Seventy-year-old Cuban-American Francisco Morales, who has lived in the United States for 40 years, was arrested in Cuba on December 23 for setting up a public Christmas display featuring an inflatable Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.
The incident occurred at his family’s home in Havana, where Morales had set up the display on the rooftop, featuring lights and inflatable characters. The display had attracted the neighborhood’s children, who wanted to take pictures with Santa Claus, as well as Cuban state police, who swiftly took Morales away to a secure prison facility in the capital.
Morales was charged with “interrupting pedestrian traffic” and released after several hours of detention. An independent journalist filmed the scene outside his home, where incensed parents protested Morales’ arrest for bringing more sadness into the lives of their children. The children themselves also reportedly approached police, requesting they leave the display intact.
Following his release, Morales told the independent outlet Cubanet that he had been setting up a similar display at his family’s home for the past ten years. “I come to Cuba every year to visit my family for Christmas, and for the past ten years I have prepared a cartoon exhibition with animated characters and other images related to the holidays.”
“I asked [the state police] to consider the spiritual benefits of this sort of event for children, but they did not listen and threatened me with police action if I did not comply,” he added.
“I will not give up,” Morales added. “I am going to find another viable way for children to keep receiving the little bit of joy they so need. They deserve all the sacrifice in the world and I will continue to dedicate the rest of my life to this labor of love.”
Cuba joins the Islamist dictatorships of Tajikistan and Brunei in cracking down on public celebrations of Christmas, though the Cuban government has not issued an explicit ban, using tangential ordinances to end any hint of a celebration.
While Cuba’s population is predominantly Catholic, the communist government forbids explicit displays of faith, particularly on the part of political dissidents. For the past year, secret police have detained, verbally abused, and beaten the members of the Ladies in White dissident group, comprised of female relatives of political prisoners. The government has also ordered the destruction of at least five Christian churches in the past year.
Despite this, dictator Raúl Castro has made overtures to Pope Francis himself, even joking that “if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church.”
In apparent exchange, the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, has denied the existence of political prisoners on the island. Pope Francis personally denied seeing one political prisoner, Zaqueo Báez, beaten and arrested in front of the Pope’s vehicle in Havana. It is estimated that the Cuban government arrested more than 250 people while Pope Francis was visiting.
Not all Catholic leaders on the island cooperate with the dictatorship, however. Last week, Jorge Serpa, the bishop of western Pinar del Rio, testified to personally witnessing the abuse of prisoners of conscience. He asserted there are political prisoners serving up to 40-year sentences for their rejection of communist ideology.
Due to overt persecution of Christianity, the U.S. State Department estimates that up to 10,000 unregistered “house churches” exist in Cuba, in which services are performed in private homes out of the government’s sight. The State Department also notes that evidence exists that the government has “harassed outspoken religious leaders, prevented human rights activists from attending religious services, and in some cases employed violence to prevent activists from engaging in public political protests when exiting religious services.”