An unlikely Cuban Christian vows to speak out against the regime

Cuba is cracking down on critics of the regime – but an unlikely activist from one of the island’s small dissenting religious communities says he has a plan to fight repression there.

Pastor Reinaldo Escobar is the founder of the small but active Cuban Christian Science church – although he is a “corresponding minister” rather than a full-time minister, as he sees it. With his small congregation of about 70 in Santiago de Cuba, a small town in eastern Cuba, Escobar, 62, has become one of the leading voices of protest against the Communist regime.

Escobar is well known in Cuba, with a devoted following on Twitter that now numbers into the hundreds of thousands, and in videos posted online railing against official policy in Cuba and spreading word of human rights violations.

Human rights groups blame the Cuban government for far more human rights violations on the island than anyone else.

Escobar says some of the crackdowns against dissent have been heavy handed – as seen with the recent arrest of seven religious leaders who church members say are devoted to preaching “Peace, Love and Understanding” – and he says that as long as he lives, he will continue to speak out.

Escobar, a former firefighter and a prominent dissident, who had a stroke a year ago which has reduced his speech to a slur, said he had expected that the crackdown would likely escalate after Pope Francis, who is a friend of the Cuban dictator Raul Castro, met with Castro last May.

Francis’ trip is seen by some as an attempt to burnish Castro’s relationship with the Catholic Church, which had abandoned Cuba in 1959 and whose relations have been uneasy since the revolution. But Castro has been hostile to the Vatican since the historic meeting between Pope John Paul II and Raul Castro in 1998, when the Pope offered a vision of a “new type of relationship.”

The Church, for its part, has yet to budge.

“I think the situation is getting worse than it used to be,” Escobar told Fox News Latino. “Since the [Pope’s] visit last year, a year ago, the situation has not improved. We heard of the arrests, but it’s worse now. And the more the institutions that are supposed to be the voice of the people, or the voice of freedom, the more they give into the government.”

A lot of Cuban Catholics are tired of the communist system, he says, but many other people are still under the illusion that all is okay in the nation of 11 million people.

A news site called Mas Justices, which bills itself as the nation’s first independent media outlet, publishes its articles with the restrictions set by the government and is aimed at keeping young, ambitious people in line.

When former President Barack Obama and his administration started to experiment with loosening restrictions on travel and trade between the United States and Cuba – something that Cuba has complained is a significant blow to the government because of the many limits Cuba places on its citizens’ political and social freedom – the American interest group visited the island and also visited regular Cuban Christians. They presented what they believe to be the best available evidence of the difference in worldview of Protestants and Catholics – but Escobar sees it as a conspiracy.

“They want the whole world to know that Catholicism has damaged human beings in Cuba,” he said. “We’re expecting a sentence from the government and we’re still waiting for it, so as long as they don’t give us the news we’re going to continue to speak out.”

A member of Cuba’s religious establishment, Fides (Church) magazine, posted an article this week that might be read as an attack on some of the various dissidents that the government accuses of violating the country’s constitution and law.

In it, a senior Fides editor says that religious organizations can be a source of stability for Cuba and what the government likes to call “intellectual opposition” is based on exile.

The article was posted on the same day that Cuban President Raul Castro died, a news item that was picked up by state-run media but ignored by news outlets in the United States. The president had health issues in recent years, a legacy of illnesses brought on in his years as a fighter pilot during Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

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