One of the most frequent questions I’m faced with in advocacy and awareness raising work is: “Why?”

It can be very difficult to come up with an answer or to begin to attempt to explain how a repressive regime or a dictator “thinks”.

There is a great quote today in the Washington Post (which has been doing some fantastic coverage of Cuba recently) by Yoani Sánchez, the internationally recognized blogger responsible for Generacion Y (and long time friend of Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and Yoaxis Marcheco, who have featured frequently on this blog). She’s talking specifically about Cuba, but her comment applies to pretty much every repressive regime I’ve come across:

Ms. Sánchez reminded us that such arbitrariness is characteristic of authoritarianism. “It is hard to think like a repressor, if you have never been one,” she said. “They have their own logic. One of the most paralyzing elements of the Cuban repression is its illogical nature.”

Click here for the full article.


Omar and Kenia

Working on religious freedom can be a real drag sometimes. Not in the sense that it ever becomes boring, I love that this is my actual job, but in the sense that cases can drag on and on for what seems like forever. Oppressive regimes and intractable conflicts stay intractable for decades, until suddenly one day they’re not.

Even following political reform, however, justice can remain elusive and some of the cases I work on are almost thirty (THIRTY!) years old. One of those thirty year old cases, has been dragging through the court system for a decade now; the strategy of the defendants and the Ministry of Defense, behind them, appears to be just to stall the process much as possible until the government gives up and the victims run out of resources (which unfortunately is exactly what’s happening).

So… seeing a case positively resolved is something we seriously celebrate at my organization.

Today we closed a case.

After five years of advocacy, prayer, press releases, report writing, regular skype calls and yahoo chats, the Gude Perez/Denis family arrived as refugees in the United States.

Note I said positively resolved, not ideally resolved. Ideally, they would have stayed in Cuba and continued to exercise their ministry. Ideally, they would have done so free from harassment and threats of imprisonment. That, however, wasn’t a possibility, so they made a painful decision to do the best thing for their family, especially for their children who had been excluded from school, and accepted an asylum offer from the US.

Even that, however, became an ordeal as Cuban state security tried to block the family from leaving, or to force them to separate. First they were told none of them would be allowed “white cards”, the equivalent of an exit visa, a requirement that was abolished on January 14th. Then after months of pressure and prayer, the government gave Kenia and their thirteen year old daughter permission to leave, but not their fifteen year old son or Omar. Months after that, following more pressure and prayer, their son was given an exit visa, but still nothing for Omar. In the meantime, someone in authority decided that the kids should no longer be allowed to attend school – never mind that they weren’t going anywhere until they could leave with their dad.

Press releases were published, verbal promises were made, then reneged on.  I started to have frequent random visions of Cuban Communist Party officials in Pharaonic headdresses shaking their heads to the tune of “Let My People Go”.

This situation went on for a full year and a half – as the family discussed, debated and prayed over what they should do: stay firm in their decision to only leave as a unit or if, in the best interests of the kids, they should separate knowing a separation would be indefinite and likely prolonged.

Finally, after a very courageous decision in November 2012 by Kenia to travel to the US on her own, with the intention of returning to Cuba to be with her family, in order to put the spotlight on her family’s situation, something shifted. Someone, somewhere apparently decided that the costs to Cuba’s public image outweighed the benefits of punishing this family and making an example of them to other church leaders on the island and the wheels were set in motion.

More verbal promises were made but this time they were accompanied by the signing of mysterious papers.

Then nothing. For two months.

Until mid January, when in despair Omar wrote an open letter denouncing the regime and explaining the impact of their intransigence on his children – his son had lost more than fifty pounds and his daughter much of her hair, due to the stress put on the family over the past year and half. We prepared a press release.

Maybe someone was monitoring our communication (actually, not maybe, definitely) but for whatever reason, literally just as everything was about to be published, I got an e-mail from Kenia saying they’d just had a visit and been given the final white card.

In the final days of January they boarded a plane and left the country, to their new homes, where they were met by an amazing church family who arranged a welcome party at baggage claim.

Exodus 15:12-18

“You stretch out your right hand,
and the earth swallows your enemies.
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.

The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the peopleof Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
until the people you boughtpass by.
 You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

“The Lord reigns
for ever and ever.”

Here is one of the big reasons: Kenia Denis

I’m posting the translation of an article written by a friend in Cuba. It’s not exactly a guest-blog, it appeared in Spanish on her husband’s blog – but with their permission I wanted to share it.

Yoaxis is the wife of Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor in a small town in central Cuba. He and the denomination have come under intense pressure from the Cuban regime. It started when he refused to expel “undesirables” from his church. It grew worse when he began to speak out about the ways the government tried to intimidate him and members of his congregation. His church is under pressure to kick him out (so far they’ve resisted) as is the denominational leadership (so far, they are resisting too despite serious repercussions for the larger denomination).

Mario and his wife, Yoaxis, however, refuse to bow their heads and pretend that everything is fine and that the Church is free in Cuba. They regularly denounce violations of religious freedom – and in the article below, Yoaxis responds to an article that ran in the state sanctioned press challenging (not very well) information put out by my organization and in the process denigrating her and Mario’s denomination – which despite being referred to as “tiny and irrelevant” in the article is actually one of the largest and most thriving organizations in the country.

Please pray for Mario, Yoaxis, their children, their church and their entire denomination as they play the role of David to Castro’s Goliath. (Disclaimer: please blame me for any grammatical oddities or errors – it’s my translation)

Freedom in Cuba?


By: Yoaxis Marcheco Suárez

I do not know what is happening to certain people or institutions in the world. I think they must be suffering from some kind of lethargy that prevents them from seeing the Cuban reality or it’s that they simply conform themselves to whatever the anti-democratic government of this country says and paints for them. Deeper Cuba is something else, far removed from the reports and the statistics that the government offers up to international opinion. The simple act of looking at a nation plunged into bankruptcy and the imbalance caused by more than fifty years under the same system, with authorities whose extreme self-sufficiency has led them to believe that they are immortal gods, all-powerful and irreplaceable, should be enough for the free world to understand that on this little Antillean island, democracy and freedom took off for the countryside one day and appear to have been unable to find their way back home.

I have also been unable to explain to myself why the Cuban people do not take up the reins and free themselves and everyone else once and for all from what has overwhelmed them for so long. It is very clear, at least to those with decent eyesight, that the country has succumbed; its inhabitants are fed up with daily life. Unfortunately the response to this unhappiness is the high rate of emigration, suicide, alcoholism, crime, the low rate of childbirth in an aging population, alienation and silence.

To speak of freedom in Cuba is almost painful. The recurring monosyllable is No. No freedom of expression; No freedom of the press; No freedom of political or party affiliation (in a single party system); No ideological freedom, No freedom of information, No freedom of assembly or meeting; and a very qualified religious freedom, where the church-state separation is only incumbent upon the church, because the state is constantly exercising its interfering control over the different denominations, associations, etc, manipulating the church leadership, constantly threatening, blackmailing, with an air of superiority. Truly, I do not know what they mean by the phrase ‘separation of church and state’, when the former is supervised in every way by the latter, every step it takes, every decision that it makes.

The questions posed by Benedict XVI, himself, during his recent visit to the country remain unanswered. When will they return, in their entirety, the institutions that the Revolution in its first years, confiscated from the churches? When will it be possible to create new educational institutions with a religious ethos so that the current and future generations of believers can be educated, not under the Marxist-Leninist doctrine but under the teaching of the Bible? When will the religious institutions be able to broadcast their own radio and television programs, or publish its newsletters, printing presses, editorials and bookstores? Isn’t denying these things to the churches a good indication of infringements upon their freedom?

On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that if we are going to talk about the restoration of rights to believers in Cuba, the same rights should be given to all, without distinction, including, as mentioned by Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy in his article: “Another Fallacy of Radio Marti…” to the “tiny and irrelevant congregations that are part of the Western Convention of Baptists, and the Apostolic Movement,” the latter which remains illegal because of the filtering censor of the famous Registry of Associations of the Central Committee. The great fallacy is actually (and believe me it is much more than a “quagmire of lies”) to say that in Cuba, its government, as cited by the same previously mentioned author: “never tortured or persecuted religious pastors for their beliefs, regardless of the size of their denomination, their isolation or a lack of network in or outside Cuba.” I think that the term “never” is perhaps a little too broad.

It’s obvious that this writer to whom I refer is only following in the footsteps of his maximum guide and current historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, who had the nerve to state during the interview “Fidel and religion” that no church was ever shut down in Cuba. In the not so distant past, in the 1960s, the dictators, who were of course bitter enemies of religion, created the UMAP concentration camps, where hundreds of pastors and church leaders were sent. Many churches were literally closed, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Taguayabón, of which I am a member. Believers were barred from entry to the universities; many who decided to remain true to their faith lost their jobs. The church buildings began to empty in the era of communist ideology, with its atheistic and materialist character, which in Fidel Castro’s version took on the aspect of the exterminator of spirituality in a people who were naturally prone to belief.

The much-trumpeted Cuban Constitution of today, which is manipulated by the owners of everything on this island, says in Article 8, that it recognizes and respects freedom of conscience and religion. If they were being honest, they should have added a clause to the article: only if he who professes is a revolutionary, practices Fidelism, and has learned to agree with everything when given an order by the government bodies.” This clause is implicit even though the article goes on to say that the religious institutions are separate from the state. Article 55 expresses: that the state recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It would be repetitive to explain this huge lie, in a country where those who think differently in terms of ideology and politics are imprisoned, arbitrarily detained, threatened, repudiated – always under the same slanderous pretext that they are on the imperial payroll or are mercenaries. In the colossal egocentrism of the Castros and their followers, “the revolutionaries,” there is no room for other mindsets. They fear plurality, just as all tyrants fear those of true faith and firm conviction.

In any case, even without understanding what is going on with those who proclaim themselves to the world to be free, and with a Cuban people so deprived of their most basic rights, I will carry on here inside a smothered Cuba and in this “tiny and irrelevant Baptist Convention of Western Cuba,” which for me is full of beautiful traditions and a deep history of more than one hundred years, with its champions of faith, like the man who was very close to Martí, Alberto J. Díaz, a collaborator in the struggle for independence against the Spanish colonial power; Luis Manuel González Peña, who during the darkest period for believers in Cuba told a government official who predicted the end of churches in this country, that there would be churches yet for a good while, and even more.

I’ll believe in a Jesus who does not mingle with the ego-centric powers of this world but rather with those below, with the “immense minorities” and who most certainly was followed by many, only later to be abandoned by the great multitude, including his disciples, and who was also crucified for many and accepted by few.

I spent this past week doing other people’s writing, or rather, taking what they had already written and transforming it, translating it into English. Though they are around the same age and they speak a common language, the two men whose writing I was working on are very different. They live in different hemispheres under different economic systems and forms of government, come from vastly different backgrounds and their stories and testimonies reflect very different experiences. They share the same faith, however, and hold a strong belief that God has put them where they are and allowed them to experience what they have lived through “for such a time as this”. Both have taken their experiences and their contexts, along with the gifts God has given them, and are using them to further His kingdom in their countries.

They are not nationally, much less internationally famous Christian speakers or writers. Both live and provide for their families on almost no income – in what most of my peers would consider to be poverty. Though respected by those to whom they minister, they receive no real recognition from the larger Church. Despite all of this, however, and like so many other of God’s invisible servants, they get on with their work, changing lives and bring His light into some of the most hopeless places on earth.

As I worked on translating their writing I found myself challenged again and again by the lives they both lead. They are both living their lives in total dependence on God though they face serious obstacles and active opposition to what they do. They depend on Him to provide the material and economic means to carry out the ministry to which He has called them. They depend on Him for physical protection from hostile individuals and a system that hates what they are doing. They depend on Him to watch over their wives and children and they depend on Him to refresh and guide them constantly with His Spirit. And according to them, He does!

Translating their work is a project I have been doing on my own free time. This past week I’ve been on vacation and it may seem odd to some that I chose to use my time in this way. Although the translation and editing that I’ve been doing is definitely “work” and is both challenging and tiring, it’s also one of the most fulfilling and inspiring things I’ve done in a long time. I’m excited to see where their stories will reach now that they are in English and can be understood by many more people around the world. I know that their words will touch, humble and challenge others, just as they have me.

The phrase “a voice for the voiceless” is one that is often used at my organisation. It’s an important calling, especially because there are so many suffering people around the world who have no way to tell their stories. Every so often, however, through my work I come across people who don’t need me to be their voice. They can tell their stories themselves, far better than I ever could. What they need however, is an amplifier to send their stories out, to disseminate them as far and wide as possible. Putting their words into English helps to do that and though I’ve spent much of it at my desk or on my couch, this week has been an exciting one, collaborating with them, in a small way, and the literally life or death work they are doing.

This is not my own writing but I wanted to share with you all an article by a friend of mine, a young Baptist pastor from Cuba. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me!

By: Mario F. Lleonart Barroso.
No one should ever go on hunger strike. Neither should anyone ever fast, and absolutely no one should ever go voluntarily to a cross. But we live in a world that has required such sacrifices and fortunately there have existed men who are ready to carry them out.

The year 2010 is inscribed in the annals of history as the year in which two hunger strikes carried out to the bitter end shook one of the most entrenched dictatorships of all that have passed through a plagued Latin America. Two black men, born in the first years of the Revolutionary period were the protagonists, perhaps surprising for a regime that once said it was born to bring justice to men like them. One was martyred, the other survived, both remain forever united as the two black men who made an autocratic and godlike system tremble.

What they did resonated so much that on December 15th an empty chair was the testimony of both before the entire European Parliament when MEPs, from all parties both left and right, representing 50 million citizens of the EU, carried out the ceremony awarding the Andrei Sakharov prize to Guillermo Fariñas, recognizing his peaceful, arduous, and tenacious struggle, an epic 23 hunger strikes and his battered body’s 11 years in prison

When I heard about the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, which could have so easily been avoided and that Coco had begun his own hunger strike as both a form of protest and calling for the freedom of 26 very ill prisoners, I went to visit him at his home in Santa Clara with the purpose of persuading him to stop. My human wisdom was condemned to failure from the start, he shut my mouth with arguments as strong as John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”, Romans 5:6-8 “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”

So I realized that I was face to face with someone just as evangelical as I am, and what’s more, for the first time in my life, I was in front of someone who was ready to die for a righteous ideal. For Coco, his life came second after his ideas and his firm humanitarian commitment. I was ashamed and remembered the words of Jesus warning us that if we are silent, even the rocks will cry out.

It was very difficult for someone like Coco to be a member of a church in Cuba, just a few of his visits to the First Baptist Church in Santa Clara were enough for the Office of Religious Affairs, the political right hand of the dictatorship which involves itself and interferes in the internal affairs of the Cuban churches, to begin to tremble with rage and anger. Even today, despite the retirement of the courageous Pastor Homero Carbonell, this exemplary Cuban church finds itself punished, its bank accounts have been frozen for some time and any foreigner who requests to visit them is denied a religious visa. But the important thing is that despite the difficulties of ministering to someone like Guillermo Fariñas, the Spirit of God dwells in his heart.

When I received that crushing evangelical argument, one of the best theological lessons I have learned in all my life, I was left with no other option but to pray earnestly for two big miracles intimately linked – first, that Coco would not die despite his determination to carry out a total fast with all the consequences, and second, that those 26 sick prisoners would be freed so that my first request would be granted. Many of the Christians who knew about my new effort discouraged me from such obstinate intercession, I heard every argument against it, but sadly all of them included a sad lack of faith that God is someone for whom nothing is impossible.

Each day of Coco’s hunger strike was for me a day of prayer for him and for the prisoners, all of those days in the privacy of my bedroom, sometimes public as when I publicly spoke a few restrained words on day 28 of the total 135 days of his hunger strike at the Water and Life Conference held by the Worldwide Baptist Alliance on the 23rd of March, or in the public prayer that I would lead once or twice a week at the hospital where Coco languished as part of a chain of prayer that united many diverse people, who, hand in hand would go to visit him during the approved visiting hours.

When at noon on Thursday, July 8th, I had the privilege of leading a prayer of thanksgiving in a huge chain in the courtyard at the entrance of the Arnaldo Milian Hospital, there making it public that Coco’s fast had come to an end after the announced liberation of those prisoners by the government, it was even published in Granma that day, I understood that God had performed an unbelievable miracle. Guillermo himself, that afternoon as we talked by telephone, recognized it: we had witnessed a real miracle and he gave all of the glory to God for it.

This is the history of peaceful co-belligerence in which I, by some divine plan, have been involved in night and day. Co-belligerence is one of those rare divine calls to which I could not say no, and which, despite all the potential consequence that still hang over my life, my family, and my ministry, I will never be ashamed. Instead, I give thanks to God who allowed me, unworthy of his affection or choosing, to live out such an important chapter in the history of Cuba, representing Him.

On December 15th, during the impressive Sakharov award ceremony, a certain letter from Coco to the European Parliament was read out. I was not surprised that he spoke of forgiveness and love for his political adversaries, imitating Jesus Christ who he referred to explicitly. His words were echoed in many of the interviews he gave out, among which I mention one with the wise journalist Reinaldo Escobar:

“Castro-ism aspires to be a religion, and even though every day it is less so, some people go on believing it. It competes with the church as far as requiring adoration… The thing that few people are aware of is that through these days (during the fast) the government felt destabilised facing the strength of will in the community which it produced. This prize should serve also to make it clear that God exists. From a medical point of view, everything said I should have died. I believe that God didn’t want me to and he didn’t want me to die so that I would be able to forgive my enemies, as Christ has taught me, to love my enemies. I was an adolescent of twelve when I entered Camilitos Military School. There they taught me how to hate; hate my enemies, hate the Yankees, hate capitalists. The verb “to hate” was used over and over. If this peaceful struggle has taught me anything, it is how to love. We have to love our political adversaries because the love that we profess towards them is what will make us triumph. Without love, we will not triumph.”

With all that happened, this is now history, but not just a simply earthly history, the hand of God was involved in the whole thing like a sign of His profound love for this world and as an introduction to the fact that a new day is coming to this island.

*Baptist pastor living in Cuba. Member of the Western Baptist Convention. He carries out his minisry in the Taguayabón Baptist Church, Villa Clara, Cuba.

I’ve received a message from the wife of a prisoner in one of my countries asking for prayer. Her husband, a pastor, has been in prison for 3 1/2 years. He is serving a seven year sentence on trumped up charges and was targeted, we believe, because of his leadership of a rapidly growing network of non-denominational churches. They have two pre-teen children who have spent the past two years growing up without their father present.

Over the past few months, in an attempt to improve relations with the outside world, the government of that country has been releasing political prisoners. The catch is that the political prisoners who have been freed and their families have had to leave the country permanently. Some prisoners have refused freedom if it means going into forced exile.

Over the past few days, the pastor and his wife have both received phone calls from government officials, offering them this “deal”. The messages came as a surprise given that the pastor was not a member of the group of prisoners originally discussed. They are now forced to make an extremely difficult decision. Accept the freedom offered to the pastor but leave behind their ministry, their extended family, community and country; or stay and remain in prison in awful conditions, separated from each other for the next four years.