Cuban human rights activists speak at WSCC

MARIETTA – Cuba is only 90 miles from the shores of the U.S., but many more miles away in terms of human rights, a group of visiting activists shared with more than 100 area college students during a visit to Marietta this week.

The group will share more during a forum at 8 p.m. today at Washington State Community College. The event is free and open to the public.

Activists John Suarez, Laido Carro and Anna Lee shared stories of torture, suspicious deaths of those who questioned the government and indoctrination beginning at birth for Cuban residents.

Cuba has been under a totalitarian regime for more than 50 years, said Carro, who left Cuba along with her family at the age of 12, shortly after Fidel Castro took the reins of government. His younger brother, Raul, is now in power, and the government has long denied many of the human rights violations of which it is accused.

The systematic indoctrination of the Cuban people begins young, with government-paid school teachers manipulating children to believe in the Castros, but not a god, said Carro.

“The government considers religion a threat to its power,” she said.

Laida painted a chilling picture of a teacher who asks her young students to close their eyes and pray to god for candy. When they open their eyes, there is no candy.

“Then she says, ‘Now close your eyes and pray to (the Castros) for candy.’ And she goes around and sits a candy on each desk, and when they open them, what do they think? Isn’t that horrendous to manipulate the mind of a child in such a manner?” asked Carro, the president of the Coalition of Cuban-American Women.

The group met with nearly 150 students from Washington State during four discussion groups Thursday, said professor Tanya Wilder, chair of the Evergreen Arts and Humanities series, which sponsored the discussions and upcoming forum.

“Some of the students were psychology students and we talked about a psychiatric hospital where 26 patients died of exposure because the building had no windows and they did nothing to protect them from the cold,” said Suarez, the International Secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

As the discussions continued Friday at Marietta College, Suarez told students and community members in attendance that his group works to raise awareness about the torture and suspicious deaths that often befall Cubans considered rebellious, and keeps the lines of communication open by broadcasting a radio program into Cuba.

“The government tries to jam us so we can’t get our messages out, and we keep having to find different frequencies,” he told the 20 or so in attendance.

Marietta College junior Lilen Gil-Nicolas left Cuba at the age of 4 and said she has often encountered people who have misconceptions about the country of her birth.

“People will tell me it’s such a great country. It’s such a beautiful country. But I don’t feel that way about Cuba. I think about all the human rights violations taking place,” she said.

Lee spoke about what she believes is the extent of religious persecution in the country. Only 2 percent of residents said they identified with a religion in the 1960s, said Lee.

Now those numbers have increased, but the government has allowed only a half dozen churches to be built in the past 50 years and restricts old churches from doing any repair work, meaning that people are often forced to form their own home churches, which is illegal, said Lee, the Christian Solidarity Worldwide Advocacy officer for Latin America.

“After a lifetime of you and your family being threatened because you practice a religion, what do you do? Do you stay and continue to put those around you in danger or do you renounce your religion?” she asked the crowd.

One group that refuses to renounce its religion is the Ladies in White, a group of Cuban women who formed in 2003 when hundreds of their husbands, sons and brothers were branded counter-revolutionists and taken into custody, said Suarez.

They marched to church services dressed in white, raising enough international press to pressure the Cuban government into releasing their loved ones. They continue to march every Sunday demanding that all political prisoners in Cuba are freed, he said.

But the Ladies in White withstand significant threats and beatings, according to the activists. Founder Laura Pollan died suspiciously in 2011, with one doctor labeling her death as “purposeful medical neglect,” said Suarez.

One pastor, who attempted to file legal documents against the state for persecution, was beaten until he had brain damage, added Lee.

But there are lots of ways people can get involved, she said. On her group’s website people can find out how to write letters to those in Cuba, which gives them hope and lets the Cuban government known that they have allies and are being watched over, she said.