Cuban Dissidents to Honor Virgin Mary with Nationwide Protest on Feast Day

Followers of the Virgin of Charity of Copper --Patroness of Cuba and Orisha Ochun, for the Yoruba religion-- take part in a procession in Havana during her day celebrations in Cuba, on September 8, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the largest Cuban dissident group on the island, and the Cuba Decide movement, an organization dedicated to bringing free and fair elections to the island, announced this week a mass protest to honor Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, on her feast day, Sunday.

Cubans around the world are predominantly Catholic, although the Castro regime is atheist due to its adherence to Marxism. Our Lady of Charity, an apparition of the Virgin Mary, plays an outsized role in Cuban culture despite the regime’s restrictions on religious freedom due also to her importance in Cuba’s other major religion, the Lucumí faith, or Santería. Many Cubans identify as both Catholics and santeros.

Cuba’s repressive State Security apparatus has reportedly placed the UNPACU leadership in Santiago, eastern Cuba, on lockdown, keeping several high profile members under unofficial house arrest until Monday, according to the Spain-based Diario de Cuba.

José Daniel Ferrer, the head of UNPACU, published a press release on Wednesday calling for all Cubans to take the streets demanding that the Castro regime respect their human rights on Sunday. The protest, he said, will be particularly dedicated to the Ladies in White movement, which faces weekly violent crackdowns for attempting to worship at Catholic Churches.

The Ladies in White are the mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of political prisoners, whose sole act of protest is to attend Catholic Mass on Sundays while wearing white and holding the photos of their loved ones. The Castro regime regularly cracks down on them using violence, humiliation, and massive fines that average Cubans have no means of paying. The leader of the group, Berta Soler, has been arrested on a weekly basis for at least three years.

“Members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and the promoters of Cuba Decide, after a thorough analysis on the notable increase of political repression and violations of rights against the Cuban people, have decided to convene the Cuban people to protest publicly on Sunday, September 8, at 10 a.m.,” Ferrer’s missive read. “Let’s go out to parks and other public areas.”

The organizations plan to express “our solidarity with the Ladies in White … journalists and independent artists, defenders of religious liberty and LGBTI activists suffering persecution, and all peaceful people and organizations who promote respect for human rights and the change to a democratic system in Cuba.”

Their protest is also timed to protest “the implementation of an agreement to political dialogue, cooperation, and commerce with the European Union,” the statement read, and to express “our request that the European Union demand participation of civil society and the opposition in any dialogue of negotiation with the dictatorship.”

The dissidents will also demand “the freedom of all political prisoners and complete end to the State Security and police’s harassment and violence against human rights defenders and the citizenry.”

Cuban dictator Raúl Castro has notoriously denied the existence of political prisoners in Cuba. According to Amnesty International, groups on the ground have documented the wrongful detention of 71 political prisoners on the island, not including the regularly beaten and imprisoned Ladies in White.

The dissidents have chosen the feast day of Our Lady of Charity for its tremendous cultural significance to Cubans. Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) is believed to have first appeared to three Cubans lost at sea in 1600. Her image has since been a hallmark of Cuban identity, a symbol common to the revolutionary fighters that liberated Cuba from Spain in the late 1800s and early 1900s and today venerated by the Cuban diaspora free to worship in their new countries. Cubans who follow the Santería faith – a combination of Catholicism and Nigerian Yoruba mythology – syncretize Our Lady of Charity to the African orisha Ochún, the goddess of rivers.

The timing of the protest also aligns with a scheduled visit by European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, who will arrive in Havana on Sunday for talks with the regime to expand bilateral trade, a boon to the starved regime. Dissidents believe the regime will use E.U. money to fund an even greater violent crackdown on free speech and religion.

To prevent the dissidents from embarrassing the regime on Sunday, Diario de Cuba reported Friday that police are already forcing UNPACU activists into unofficial house arrest and sending a warning that all should stay home during the scheduled time of the protest.

“We woke up in Santiago de Cuba with a ‘mega-operation’ at every organization headquarters and, through the sympathizers we have throughout the province [of Oriente], they have let us know that there are threats against the population regarding the call we made,” Katherine Mojena, UNPACU member and wife of UNPACU Youth Front leader Carlos Amel Oliva Torres, told the newspaper.

“All the headquarters are completely militarized,” she added. “The order is nobody can leave their homes.”

Several activists were told police would arrest them if they left their houses before Monday. Oliva was arrested and taken to an undisclosed location, Mojena said.

The operation is notable because Santiago is hundreds of miles from Havana, where Mogherini will be staying, and thus a protest there would not have a high chance of interrupting the logistics of her visit.

Authorities raided the headquarters of UNPACU last week after Amnesty International published a report that the group contributed to certifying the existence of five more prisoners of conscience to add to their official list. Police temporarily detained Ferrer and confiscated computers and key political materials.

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