By Frank Simon
HAVANA TIMES — “In the ‘60s, Catholics had stones thrown at them and a cordline was even put up at mass time so nobody could enter the churches because they used to say we were counter-revolutionaries. The only element of truth in all of that is that the priest did criticize the new government’s atheism, but he never planted bombs or fired shots,” Pedro tells me.
Anita is now an old woman but she remembers how she was banned from going to university in spite of her high grades as a student, because her records featured the dishonorable Baptist label. “It seems that the Revolution had already forgotten that its first great martyr was Frank Pais, was a Baptist.”
Thousands of young believers were sent off to Camaguey province, convicted for their respective religions, aging between 15-25 years old. “They were forced labor camps, where we had to be reeducated to become the ‘new man’ and that meant a system of exploitation where the slightest inkling of human rights weren’t respected, some people even committed suicide,” Jesus tells me. He recalls that at the work camps there were also homosexuals, teenagers without any work ties, political opponents and people of all persuasions. He heard a guard accidentally tune the radio to an evangelical radio station one morning, and one of the most beautiful hymns started playing “torre alta y roca mia,“ then, he told me, “I felt like I was going to come out of that abusive time alive.”
Cuba’s Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), as the camps were called, were a Machiavellian invention which attempted to imitate the Soviets’ brainwashing experiment on “prerevolutionary” generations, who had been educated in a kind of “bourgeois moral”, a preview of the ideological prejudice which would go on to define this brand new Castro government. Alarmed, the world pressured the government to get rid of these forced labor camps, which were taken down and this time the dictatorship couldn’t hide or put on a front. The UMAPs are a taboo subject in every Cuban media editorial department, as well as in university investigations, as if “this never happened” according to official discourse.
However, today, there are still cases where religious freedom is non-existent. According to Berta Nunez, a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, life in Cuba is hard. She gives me her full name, because “I am used to receiving reprisals, just like I was booed regularly enough for not wearing a kerchief when I was a girl. I wasn’t allowed to go to university and now my children, who have decided to embrace this path, are facing the same thing. Relations with the State are dreadful, given the fact they treat us like an evil sect.” Their ban on building temples weighs heavily on Jehovah Wintesses’ (a group which has also coincidentally been persecuted by other authoritarian regimes such as in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia).
Pedro has never stepped foot inside a State institution to work, and even so he refuses to give me all of his personal informaiton, as his son is working and is still young. “Being a Catholic isn’t a problem anymore, after so many Papal visits, but Fidel has forgotten that when he was a prisoner in Boniato prison, it was the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba who intervened to save the island’s future leader’s life.
Pedro says that his congregation is seething with fake believers (who are really State Security agents), who move up the church’s ladder. “Plus, you only have to remember that these people, the government, don’t allow us to hold processions properly, we have to ask for thousands of permits and we are nearly never given them, unless of course it has to do with the highest Vatican/Cuban State level.”
Ana says that she doesn’t want her children to fully join the protestant congregation because she knows that some university degrees are secretly denied to religious people. “I know that journalism, for example, or law are prohibited subjects for believers, as well as international relations or any degree which can lead to them holding positions of social influence.” Her church was founded by North Americans and it regularly receives people from this country in the north, “that’s why they are always monitoring us” Ana observes and says that her real name, or any other information, should not be disclosed, in view of reprisals.
At the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee, there is an office of religious matters, led by an atheist woman, which is a way of dealing with different beliefs and it says a lot if we analyze it from several different points of view. First of all, it’s just another body belonging to another party, which the Cuban people didn’t elect, and secondly, that we are all well aware of the abovementioned political organization’s omnipotence in every Cuban social matter, which is where the nickname “totalitarianism” comes from. Nothing else needs to be said if you bear this in mind.