ASHLAND — Cuba is the last totalitarian regime in the Western hemisphere, said Yoe Suárez, a Cuban journalist and political refugee, to a crowd at Ashland University on Wednesday night.
And under that totalitarianism, telling the truth becomes a punishable offense.
“The regime is trying to manipulate civil society, the fabric of society, in a sense that makes them look good,” Suárez said. “Journalists, activists, pastors, laymans — they are always punished.”
Suárez explored Cuba’s struggles with freedom and totalitarianism in a lecture at Ashland University on Wednesday. The lecture, titled “Faith Under Totalitarianism in the 21st Century: Cuba, Freedom and the Church,” featured a conversation between Suárez and AU President Carlos Campo. A question-and-answer period followed the conversation.
AU hosted it as part of its Faith and Society lecture series. According to a press release, the series aims to “give Ashland students and the Ashland community the opportunity to hear experts discuss critical topics of faith and its implications in contemporary society.”
Suárez answered a number of questions from Campo about the struggles citizens face economically, socially and with practicing their faith under the socialist regime ruling Cuba.
“It’s a geographical paradise, but a political hell,” Suárez said.
Cuba’s 1959 revolution, in which Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party took control of the country, resulted in repression of religion. Cuba declared itself an atheist state and prohibited church services.
It’s since relaxed those restrictions. But, in 2022, a report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found religion remained “controlled, regulated and repressed” in Cuba.
The state represses and controls journalism, too. Reporters Without Borders ranks Cuba as the worst country for press freedom in Latin America.
These challenges are ones Suárez has personally faced, he told a crowd in AU’s Ronk Auditorium. Journalists in Cuba have two options, Suárez said: writing stories the regime wants, or trying to make real, independent journalism.
“I took the second option and the regime told me, ‘You cannot work in state media,’ and they tried to put a stop to me in order to not write for independent media,” Suárez said.
He said the regime regularly “blacklists” journalists like himself, banning them from leaving the country if they report stories critical of the government.
As a reporter, Suárez wrote about torture in Cuba, and reported on the blacklists journalists and activists find themselves on.
He said his work on torture resulted in his detainment.
Three police officers and a political officer arrived at his home and handcuffed him in front of his wife and son. His son was just two or three years old at the time.
Suárez posted about it on social media as his family protested his arrest. He credits that post with his release. He said he still knows journalists in Cuba who are behind bars. He’s also been kidnapped.
“Those kinds of stories are very common between journalists in Cuba,” Suárez said.
Suárez said government officials told him that if he left Cuba, he wouldn’t be able to return. He responded that as long as Cuba’s regime remained in place, he and his family didn’t want to be there.
The conversation also touched on faith and the economy. Suárez said people in Cuba earn only about 20 U.S. dollars a month. He shared that a number of Cubans are leaving their country thanks to the economic situation.
Joshua Ronk and Luke Ross, two recent graduates of Genesis Christian Academy who attended the lecture, described it as “enlightening.”
Ronk, who will attend Ashland University as an Ashbrook Scholar in the fall, said he wanted to hear a non-American opinion on socialism from the lecture. He said he wasn’t very familiar with Cuba beforehand.
“I didn’t realize how socialist and dictatorial it is, or how impoverished they are,” Ronk said.
Ross has attended multiple Faith and Society lectures. He plans to go to Calvin University in Michigan in the fall, and agreed with his friend.
“It was enlightening to hear about the amount of impoverishment Cuba is in,” Ross said.
On the topic of faith, Campo shared that the last time he was in Cuba, he visited with a local pastor. Campo said the pastor told him that the government represses religion; he said it bulldozed homes after finding out people hosted church services in them.
Suárez agreed. He said during the Cold War, the government put Christians into concentration camps known as UMAP camps. UMAP stands for Military Units to Aid Production. The camps imprisoned Christians, LGBTQIA+ people and others, according to an article from El Paìs.
Persecution of the church lingers, Suárez said. Still, he added people meeting and hosting church in their homes inspires him.
Steve Huber, a retired elementary school teacher who attended the lecture, said he’s heard conflicting narratives about Cuba.
“The line we get is Cuba is opening up to religious freedom,” Huber said. “But it sounds like that’s not the case at all.”
The lecture inspired him to seek the truth about Cuba.
Suárez said he believes God has the power to make freedom happen in Cuba. He asked the crowd to pray for the end of the regime’s power. He also asked the audience to spread the information they’d learned about what’s happening in Cuba.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience, Suárez credited his commitment to journalism and truth to his faith.
“I don’t think that I am that special, but I think that I have a special God,” Suárez said. “And God tells me, ‘Tell the truth.’”
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