Armando Valladares is the author of Against All Hope, about the 22 years he spent as a prisoner in Castro’s gulags.
Despite renewed ties with the U.S.
Many of the Damas de Blanco—Cuba’s infamous wives, mothers and daughters of jailed political dissidents—were recently detained on their way to Sunday Mass with their families. But you likely didn’t read about these arrests in the American news media. You were much more likely to have read about the first Carnival cruise ship to sail from the U.S. to Cuba. Coverage of the “historic voyage” featured photos of Carnival executives clinking champagne and waiving miniature American and Cuban flags and images of happy Cubans lining the shores of Havana alongside gleaming antique cars. Never mind that Cuba initially refused passage to Cuban-born Americans.
Despite direct flights to Havana and even a historic presidential visit in April, human-rights violations in Cuba remain serious. Just weeks before Carnival’s maiden voyage to Cuba, hundreds of government workers in eastern Cuba surrounded and demolished the Strong Winds Ministry Church of Las Trunas and threatened to throw its pastor, Reverend Mario Jorge Travieso, in jail for seven years if he said a word about it. The church’s crime? Failure to register with the government. Strong Winds was the fourth church to be destroyed by the government in 2016.
The Cuban government is especially good at violating the human rights of its people, and then labeling the victims as the criminals. I spent 22 years in Catro’s gulags for the simple crime of refusing to place a sign on my desk that read: “I’m with Fidel.” I lost 22 years of my life, and countless friends and family, for that sin against the regime. I spent eight of those years naked, when I refused to wear the prison uniform of a criminal. Of his treatment at the hands of the Cuban authorities, after they had destroyed his church and the house of worship for many more, Rev. Travieso said he was made to feel “like a common delinquent.”
Despite backslaps between Raul Castro and President Barack Obama and vacationers packing their bags for Cuban beaches, my jailers are still in their back-alley business of rounding up everyday citizens, violating their most basic human rights, and then slapping them with the label “criminal.” Last year, the number of documented political arrests was almost as high in just one month as it was in the entire year of 2010. Hostility to religion is especially enflamed, with one human rights group counting 2,000 churches marked as “illegal” by the government last year, 100 of them slated for the same fate as that of Rev. Travieso’s. That group found a nearly 1,000% increase in overall religious liberty violations from 2014 to 2015.
Just ask Alan Gross, the American who was captured working covertly in Cuba to help the small Jewish community gain access to better Internet services. He returned to the U.S. after five years, missing teeth, weighing 100 pounds less, hardly able to walk due to the pain from chronic abuse, and barely able to see from one eye. That is Cuban price tag for working peacefully for religious liberty.
The Castro regime has long loathed religion, because God is their biggest competition when it comes to rights. How can rights come from Fidel, and now Raul, when there is someone much bigger and greater than they? And how can they seize those rights on a totalitarian whim, when they were never the bestower of rights in the first place? Any dictator knows it’s hard work to compete with God. So the solution is to crush God from civil society.
As Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Justice Samuel Alito recently wrote in a joint opinion uniting the two poles of the Court in a major religious liberty ruling: “religious institutions act as critical buffers between the individual and the power of the state.”
And so it follows that an all-powerful state would be hard at work destroying those buffers, one church foundation at a time. And when the buffer can’t be destroyed, focus on the individual, one Dama at a time.
And so if Carnival would like to take its passengers to see “the real Cuba,” as it advertises, they might stopover in Las Trunas and visit the rubble of what was once Rev. Travieso’s church. That should provide some authentic flavor to the trip.
Published by TIME Magazine on June 2nd, 2016