Cubans protests against the government in Cuba. Photo courtesy of Eickerman Campos and Yanet Rodriguez Herrero

Expats support Cubans’ freedom fight

  • August 27, 2021

“Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!”

Since July 11, the Spanish chant of liberty has sounded loud at solidarity rallies throughout Canada, the U.S. and, most fervently, in cities across Cuba as its inhabitants in a rare show of defiance against their government seek emancipation from the authoritarian regime ushered in by Fidel Castro in 1959.

It took a few days for the Cuban people’s desire for freedom to be clearly depicted in North American media outlets, most running with the narrative that hunger and lack of COVID-19 vaccines are the key motives behind the unrest.

But make no mistake, “libertad” is at the forefront of these protests, said Eickerman Campos, 43, who along with his wife Yanet Rodriguez Herrero, 41, and hundreds of Cuban-Canadian demonstrators in Edmonton have appealed for the truth to be known.    

That truth has been hard to get across as the Cuban government has essentially shut down the Internet countrywide. On Aug. 17, the government passed new regulations banning telecommunication material that “attack the security or internal order of the country (or) transmit fake news or information.” 

Deputy Communications Minister Wilfredo González told AFP news agency the new regulations were brought in to protect Cubans’ personal data and “their privacy.” But he added that they would also protect state officials as under the new rules “no one can denigrate an official of our country or our revolutionary process”

Campos and Herrero are still staying apprised of information on the ground as best they can and continue to stand in solidarity from afar. They demonstrated every night the first week of the Cuban protest and that has continued every weekend afterwards. It is their goal to get Canadian officials to denounce the Cuban government and publicize support for the people.

“We only want freedom,” said Campos, a self-employed architect who escaped Cuba with Herrero in 2006. “We don’t want food, vaccines or tourists. We’ll have everything if we live in freedom. This is all that we ask for the democratic countries to help us to get.”

Thousands of Cubans in Havana and in 14 other Cuban cities took to the streets July 11 in a rare anti-government protest where some demonstrators chanted “Down with the dictatorship,” reported. They protested economic hardships, lack of basic freedoms and the Cuban government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Since July 11, the Cuban government reportedly has responded by arresting people, including clergy, not only on the streets but also in their homes. On July 20, The Wall Street Journal reported: “The whereabouts of hundreds of arrested demonstrators is unknown and others are being held incommunicado without charges nine days after nationwide demonstrations rocked the Caribbean nation.”

Campos and Herrero understand the unrest. While neither was alive to see Cuban life before the revolution, stories were passed down by older generations about how their homeland was once a land of opportunity. Herrero, a bioresource technology and engineering PhD student at the University of Alberta, shared how her great-grandfather arrived in Cuba from Spain to forge a new life.

“He came without a penny. He was able to build a big farm for the family with sugar canes and cows, and within two generations they grew a really big fortune,” she said. “After Castro came to power, they took everything away from my grandfather, and he was left with nothing. He experienced depression and died with a big pain in his heart.”

Both practising Catholics, they say they’ve witnessed firsthand the repression of the Church. While Roman Catholics have historically made up 60 per cent of the Cuban population, religious tradition was virtually nonexistent for the first four decades of communist rule because Catholicism was at odds with the secular philosophies of the Communist Party. 

“They would put microphones into churches so that they can listen to what the priest says,” Campos said. “Police also put microphones in the priest’s private office. They would also plant spies within the church and even steal items from the church to try and destroy it in silence.”

When Herrero moved to another Cuban province at 18 for post-secondary education, she attended liturgical services and joined a Catholic group. Ultimately, she said she was persecuted for her beliefs.

“My university prosecuted me for being a Catholic,” she said. “I was brought in front of all my professors and the college (leadership), and I was questioned why I was attending church every Sunday, and why I joined the Catholic group. The university had students spy on me, but I got lucky that I didn’t lose my career unlike many others.”

Things have changed a little since the papal visit of Pope John Paul II from Jan. 21-26, 1998, considered a landmark event in the religious history of Cuba. Italian-born documentary photographer Vincenzo Pietrpaolo, a long-time resident of Toronto, was on hand to capture the festivities. It was an experience that left an imprint on him.

“I remember the euphoria in the crowd, and there were huge crowds wherever the pope went,” said Pietrpaolo. “The Cubans gave him the gift of soil which they collected from the 12 provinces of Cuba, and it was presented to him by school children.

“The pope also made a speech about the need to end the American embargo against Cuba and that was accepted by the Cubans with great fervour, and he celebrated Mass in the (Plaza de la Revolucián) square that was attended by at least 800,000, or up to one million people.”

Ripple effects from the visit included the reinstatement of Christmas as an official holiday after it was banned in 1969. Some political prisoners were released mere weeks after the pope challenged Castro publicly to do so.

Still, freedom has been hard to come by for Cubans. Campos and Herrero have been able to visit Cuba, in 2019. But they fear if they went back now they could be at risk of being arrested.

With their Canadian protest in solidarity with the Cuban people, the expats are hoping international pressure will bring change to the island nation. They were encouraged when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on July 15 “condemn(ed) the arrests and repression by authorities of peaceful demonstration. We stand, as we always will, with the people of Cuba who want and deserve democracy, freedom and respect.”

Conversely, Campos and Herrero were “so disappointed” with Pope Francis’ public statement about the protests, delivered July 18. The pontiff said, “I am near to the dear Cuban people” and prayed “the Lord might help the nation build a society that is more just and more fraternal through peace, dialogue and solidarity.”

“He was very soft, he didn’t condemn the regime, and he didn’t comment about the people who disappeared or the people who were jailed. We are very disappointed with his position,” said Campos.

How the situation unravels will be hard to predict. One thing that can be certain, said Campos and Herrero, is that the desire for “libertad” remains fervent.

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