The Communist Party of Cuba detained at least two dozen people for participating in — or, in some cases, being suspected of having interest in participating in — a dissident-led homage to Our Lady of Charity, the patroness saint of Cuba, whose feast day is September 8.
Our Lady of Charity (Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre) is a Catholic title given to the Virgin Mary, widely revered throughout the island despite over a half a century of religious persecution under communism. As part of syncretic worship, some Cubans honor the Virgin of Charity alongside Ochun, the Nigerian Yoruba goddess of rivers, as both are closely associated with water.
The Castro regime, which regularly suppresses the right of Christians of all denominations to freely practice their faith, banned the display of flowers outside of the Church of Charity in Central Havana and locked the church on Tuesday despite the holiday, allegedly to prevent violations of social distancing measures. Dictator Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela — who brands herself as an LGBT activist despite the Castro regime’s history of putting LGBT people in labor camps — took the occasion to thank the Virgin Mary “for protecting Fidel and the Cuban Revolution” and threaten dissidents, writing, “Ochun will not accept offerings from mercenaries and traitors.”
The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), believed to be the largest dissident group on the island, called for opponents of the Castro regime around the world to honor the Virgin Mary on Tuesday with bouquets of sunflowers, wearing yellow (the color traditionally associated with Ochun), and convening to pray for the island dictatorship. The group called for those abroad to bring sunflowers to Cuban embassies in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement, branding the movement the “sunflower revolution.”
In response to the widely publicized call for action, the Cuban regime acted early to trap known dissidents in their homes and arrested others who publicly displayed support for the movement before police could stop them. Among the most dramatic arrests on Tuesday was that of the head of UNPACU, José Daniel Ferrer, his wife Nelva Ortega, and oldest son, José Daniel Ferrer Cantillo, a minor.
Ferrer was in the middle of a live video interview with dissident leader Rosa María Payá of the Cuba Decide group when Cuban state security officials appeared in his home and violently wrestled him away from the interview.
Communist Party officers violently arrested Ferrer a year ago for organizing a similar sunflower-themed act of dissidence on September 8. Ferrer spent over six months in jail without due process, enduring torturous treatment like being forced to eat rotten food and drink “semi-fecal” water before the Castro regime sentenced him to four years of house arrest in April. Castro agents convicted him of “assault,” an allegation for which they presented no evidence.
In 2019, the UNPACU sunflower event attracted such high participation on the island that Cuban state security arrested over 100 people. UNPACU did not call for mass congregations this year, as it did a year ago, due to ongoing Chinese coronavirus social distancing restrictions.
“Arrests every September 8 have become, unfortunately, as ‘traditional’ for human rights activists as the celebration of the beloved Cachita [Our Lady of Charity], although the call to march this year in parks and other public places has unleashed a substantially larger wave of violence,” Cuban Prisoners Defenders, an NGO that aids persecuted dissidents, noted last year.
Ferrer’s was not the only arrest caught on video this year. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, an artist who specializes in dissident performance art, joined the movement by drawing a sunflower on a piece of poster board and sitting in silence outside of his house. He lasted about three minutes before Cuban state police drove up to his home and whisked him away.
Detienen al artista cubanos Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara para impedirle participar en la #RevolucionDeGirasoles 🌻. Así actua el régimen comunista de #Cuba para impedir que se sepa la verdad: que los cubanos están cansados de tanta esclavitud y tanta miseria y quieren libertad! pic.twitter.com/7XnLxJ4koz
— Cristian Crespo F. (@cristiancrespoj) September 8, 2020
Alcántara later described himself as “excited” about the level of participation in the event despite his own detention.
“These are necessary civic exercises, we have to connect with people in the neighborhoods who see, for example, that they took me away for having a sign,” he noted.
Following his detention, Ferrer published another video of an arrest related to the Virgin Mary observances: that of Marina Paz Labaceno, an UNPACU member prevented from entering the group’s headquarters in Santiago de Cuba.
Stgo #Cuba Agentes de policía política y PNR detienen a la ciudadana Marina Paz Labaceno frente a la Sede Nacional de #UNPACU. Detenidos en Puerto Padre los activistas Vladimir Martín Castellanos y Fernando Isael Peña Tamayo. Más de 30 detenciones por #RevolucionDeLosGirasoles pic.twitter.com/Ydyu21Lr5w
— José Daniel Ferrer (@jdanielferrer) September 8, 2020
Berta Soler, the head of the dissident organization Ladies in White, and her husband, former political prisoner Ángel Moya, were also arrested on Tuesday. Soler wrote on Facebook after her release on Wednesday that the two had dressed in yellow and made plans to walk to the headquarters of the Cuban rubber-stamp legislature to leave a note demanding freedom for all political prisoners.
“We were tortured physically and psychologically, a method that the Cuban regime lately has used against all detained dissidents,” Soler asserted.
Multiple reports surfaced online of over a dozen other activists detained or trapped in their homes after publicly expressing support for the sunflower activities, some even on September 7 to prevent their participation. ADN Cuba reported that police blocked at least three journalists, including one of their own, from leaving their homes, some for over 24 hours.
Others detained in their homes — just in case — were Zaqueo Báez, a longtime UNPACU activist best known outside of Cuba for his violent arrest in front of Pope Francis, and Omara Ruíz Urquiola, a human rights activist and professor expelled from her university teaching job last year for political reasons. Her brother, Ariel Ruíz Urquiola, is a well-known anti-communist LGBT activist, environmentalist, and scientist who claims the Castro regime deliberately infected him with HIV to discredit and silence him.
Cuba Decide, Payá’s organization, published a list of 24 people arrested between September 5 and 7, divided between those already released and those still missing.