By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA, Cuba, Weds. July 21, 2021 (Reuters) – Cuba’s churches have defended those who participated in unprecedented protests and even set up a hotline to advise the families of detainees, a sign of increasing boldness from spiritual leaders on the Communist-run island.
Protests erupted nationwide on July 11 against shortages of medicine and food, power outages, the COVID-19 surge and curbs on freedom. The government blamed counter-revolutionaries it said were exploiting hardships caused by decades-old U.S. sanctions.
Hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists have since been detained, according to human rights groups. Authorities say they are prosecuting those who instigated “unpatriotic unrest” and committed vandalism.
In the days following the protests, the dominant Roman Catholic church, other religions, and freemasons issued statements in favor of free expression. After decades of repression following the 1959 revolution, an expansion of religious freedoms in the 1990s has given religious groups greater autonomy than any other organization not affiliated with the Communist Party. But such candor is still rare in Cuba, where significant restrictions on dissent remain in place.
“Amid the difficulties, the protests of recent days and also the detentions, the repression, the Church wants to pray for all Cubans, for all Cuba,” Dionisio García, Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, said in a televised mass on Sunday.
The Cuban people need changes to feel hope, he said at the Church of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of a country where an estimated 60% are baptized Catholics.
Protestant denominations also backed the protesters’ right to express themselves, with the Methodist Church stating in a post shared on social media on Saturday: “The fact of disagreeing with the political system does not turn a person into an antisocial element or criminal.”
All urged both protesters and authorities to avoid violence in favor of dialogue. The conference of Catholic bishops expressed concern the government’s response would instead be “immobility” and even a “hardening of positions.”
The Catholic Church in particular has played an important role in Cuban society in recent years, negotiating the release of political prisoners and fomenting the 2014 detente with old Cold War foe the United States.
But government critics have at times accused the Church of not doing enough to confront authorities over human rights, in favor of a fragile entente that allows them a seat at the table of power. That may be changing.
In his weekly address to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday, Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, said he felt close to those families in Cuba suffering the most in these “difficult moments”.
“I pray that the Lord might help the nation construct a society that is more and more just and fraternal through peace, dialogue and solidarity,” he said.
The Cuban Conference of Catholic Religious opened a helpline for those detained and their relatives on Sunday.
“This is focused on providing counsel for the presentation of habeas corpus, help in locating the detainees, and spiritual and psychological guidance for the relatives,” it said.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s Grand Lodge of Freemasons – a secretive society that also has a broad reach – said in a statement it was “concerned by the excessive use of force” by authorities.
Masonic leader Jose Ramon Vinas went a step further, writing a letter to President Miguel Diaz-Canel accusing the government of always justifying the country’s problems through the U.S. trade embargo rather than recognizing its own responsibility.
He wrote later on Facebook that had been summoned to a police station where three officials questioned him over the letter. In a show of the growing sense of defiance in Cuban society, he said he suggested they came to visit the masons instead where they could speak on an equal footing.
“As I left, there was a cluster of brothers waiting for me, defying the curfew about to start – Masonic pride… thank you, thank you!”
The news comes as the United States is working with the private sector and Congress to look for ways to make the internet more accessible to the people of Cuba, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular news briefing on Tuesday.
Price made the comment while calling on the Cuban government to restore full internet and telecommunications to the Cuban people following a wave of anti-government protests.
“We will be actively collaborating with our private sector partners to identify ways that may in fact be creative to ensure the Cuban people have access to the free flow of information on the internet,” Price said.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Christian Plumb and Rosalba O’Brien)