WINDSOR TERRACE — When Bishop Octavio Cisneros considers the situation in his native Cuba six decades after he fled the communist nation, he’s sad to see an unimproved situation and people living in dire conditions that are getting worse.
On Sunday, thousands of Cubans reached their boiling point with the state of the nation and took to the streets of Havana and other Cuban cities in unprecedented protests. The communist government led by President Miguel Díaz-Canel, poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of general medicine, food shortages and rising prices sparked the mass demonstrations.
Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis in decades. At the same time, the island has been wracked with a resurgence in COVID-19, with more than 4,800 positive cases reported daily, according to Reuters’ COVID-19 tracker. There have been 238,491 infections and 1,537 COVID -related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the data shows.
“It’s just the basic needs of any human being to have food, to have medical care, and to live a life worthy of the basic rights,” said Bishop Cisneros, a retired auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn. “The situation is at such dire straits and it’s such a difficult moment that the people have no choice but to go out [and protest], and surely they’re doing it at the risk of their own imprisonment.”
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami — who likens the south Florida city to a “northern suburb of Havana” with its large Cuban population — said people in Cuba are “starving for bread” and “starving for freedom.”
In a statement, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said he prays “that our fellow citizens of the world may come to know a better life, and that justice and safety prevail in the days ahead.”
As Cubans marched Sunday, livestreamed videos and reports indicated chants that included “Freedom!” “Enough!” “Unite!” and “We are not afraid!” A video recorded in Bejucal, a town in the Mayabeque Province south of Havana, shows townspeople cheering and repeatedly chanting “Liberty!” as someone hoisted a statue of Our Lady of Charity, the Patroness of Cuba.
Archbishop Wenski said he spoke with a Cuban bishop out in one of the provinces on Monday who said a very tenuous situation remained in Havana, Cuba’s capital city. Another Cuban bishop he corresponded with via email told him things in his diocese had calmed.
Archbishop Wenski blamed the communist government for the situation that exists. He referred to the dream of 19th-century poet and journalist José Martí — referred to as the apostle of Cuban independence — to have a Cuba with everyone and for everyone as being ignored when those that dissent from the ruling party are marginalized and excluded.
“Those basic needs that are not being met are the fault of the communist system in that country,” Archbishop Wenski said. “At this present time Cuba has an unstable political system and it has dire consequences on the economic and social life of the country.”
He called it “unfortunate” that the Cuban government responded to the protests with aggression and threats of violence. Diaz-Canel on Sunday called on the regime’s supporters to counter-protest. A Catholic priest, Father Castor Álvarez, was arrested and beaten for defending protestors. It’s been reported that a number of other protestors have been arrested as well.
Bishop Cisneros said his biggest concern is the call from the president of Cuba for those faithful to communism and the revolution to come out and demonstrate.
“I’m afraid that might create tension between the two groups. I just hope and pray that there will be no bloodshed of Cubans against Cubans,” Bishop Cisneros said. “That somehow or another through the help of the international world and public opinion a solution may come so that the basic needs of the people of Cuba can be met.”
Archbishop Wenski noted, however, that it’s significant that the anti-communist protests happened.
“Repressive actions only work when you can keep people living in fear,” Archbishop Wenski said. “Once they conquer their fear it’s hard to continue repressive action and ‘we’re not afraid’ is basically an answer to Pope John Paul II’s words when he got to Cuba in 1998 and he told Cubans, as he told people wherever he went, ‘be not afraid.’ ”
After word of the protests reached the U.S. on Sunday, thousands of Cubans in Miami rallied in solidarity with the Cuba demonstrations. There are roughly one million Cubans across Florida with the majority in the southern part of the state.
Archbishop Wenski said the archdiocese’s shrine of Our Lady of Charity, which has always been a focal point of Cuban religiosity and patriotism, is putting together a series of programs and prayer services to accompany people as they go to the shrine to pray, and also to display a sense of solidarity with the people of Cuba.
To remedy the plight of the people of Cuba, Bishop Cisneros said the international world needs to respond and put pressure on the nation’s government to provide people with their basic necessities. From a Catholic perspective, he said the church can be a leader in making the situation known.
“A lot of people don’t know this is going on. They’re not the first news that you hear. Cuba is not on the forefront,” Bishop Cisneros said. “I think all throughout the world the church can make it known that this situation is going on and to appeal to the governments to put some pressure so that the situation might be relieved and solved.”
Archbishop Wenski acknowledged that it’s hard to predict the future of Cuba because of the repressive mechanisms of the government, but he’s hopeful that the Catholic leaders in the country will continue to advocate for reconciliation among Cubans.
“The church in Cuba has always talked about reconciliation and trying to reconcile Cubans with their brother Cubans because that’s the only way to ensure a soft landing with whatever transition takes place,” the archbishop said.