Editor’s note (July 28): CSW reports that the two Cuban pastors highlighted below have been released from prison.
A few days after Hurricane Elsa swept across the center of Cuba, Christians of all denominations joined in a nationwide day of prayer and fasting for their country on Wednesday, July 7. The call was made after months of increasing tension on the island amid severe scarcity of food and medicine and as the number of COVID-19 infections began to rise precipitously and the once-lauded health system threatened to collapse. Church leaders of all denominations reported that they were increasingly under surveillance and had been interrogated and threatened.
Four days later, on Sunday, July 11 in a town outside Havana, people spilled into the streets and marched peacefully and enthusiastically, calling for freedom and chanting “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life,” the title of a hit song released by pro-democracy Cuban hip hop artists earlier this year and a twist on the Cuban Communist Party slogan “Homeland or Death”). They shouted in unison, “We are not afraid!” The demonstration was recorded and shared live via social media by participants and onlookers and, within hours, similar protests involving thousands of people sprang up in cities and towns across the island.
The spontaneity and magnitude of the protests, the likes of which have not been seen in Cuba since the triumph of the revolution in 1959, caught the government off guard. President Miguel Díaz-Canel went on television and made an explicit call to violence, telling the population that he was giving an order to combat and called for true revolutionaries to go into the streets and reclaim them by force. The military, police, and state security agents, both in uniform and plainclothes, flooded into the streets, beating protesters and detaining hundreds.
The total number of Cubans detained or disappeared is still not known but continues to climb. While a few have been released, most remain detained, incommunicado in prisons, police stations, and state security facilities across the country. Many family members of the detainees have reported that the government plans to charge them with “incitement to delinquency” with the aggravating factor of doing so during the “public calamity” of the pandemic. Threatened prison sentences range from eight to 20 years.
Because of the unplanned nature of the protests, those who went out into the streets were from all walks of life: ordinary Cubans, young and old, male and female, and people of all faiths and none. While some human rights and pro-democracy activists joined the marches, many stayed home, concerned that the government would use their participation as an excuse to condemn them to long prison terms.
Church leaders faced the same dilemma. One Protestant church leader told CSW why he had chosen to stay in his home, despite sympathizing with the protesters. “I wanted to go out with all my heart, but I have been under surveillance by state security for months. I know the authorities are looking for any excuse to arrest me. I believe I can do more here in the trenches than I could have done by going into the streets.”
The leader, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, was not wrong. In the days following the protests and detentions he acted as a bridge, putting families of detained Christians in his area—including pastors, other church leaders, and rank and file members—in touch with international advocacy organizations.
In contrast, two Berean Baptist pastors in the province of Matanzas, which has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, decided to march. Yarian Sierra Madrigal and Yéremi Blanco Ramírez, who also work as tutors at the William Carey Biblical Seminary, were violently detained and have been held incommunicado since then. A witness said he saw the authorities set dogs on Sierra Madrigal as the pastor recorded police violence on his phone before he was arrested.
In a statement and exhortation to prayer sent to CSW, his wife Claudia Salazar said, “My husband Yarian and our friend and brother Yéremi are honorable Cuban citizens. They have dedicated all of their youth and lives to serve the church and to serve others. [They are] family men: loving fathers, loving husbands, with an impeccable life testimony. They are not any kind of delinquent, nor are they low-lifes as those who govern this country call them. They are good men. They are men of God.”
Their wives have not been allowed to communicate with the two pastors, who according to the authorities were being held in the Women’s Prison in Matanzas but have now been transferred to a maximum security prison. On July 15, the women were told that their husbands’ cases had been turned over to the public prosecutor’s office and on Monday, July 19, they received news that the two men will face criminal charges. Overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in prisons across the country, in the midst of the pandemic, have led to concern for the wellbeing of all those in detention. The families of the pastors are particularly concerned given that Sierra Madrigal is still recovering from a bad case of COVID-19 and Blanco Ramírez suffers from severe asthma.
In what appears to be another attempt to pressure the family, Salazar and their young son were evicted from their home on Sunday, July 18. The landlord told Salazar that state security had threatened to confiscate the home if he did not throw them out. With nowhere to go, she and her son have taken refuge in their church.
Father Castor José Álvarez Devesa, a Roman Catholic priest in the province of Camaguey and a well-known human rights defender and promoter of religious freedom, also chose to march. He was detained and imprisoned after receiving a severe blow to the head while trying to help another wounded protester. He approached the police and requested medical assistance, which they provided before jailing him alongside other protesters. He was released into the custody of his archbishop the following day; however, a number of Catholic lay and youth leaders and others, including the church organist, in the town of San Nicolas de Bari, remain in detention.
Although the Cuban government attempted to cripple the protest movement by shutting off electricity in some parts of the country and either cutting or severely restricting access to the internet, the protests have continued. Violence has also continued, and despite the difficulties some Cubans have managed to upload to social media graphic video of protesters being beaten and fired upon. There have reportedly been several deaths.
Since the 1960s, Cuban religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations, have hesitated to overtly criticize the government in any way. Repercussions for doing so have been severe. In the days since July 11, however, this too has changed.
The Catholic Bishop’s Conference, a number of other Catholic groups, and major Protestant denominations including the Evangelical League of Cuba, the Methodist Church of Cuba, and the Assemblies of God have published multiple statements condemning the government’s invocation of violence, affirming the right to peaceful freedom of expression and the validity of the protesters’ demands, and calling on the authorities to listen and respond to them. Over the past week, the statements from evangelical denominations have grown stronger.
On July 18, the Assemblies of God of Cuba published a statement reaffirming the right of all people to express themselves through peaceful demonstrations and reiterated the role of Christians and churches to be peacemakers. The statement also addressed President Díaz-Canel’s statements directly:
“[We] reject the attitude of the President of Cuba by declaring: ‘The order to combat has been given,’ which sparked violent clashes throughout the country. A government that proclaims the inclusion and equity of all citizens must have the wisdom to promote dialogue, not confrontation, between Cubans. We believe that slogans and calls, lacking in peace and sanity and that inflame the people, will not solve the situation in which the country finds itself, but will instead destine the nation to total chaos and destruction.”
Notably, the Cuban Council of Churches—an ecumenical umbrella group of religious associations which maintains a good relationship with the government—and its leaders have remained conspicuously silent.
It seems clear that Cuba, which marks the 62nd anniversary of its revolution on Monday, July 26, has reached a turning point. What happens next will depend in part on how severely the government decides to crack down. The mass detentions and threats of long prison sentences seem to indicate it is pursuing a similar strategy to that of the Black Spring of 2003, when about 75 human rights and pro-democracy activists were rounded up across the island and handed sentences of up to 25 years.
There are, however, marked differences between the situation in 2003 and in 2021. The president is no longer a member of the Castro family. Despite government efforts, there is still some access to the internet, social media, and messaging apps, and a tech-savvy population can communicate across and outside the island in a way that was not possible 18 years ago.
Another critical difference is the deep fear of even appearing to criticize the government, which has characterized much of the population—including churches—for decades, appears to be evaporating. Protestant denominations that were deeply divided and suspicious of one another in 2003 have since come together and united, launching the Cuban Evangelical Alliance in 2019. The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) affiliate has remained strong despite the government’s punitive measures and threats against its leadership.
An example of this new unity can be seen in the nationwide and interdenominational day of fasting and prayer for Cuba four days before the demonstrations erupted. Many Christians see a direct connection between the July 7 prayers and the events of July 11.
On July 10, pastor Alida León Báez, the respected longtime leader of the Evangelical League and a founding leader of the local WEA alliance, posted on social media:
“On the day of the call to fasting and prayer for Cuba [July 7], after having cried out with groaning and having enjoyed God’s presence, the fast was broken with heavy rain and electrical storms … but later, [there was] a gentle whistle, a calm ministering peace, and [I saw] a beautiful map [of Cuba] drawn in the sky…. My feeling was that God was pleased with this day and that he loves Cuba. Psalm 145:19 ‘He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.’”
Evangelical denominations have called for another day of prayer and fasting tomorrow, July 21 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time, to focus on salvation, healing, and peace in Cuba.
In the meantime, the newfound boldness continues. As the president of the seminary where the two detained Baptist pastors tutored wrote July 16 on Facebook:
“Today I received several calls trying to scare me into stopping publishing information about Pastors Yéremi Blanco Ramírez and Yarian Sierra [Madrigal].
They have called some of our pastors, trying to intimidate them.
In case any of you at State Security have doubts about who I am:
I am Jatniel Pérez Feria. National President of the William Carey Biblical Seminary in Cuba and pastor of the Independent Evangelical Church in Velasco, Holguín.
I am responsible for all the pastors and brothers who study in our seminary.
If it bothers [you] that I am saying these things, then you know very well where I live.
If I have to suffer for defending pastors and churches, then here I am, like Paul I am willing to go to prison for defending the cause of the Gospel.
I am not afraid of going anywhere.
You can do what you want with my body but my soul you cannot kill.
I prefer to obey God rather than men…
I love my country. And I love my flag, where God placed me. And I will always defend the Church that Christ bought with His blood.
Grace and peace.”
Anna-Lee Stangl is joint head of advocacy and team leader for the Americas at CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.