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 organisationsthat 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.
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 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 demonstrationscalled 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.
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.
Adelys and Claudia
Silence is the biggest noise in Cuba, but Adelys Rodríguez broke it when her husband, pastor Yéremi Blanco, was arrested during the ‘11-J’ protests in the city of Matanzas. She found out at 7 p.m. on that Sunday. Claudia Salazar, wife of another pastor, Yarian Sierra, contacted her to let her know that her husband was also in prison.
Adelys left her three children with Claudia's, and both went out to look for their husbands in the city's police stations. No one gave them any information. "They treated us as if we were dogs, that we had no right to anything", she told me after their first marathon through police stations.
The next day they found out at the provincial delegation of the Minint (Interior Ministry) that their husbands were in a section specially prepared for the hundreds of ‘11J’ detainees, in the city's Women's Prison. At the entrance to the penitentiary, they waited for hours for an answer. Adelys recalls, in tears, that senior officials said their husbands "were going to be there for 7 to 14 days".
Yéremi and Yarian are pastors of the Christian denomination Misión Bereana, present in Cuba since the 1940s, but outlawed after Castroism confiscated their property in 1960. Today its members congregate in their own homes or rented houses.
Although since the 1990s the Cuban state has stopped calling itself officially atheist - as it did for decades - and has since tolerated the practice of religion, it still tries to control and limit the operation of religious organisations as much as possible.
The current law on associations, which protects the operation of churches, excludes the recognition of groups whose "purpose" is similar to that of an already registered group. This allows the State to deny registration to churches with doctrines similar to those of others already recognised. Only 55 legal Protestant denominations, mostly established before 1959, escape this rule.
From these historic churches have emerged some pastors, such as the Baptist Raúl Suarez, who support the regime. There are also other leaders who have kept their political distance, not cooperating, trying to interact as little as possible with the State, but without openly confronting it.
On the other hand, there are faith groups that the regime refuses to recognise, such as the network of more than 50 churches of the Apostolic Movement, with thousands of members, or the Berean Mission, to which Yéremi and Yarian belong.
Often, it is these unrecognised churches that have experienced the greatest violations of their rights: demolition of churches, arrests of leaders or coercion of membership, as exposed in a 2020 report by the NGO CSW.
Perhaps for this reason, and with nothing to lose, the pastors of these congregations have been more outspoken than those of the registered associations. Leaders such as Apostle Yoel Demetrio from Las Tunas refer to the State as dictatorial or openly denounce abuses against civil society, for example.
However, this division between recognised and non-registered churches began to close in 2018, when they made their institutional position and that of their parishioners known during the final drafting of the new Magna Carta.
45 denominations demanded respect for basic individual rights, such as freedom of conscience, freedom of the press or private property, among others. Although the general rejection of Article 68 of the Communist constitution (which changed the view of marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman) catalysed the alliance of Protestant churches in an unprecedented campaign in Cuban civil society, this was only one of the 16 articles on which there were complaints or opposition in the new constitution.
Protestant leaders said they would vote against the Magna Carta, opposing the regime's campaign for a Yes vote.
In addition, several religious organisations, including the Methodist Church to which Jovellanos' pastor Carlos Macías belongs, organised a national civic campaign that included collecting signatures and even calling for a March for the Family, which the State banned.
The authorities reacted to the challenge posed by religious organisations. From then on, several Protestant leaders, including those of recognised churches, began to face more summonses, threats or prohibitions to leave the country.
Tension increased in 2019, when the largest denominations opposed to the constitution formed an organisation outside the state: the Alliance of Evangelical Churches (Alianza de Iglesias Evangélicas). This constituted a direct challenge to the regime-friendly Council of Churches of Cuba (CIC). The creators of the Alliance, in fact, openly declared that they did not feel represented by the CCC and have not yet succeeded in having the organisation legalised.
In the interview granted for this report, the CSW spokesperson stated that the creation of the Alliance "was a show of unity not seen among the Protestant churches since 1959".
Since then, the CIC has been losing members, highlighting the deterioration of church-state relations. Today, less than half of the country's 55 legal Protestant associations belong to the organisation.
Shortly before ‘11J’, the Pentecostal and Reformed Christian Churches cancelled their membership in the ICC. This act of protest occurred because of the implementation of a "Comprehensive Sexuality Education Programme with a focus on gender and sexual and reproductive rights" in the centralised state education system, which generated a new clash with the regime and rejection among the majority of Protestant churches.
At that time, Yéremi spoke out for the preferential right of parents to choose the type of education for their children. In a May 2021 post, he said he did not like politics, but lamented that "the government strictly controls education"and "there are no private schools and home schooling is not allowed".
He denounced the "communist system, which has filled its mouth with saying that human rights are not violated in Cuba" and ironised: "in the mouths of those who feed like parasites on a system that profits them to a lesser or greater extent, we are the perfect country".
For him and Yarian, both members of an outlawed church, the most open opposition to the government had been coming since at least 2019. That year, Yarian shared on social media a complaint about the expropriation of a building of the Nazarene Church.
That same year, shortly before, Yéremi took part in a protest at Holguín airport, after the State-owned Cubana de Aviación cancelled a flight and customers complained of mistreatment by officials.
For all these reasons, as happened to Carlos, it was natural for Yéremi and Yarian to go out and demonstrate in the streets of Matanzas when they saw on social networks that thousands of people were doing so on 11 July. As Yarian's wife Claudia explained, both protested "because they abhorred communism".
They, unlike Carlos, were unable to escape imprisonment. When their wives were able to locate them, they demanded that the authorities allow them to make a phone call. The reply was that there was no telephone in the prison. The next day they said there was no call because the pastors had refused to share their telephone numbers. "Our husbands wouldn't keep us in anguish, not knowing their whereabouts", Adelys told me.
They are "practically kidnapped", Claudia posted on Facebook, and criticised the authorities: "even the health protocols were violated because they only allowed them to give them three face masks and they have been detained for more days". To deliver medication to Yéremi, who was recovering from covid-19, "we even had to get a doctor's prescription, because they wouldn't authorise it".
Claudia was told that Yéremi and Yarian would be prosecuted for public scandal, but "they neither assaulted anyone, nor destroyed anything", she replied.
Meanwhile, their detention caused outrage among members of the Protestant community, including Holguín pastor Jatniel Pérez Feira, who criticised the arbitrary arrests of protesters on his social media accounts. Shortly after speaking out, Pérez Feira claimed to have received anonymous calls to intimidate him.
"I think you know Pastor Lorenzo [Rosales], who is now a prisoner in Boniato (a jail in Santiago de Cuba). I just wanted to apologise because I was one of the guards who urinated on his head in the early morning of 14 July when we were transferring him to Versalles (a police unit in the same province). We had no water and we thought we had killed him from the beating we gave him on the way".
That was the first message that arrived last October on the Facebook Messenger of Mario Félix Lleonart, a Cuban Baptist pastor exiled in Washington, USA, and director of the Patmos Institute, which monitors religious freedom.
Lleonart's mobile rang again. The stranger confessed that he did not want to abuse Lorenzo, but if he did not participate, he said, "the dead man would be me". Another buzz: "they're here to kill the pastor so that he doesn't tell everything that has been done to him". The communication ended in a chilling manner: "Any day now, another prisoner will kill him or he will appear to have committed suicide".
Lleonart has a long history as a religious critic of the regime. Recently, he was one of the promoters of the creation of the Association of Unregistered Cuban Churches (AICNOR), a new Protestant organisation that emerged after ‘11J’ and was set up outside Cuba.
In its first communiqué, AICNOR was blunt: it underlined "the people's legitimate right to peaceful demonstration" and described the regime as "a totalitarian State that encourages violence".
AICNOR is perhaps so far the most belligerent Protestant formation to emerge in the country. Although some of its members, such as Lleonart, are outside the island, several Cuban churches, such as the Berean Mission, to which Yéremi and Yarian belong, or the Apostolic Movement, have joined the organisation.
After years of tensions between religious structures and the regime, the emergence of AICNOR is evidence that after ‘11J’ a period of greater hostility has begun.
In an interview for this report, Lleonart said that the organisation "was already in the making, but it crystallised and was forced to come to the fore forced by circumstances". "If it hadn't been for ‘11J’, the process leading up to the public announcement would have taken longer. But ‘11J’ served as a catalyst," he said.
One of AICNOR's first activities has been, precisely, to fight for the release of Pastor Lorenzo, the man imprisoned in Boniato who was mentioned in the messages Lleonart received.
Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo is a pastor of the Monte de Sion Church in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba, who remains imprisoned at the time of this publication for having participated in the 11 July demonstrations along with hundreds of other neighbours.
Rosales is one of at least 708 people still being held for participating in the protests, according to the most up do date count by the group Justicia 11J.
Lorenzo had frequently clashed with the authorities. In fact, he was Superintendent of the registered Open Bible Church, from which he was expelled under pressure from the Communist Party's Office of Religious Affairs, according to information provided by the Patmos Institute.
Later, he founded his current church in the east of the country, although he did not succeed in registering it. Lleonart believes that what happened to Lorenzo reveals a pattern of how the Communist Party pressures established associations to purge uncomfortable leaders, pushing them into illegality. "Lorenzo has been in a vulnerable situation for 10 years, and that is why they can now take it out on him," he said.
There are photographs of his arrest on ‘11J’. One of them shows two uniformed men restraining him. One, from the National Revolutionary Police, appears to be holding the pastor's hands behind his back, perhaps to handcuff him. Another, from the Special Brigade, younger and wearing a black beret, is holding Lorenzo's neck in the V-shaped bend of his arm and forearm.
Maridilegnis Carballo, Lorenzo's wife, saw this pixelated image after the four-day internet blackout imposed by the regime following the protests. Neither her husband nor their son David had returned home. The 17-year-old had been missing for almost a week before being released. The father was not to be seen for about 100 days.
David recounted that they were both in a "cubicle totally enclosed by bars" and a padlocked door. The cold of the night and the harsh summer sun came in, accentuating the stench of the bathroom. "We were several days without water, they gave us little to drink", he said after leaving on a bail in cash. Mosquitoes and gnats made the confinement crueler.
The biggest worry now was for Lorenzo. He had not taken his blood pressure pills and his wife was denied information about his condition, as well as the possibility of visiting him in the police unit known as Versalles, in the city of Santiago de Cuba.
At the end of July, the case investigator informed Maridilegnis that her husband would not receive any visits or calls. Only on that date was she able to leave him some toiletries and medication to control his blood pressure.
The six months of detention have passed with only two visits, one on 16 October and the other on 28 October, which David was also able to attend. "I can't tell you he's well, he's skinny", the teenager told me, "you know what prison life is like and the atrocities they do".
On leaving the first of these meetings, Maridilegnis commented that her lawyer had called her to inform her of the prosecutor's request: "ten years for the crimes of instigation to commit a crime, contempt of court and attempted murder".
In December, Lorenzo's trial finally took place. According to what the lawyer told his wife, the authorities were expected to hand down the sentence around 16 January.
Marilidegnis said that the witnesses presented at the trial were "mostly" police officers.
"They told a story that was not what we really saw and experienced that day [11J]," the woman said in an audio I accessed, "They attributed to the detainees all the violence, intentions to vandalise, to deprive of life". "The prosecution witnesses said that they felt fear and terror, because the people went with sticks, stones and bottles, but that is not true," she said.
"My husband is innocent, his actions on that day have nothing to do with the crimes of which they are accused".
Yéremi and Yarian
In prison, Pastor Yarian Sierra told himself "I cannot falter". His cellmates in the Combinado del Sur, he wrote, needed a message of hope, one "that transcends even the bars of a prison and breaks the chains and shackles not only of the body, but rather of the soul".
Disenfranchised and incommunicado, Yarian saw in what he suffered a purpose. "Almost every night some curious topic from the Bible would come up that someone was interested in, and that's when the debate would begin", the young man recounted.
During his days in detention, both he and Yéremi were denied Bibles. Even so, one verse after another came to Yarian's mind, despite his poor memory. Nor did he forget the emotion of ‘11J’.
Aside from what his flesh might suffer, the condition of his wife, Claudia, and their seven-year-old, additional needs son, was Yarian's biggest concern each day of confinement. He didn't know it, but Claudia and the boy had been evicted from the house where they lived. Now the church meeting place would also be their roof.
When he thought of them, he didn't believe he would see them, "at least not for a long time". But on the 14th day of his confinement, almost at nightfall, the soldiers informed him that he would await trial under house arrest. Yarian confesses that he endured those days because while his body was imprisoned, his free soul and mind constantly returned to some biblical text or ancient hymn.
"Every centimetre of those four walls reminded me of Christ, every little detail had its parallel to the spiritual life", he recounted. On each of the five bars of the gate he used to imagine, engraved, the five pillars of the Protestant Reformation: Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, to God alone be the Glory. And on the 14th day of his imprisonment, almost at nightfall, the military informed him that he would await trial under house arrest.
The barred gate opened, but his "heart was strangely confused". On the one hand, he remembered that he was joyful, on the other he was "sad for those he was leaving behind in that cell".
Yarian walked alone for several metres to the prison exit. He meditated on what he had experienced, until he saw a pastor friend and Yéremi in the distance. He too was being released a that point.
In the following days, especially when he was praying over food, the faces of the unfortunate ones, whom nobody knew but him and their families, came back to Yarian's mind. "Tears came to my eyes".
When he and Yéremi arrived at the congregation's meeting place, there was a group of friends. "We felt in their embrace, the embrace of Christ himself and of all those who wanted to have been there but for other reasons could not", Yarian said.
Upon leaving the Combinado Sur, Yarian learned of the eviction of his wife and son and wept. Not even hearing the prosecutor's accusation for him and Yéremi ("public disorder") affected him as much.
Fifty kilometres to the south, in Jovellanos, Carlos visited relatives of those imprisoned for ‘11J’. His discoveries helped map the national repression of the State. He also considers that kind of work as pastoral work. He has offered counselling and accompaniment to the loved ones of Félix Navarro and Sissi Abascal, well-known pro-democracy activists, and others detained in the protests.
But it has not all been easy. The family of a teenage prisoner asked him not to visit them anymore, as they returned to him a financial help Carlos had offered from his own pocket. He later learned that the police had warned the women that the minor's situation could worsen if they continued to receive the pastor.
At the end of October, Yéremi and Yarian travelled to a village near Jovellanos. On their way back, they took a detour and arrived at Carlos Macías' house. They had not met each other before, they only knew about each other's cases via Facebook.
Yéremi posted a photo in which he, Yarian, another pastor and Carlos smile, standing, at a mobile phone camera. There are times when we don't go out in search of friends," he wrote, "but God in his mercy grants them to us".
Carlos recognised that with those men he shared "a deep desire to defend Justice, Truth, Liberty, and Life". With capital letters and consequences.
They spoke about Lorenzo Rosales, the Santiago pastor who was imprisoned at the time. Neither of them knew him personally, but they felt a sense of brotherhood as soon as they heard about his calvary.
On 22 October, Yarian received a phone call while he was at home with friends. The person behind the unknown number summoned him and Yéremi "to the Police Station on the beach".
Yarian said no and hung up. "Minutes later, an officer showed up at the house", who reiterated that they should go to the authorities the next morning, but the herders demanded a legal document. The officer ordered them to go with him ipso facto. At the station they were threatened not to leave on 15 November, the day on which thousands of Cubans were called to march for change, as had happened on 11 July.
On 1 September they were summoned again to sign an administrative fine. That was the closure of the charges pending from 11J. They paid in disagreement, "so as not to have to take the case to court".
For Yarian and Yéremi, even after paying the fine, the harassment did not end. "The next day, a police officer surprised us in the middle of the day by summoning us for two o'clock in the afternoon," he said. Once at the station, he informed them that they would be "monitored for a period of at least six months".
"We are still under surveillance", Yarian complains, "under harassment, under surveillance because, according to them, we are persons of interest to the police".
This article was translanted into English with permission for Evangelical Focus and Religion Unplugged.