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As bishops urge calm, Cuban priest sees ‘world of emotions’ under protests

ROME – As Cuba prepares for a massive anti-government protest amid fears of state repression, the country’s bishops have urged calm and non-violence, saying any meaningful change will only come as a result of peaceful dialogue.

Cuba’s dissident movement has planned a largescale “Civic March for Change” for Monday, Nov. 15, in what is an ongoing showdown with the government.

Dissidents initially asked the government for permission to hold the march in September, following widespread protests on the island in July largely related to the rising cost of living, food shortages, and the ongoing US embargo, among other things.

Following those protests, U.S. President Joe Biden imposed fresh sanctions on Cuba.

However, Cuba’s Communist government denied the request on grounds that it would be a “provocation” supported by the U.S. with the aim of regime change, but protesters plan to go ahead anyway.

During the July protests, state authorities sought to repress the demonstrators, turning to violence to disband protests and making several arrests. At least one person died during the July 11-12 protests, and government authorities detained many on charges of contempt, public disorder, vandalism, and propagation of the coronavirus for allegedly marching without face masks.

Many fear the government will resort to the same tactics during Monday’s march.

In a Nov. 11 statement, Cuba’s bishops noted that in the weeks leading up to the march, there has been “an increase in a climate of tension and confrontation that is not healthy or beneficial for anyone.”

The bishops stressed that every person, no matter their status or opinions, “deserves esteem and recognition of their dignity due to their condition as a human being and as a child of God, and their being a free citizen, subject to rights and duties.”

“Every Cuban must be able to freely express and share with respect their personal opinions, their thoughts, or convictions, even when they disagree with the majority,” they said.

Any act of violence, whether it be physical, verbal, or psychological, “seriously wounds the soul of the Cuban nation and contributes even more to the sorrow, suffering, and sadness of our families,” they said, adding, “A wounded soul is not in a condition to build a future of hope.”

The bishops said any national change ought to involve and motivate everyone, taking differences into account “without exclusion or marginalization.”

“We believe that it is necessary to implement mechanisms where, without fear of intimidation and reprisals, everyone can be heard and dissatisfaction is channeled in the face of the harsh daily realities that overwhelm so many, especially the most impoverished and vulnerable,” they said.

Change is needed, they said, and urged the government to free those arrested during the July protests.

“We urge everyone to spare no effort so that the paths of understanding, reconciliation and peace are paved in such a way that the various proposals on the present and future destiny of our country find an air of sanity, tolerance, and harmony, and that a harmonious and civilized dialogue is established in which the best solutions to the problems that concern us can be found,” they said.

Monday’s march is being led by a Facebook group called Archipielago, which according to statements it has made on social media has around 31,501 members, the majority of whom are between 25-44 years old, and about half of whom live abroad. Around one quarter of members live in the U.S.

In the lead-up to Monday’s protest, the Cuban government has unleashed a media campaign claiming it has evidence proving that members of Archipielago are working with the United States to overthrow the government. Protest leaders have denied these claims.

The Cuban government has announced it will conduct annual military exercises on Monday, which, in addition to the march, is also the day Cuba is set to reopen its doors to international tourism after a nearly 2-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to Cuban news site Diario de Cuba, Cuban priest Alberto Reyes of the Archdiocese of Camagüey, who is a member of Archipielago, described the local situation has happening on “two levels.”

“On the street, nothing is happening, everything is apparently normal, calm…but when you turn on the television, this is the topic,” he said, adding, “there is a world of emotions” swirling beneath the surface.

Asked about the government’s tactics, Reyes said that “Fear works, but it works to a certain point,” and that repression, hatred, and violence has a limit.

“Outside of this limit, it’s a boomerang, and it has the opposite effect,” he said, voicing his belief that if the government tries to suppress dissidents like it did during the July protests, “many more people will say, I don’t want this, so I’m going to fight against them.”

Reyes said he has been impressed with the number of young people, many of whom do not attend church, who have come to him and other priests asking for advice on what to do, and how to continue resisting Cuba’s Communist authorities through peaceful means.

“I think we are doing it well,” he said, insisting that the Catholic Church’s role in the dissident movement is to “accompany the people.”

“That’s what we do…Our task is not, and we have not done this, but our task is not to organize the march, it’s not to do publicity in favor of the march, it’s to be with the people, to walk with the people,” he said, noting that many priests and religious will participate in Monday’s march.

Whatever happens, “we will accompany the people, like we did after July 11, attending to the families of the prisoners, being a bridge,” and a source of comfort, he said.

For decades, Reyes said, Cubans as a whole believed that there was no alternative to the Communist oppression they were living under, and “we believed this until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall is what made us believe what John Paul II said: nothing is irreversible.”

“If you believe that something is possible, you have to see how you adapt, how to maintain your principles inside of something that is not going to change,” he said, voicing his belief that “our people can have a different life.”

The Church, which has suffered persecution at the hands of the government, is often critical of Cuba’s Communist system, Reyes said, which is welcomed by some, but rejected by others who support the current system.

“It’s a difficult balance,” he said, adding, “we have to be careful that the Church doesn’t become an opposition party or a site of debate because we are not. Our task is to preach the Gospel.”

Asked what his dream is for Cuba, Reyes said he dreams of a Cuba where people are able to live “without fear” and without being subjected to lies.

Recalling the first time he ever left Cuba, Reyes said he had traveled to Madrid. When someone asked him about the situation in Cuba, his first response was to tell the other person to lower their voice, to which the person responded, “not here!”

“I dream of a situation where others…can come here and we say, ‘not here,’ to live without fear, without lies. It’s a system of lies, everyone lies…I dream of a Cuba with truth, I dream of a Cuba that’s free, where the people have options, where no one has to leave,” he said.

Reyes said his hope is that Cuba becomes a place where people want to live, and “where the people can be lifted up, where our youth don’t have to immigrate, where people no longer have to say, ‘I don’t want this for my children.’”

“This is the Cuba I dream of, and I believe that it’s possible,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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