Cuba News for June
- On May 12th Cuban poet and human-rights activist Armando Valladares received the Canterbury Medal, awarded by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in New York. In his speech he said:
When I was 23 years old I did a very small thing. I refused to say a few words, “I’m with Fidel.” First I refused the sign on my desk that said as much, and after years of torture and watching so many fellow fighters die, either in body or in spirit, I persisted in my refusal to say the few words the regime demanded of me.
My story is proof that a seemingly small act of defiance can mean everything to the enemies of freedom. They did not keep me in jail for 22 years because my refusal to say three words meant nothing. They kept me there that long because it meant everything.
For me to say those words would have been spiritual suicide. And though my body was in prison and abused, my soul was free and flourished. My jailers took everything from me, but they could not hijack my conscience.
Even when we have nothing, each person and only that person possesses the keys to his or her own conscience, his or her own sacred castle. In that respect, each of us, though we may not have an earthly castle or even a house, each of us is richer than a king or queen….
Beware young friends. Never compromise. Never allow the government—or anyone else—to tell you what you can or cannot believe or what you can and cannot say or what your conscience tells you to have to do.
The whole speech can be read here.
- Seven years ago, the Mennonite churches claimed 3,400-4000 Cuban members, in 82 churches. Today there are 200 churches, and numbers have doubled to 8,426. This is despite the expulsion of some of the most outspoken and passionate Mennonite leaders from the island five years ago. (The banished leaders have gone on to plant churches in Nicaragua, Mexico and Peru.)
The Mennonite churches were forbidden to buy property or build churches, and so many congregations meet in houses. They say, “It’s very typical to have a hundred people in a house, and they have the service inside and in the backyard and around the front and sides.” Now that restrictions have been relaxed a little, a three-storey Bible school and training centre has been built which the Mennonites hope other groups will use too.
- Cuban Baptists are improving their facilities too. Rev. Maykel Bàez Bruffau, the President of the national Baptist fellowship of Cuba, has been able to replace contaminated water storage barrels and introduce a new filtration system in the Baptist conference centre. The Cuban water supply is notoriously poor in quality, and it is hoped that this new initiative will help churches all over Cuba learn to share the Christian message more effectively.
- Cubans are flocking in to Texas – and that is creating worries for the Catholic Church’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, who are expecting to assist around 3,500 Cuban migrants settle in the next few weeks. They expect two plane loads each day, carrying 150 people, but the indications are that this expectation will be swamped. Panama, Costa Rica and other Latin American countries are forcing Cuban refugees to travel on to the USA, pushing potential figures up to a daily 350.
The Cubans come into the United States from Mexico, crossing the Santa Fe International Bridge into El Paso. The Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, who say they exist to “advance justice and protect the rights of those we serve in the spirit of gospel values”, warn that their funding is inadequate to the task. DMRS, founded in 1986, is the only full-service immigration legal aid clinic serving low-income immigrants and refugees residing in the southwestern United States.
- Cuban President Raul Castro has promised that he will leave office in 2018. He has also picked his successor: the First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. What will life be like for the churches under Díaz-Canel?
First signs are not encouraging. The First Vice President is sometimes described as “a hardline party apparatchik”. A member of the Politburo since 1997, he has been associated with much of the repression of Christians over the last few years, and is unlikely to change the Castro government’s attitude to the churches. However, in the present softening climate, he held a unique meeting last September with nearly a hundred representatives of different religious institutions and groupings, and claims they have a role to fulfil in the development of Cuba. He said that “prosperity is not only about economic development”, and that “material improvement does not automatically lead to the restoration of values”.
- The Cuban Foreign Ministry has announced that Cuba and the USA are planning new cooperation agreements, to be signed over the next few months. Among the areas to be mutually addressed will be the fight against drugs, search and rescue operations, oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, seismic monitoring, plant and animal health, terrestrial protected areas, and meteorology. There are also plans for a series of high-level visits from each country to the other, to foster dialogue and understanding.
- President Castro’s daughter Mariela – well known as an advocate for LGBT rights – led a mass march on May 14th to celebrate the Ninth National Anti-Homophobia and Transphobia Day, urging the government to move ahead with legislation permitting same-sex marriage. The march climaxed with a celebration of symbolic weddings of same-sex couples.
Cuba’s originally repressive sexual legislation has gradually been loosened. When the revolution first took place in 1959, thousands of homosexual people were sent to labour camps. And until 1993, HIV/AIDS sufferers were forcibly quarantined in state-run institutions. But by 1979, consensual homosexual relationships had been decriminalized, and in 2013 a new labour code outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. Gender identity discrimination has not yet been addressed.
- The largest Adventist church in Cuba is Guantanamo Central Adventist, which isn’t big enough to contain the thousand or so members who turn up every Sunday. It has a lively, passionate congregation whose vibrant faith has helped Adventist numbers in Cuba to jump to 7,078 members.
And it is led by a woman.
Gilma Carbonell is 44, and a former university lecturer with a degree in Marxist philosophy and education. After her baptism into the church in 1995, she attended the Adventist seminary in Havana, and then began work as a pastor, although she is not ordained. (Many Cuban pastors, both male and female, have no ordination.) Her remarkable gifts of organization and strategic planning have resulted in aggressive church planting, quality educational work, and training of church members for responsibilities in fostering growth.
This month her work in Eastern Cuba enters a new stage as the Alto Oriente Mission, which she pioneered, becomes a “Conference” in its own right.
- News is just filtering through of the arrest of Berta Soler, leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White). The Ladies in White are a (largely Catholic) opposition group founded in 2003 by wives and relatives of jailed dissidents. The women attend Mass each Sunday dressed in white, and then parade the streets as a silent protest. The colour white was chosen as a symbol of peace, and in 2005 the group received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament.
(Soler and others were forbidden to leave Cuba to accept the award, but in 2013 she was permitted to travel and receive it. Her own husband is serving a twenty-year sentence for his activist activities.)
The Damas de Blanco are not liked by the government, who regard them as a subversive group of American-backed terrorists. There have been waves of arrests in 2010, 2012, 2015 and now 2016, just hours before President Barrack Obama’s visit to Havana.
Berta Soler’s arrest came when she attended the installation of the new Archbishop of Havana on May 22nd. She is charged with assaulting a police officer, and insists that there is video evidence to prove her complete innocence. She has said however that she is willing to go to jail if necessary.
At the moment she is under a number of restrictions, including a ban on travel outside Cuba. She has been warned that if found guilty she faces a period of between three months and five years in prison.
- In the wake of Obama’s visit to Cuba, Asian and European big business is beginning to develop its links with the island. Cuba and South Korea have never been friends (Cuba is one of just three of the 191 UN member states with which South Korea does not have diplomatic relations) but the South Korean Foreign Minister has been invited to attend a multilateral summit meeting in Havana this month. Meanwhile Japanese trading houses are also forming links: Mitsubishi, for example, has just opened Havana offices, aiming to supply Japanese medical devices and farm equipment, as well as to win orders to replace such aging facilities as power plants. Mitsubishi may also sell Cuba liquefied natural gas.
A new British renewable energy company, Havana Energy, has agreed to build a biomass power station in Cuba – the first of possibly five, each of which will cost £125 million to build. Havana Energy is headed by former Labour trade secretary Brian Wilson.
An older (and less health-promoting) British company is also interested in Cuba. Imperial Brands, the tobacco giant, is contemplating a return to Cuba to start manufacturing luxury cigars once again.