Zaqueo Báez, the Cuban dissident arrested for approaching Pope Francis during his visit to the island and shouting the word “freedom,” was just freed from prison and is awaiting trial in the communist dictatorship for “public disorder” and “disrespect.”
Báez, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), a dissident organization, was arrested on September 20 alongside María Josefa Acón e Ismael Boris in front of Pope Francis in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution while attempting to approach the Pontiff and say some brief words about the Castro dictatorship. Báez managed to reach the Pope himself, and was caught on video being dragged away and beaten by Cuban police following an exchange in which he could be heard shouting “libertad” (“freedom”).
Báez and his fellow dissidents were freed from prison on Monday, serving 50 days in prison and awaiting trial for crimes such as “disrespect” and “public disorder.” They have vowed to continue their activism against the dictatorship despite testifying to a number of incidents of abuse while in prison.
In a video published on YouTube Tuesday, Báez tells the full story of his encounter with the Pope.
He notes that the three hid in the home of a friend to avoid state surveillance for some days, as “our house was monitored by the secret police to ensure we would not engage in our action with the Pope.” When they arrived to the papal event, Báez was fortunate enough to get close to the Pope’s vehicle and speak to one of the guards. He was frank, requesting to approach the Pope to tell him Cuba was a dictatorship. “With very fluent Spanish, one of the Pope’s guards told me ‘get up, run and tell him,'” Báez says.
“We wanted to tell [Pope Francis] to advocate for the people of Cuba,” he says, adding that he told the Pope “this is a dictatorship, Raúl Castro is a liar, this is a dictatorial regime, this nation is submerged in the cruelest of human misery, and every Sunday they beat our Ladies in White while exiting Saint Rita’s [church].”
The Ladies in White dissident group is comprised of female relatives of political prisoners. It is a Catholic group, and the Ladies attend Mass every Sunday at the same church. They are arrested and released every week, often beaten and abused during the arrest.
Báez told the Spain-based Diario de Cuba that he was abused by guards during the arrest, threatened with poisoning. On October 29, his family accused four prison guards of beating him after Báez shouted “Down with Fidel” and “Down with Rául” from his prison cell. His sister told international pro-democracy media that “He was taken to a cell to be interrogated and brutally beaten by four police agents.”
Báez and his colleagues were among up to 300 people believed to be arrested during Pope Francis’s visit to the island in September, at least 100 of those members of UNPACU, and most others affiliated with another dissident organization. The Vatican responded to international concern regarding the dissidents’ treatment tepidly. Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican, claimed that dissidents were indeed invited to meet with Vatican officials, but that none attended the meeting and he “did not know” why (those invited were arrested). Reporters asked Pope Francis personally about the arrests that took place on video in front of his vehicle, and he responded that he had “no news regarding detentions” and “did not know” of any arrests.