (OAAR) of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) represses the religious freedoms of all religious Cuban, the pastor affirms that the number of Cubans repressed because of their faith equals to the number of religious Cubans.
“College is for revolutionaries”
This extends to the educational field. Remember that in Cuba there is no private education and the State determines who goes to school.
If a student does not adjust to the political requirements of each educational level, especially the non-compulsory levels, such as higher education, a student can be banned from attending school. Hence the discriminatory slogan: “college is for revolutionaries”.
This is particularly difficult for members of the religious denominations that cannot swear allegiance either to the flag nor to the party because they only respond before divine authority.
Freedom of expression, association, and assembly
Since each religious person must be registered by the regime, there is a greater follow-up and, therefore, persecution. Everyone must be registered in the Registry of Associations of the Ministry of Justice.
And not all requests are answered.
Mario Félix considers that the cruelest thing is that the OAAR instigates religious hatreds by granting permits that would correspond by a right to some as if they were favors in exchange for accepting to “behave well” while denying them to others.
Although in theory, this office represents “religious” interests, the Communist Party of Cuba is the governing body of all religions on the island, controlling it at best and even trying to eliminate it at worst.
Religious persecution in the classic, communist method
The pastor claims that the Cuban state has copied the Chinese system for religious repression (in the past they did the same with the Soviet system). China has its State Administration for Religious Care (SARA), Cuba has its OAAR; China has its Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSMP) Cuba has the Council of Churches of Cuba (CIC).
Given its concern for the phenomenon of Protestantism growing, China is applying its “Operation Deterrence” where it tries to “guide” believers who attend unauthorized churches towards temples which the state controls and manipulates.
Cuban State Security tries to implement a similar system to control the Protestant denominations with legal recognition in the Register of Associations of the Ministry of Justice (MINJUS) to achieve the same thing that the Chinese Communist Party, and thus stop the growth of and even, if possible, destroy the Protestant movements (such as Shouwang in China).
A tradition of atheism and communism
Both in the case of China and in Cuba, scientific socialism reigns. In the case of the PCC, they profess atheism. From a philosophical point of view, says the pastor, that atheism is another religion: the religion of “unbelief” in a divine being and in any aspect that can be classified as merely subjective.
Hence, communism and socialism can be interpreted as religions themselves. This concept provoked the constitutional change in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Cuban State declared its conversion from an atheist state to a lay one.
However, the pastor claims this was a change in name but not the practice. For example, education in Cuba, totally in the hands of the State, is far from secular and remains openly atheist.
This is reflected in propagandistic terms such as “the Party is eternal”, granting metaphysical values and a credo to the ideology.
Faith despite adversity
Totalitarian regimes know how to reverse and repress the people’s faith to consecrate themselves as their prophet, creed, and god. For those who are persecuted by these governments, Yoaxis tells us, “faith is the only force that keeps us going in the face of difficulties of this kind.”
They do not fear the damage that their bodies can suffer, tyrants cannot reach their souls. And they refuse to submit to norms that go against the values that guide them, such as love and justice. But, above all, they do not feel alone. Because there are many cases like theirs in Cuba. They are numerous.