In her mind’s eye, Elsa Morejón looks from Miami at her beloved island and worries that what ails Cuba will not be cured solely with democracy. What ails Cuba, the humble Baptist nurse says with conviction, is a gaping hole in spirituality, a people who look to government and not God to save them because three generations have been brainwashed since their first day in preschool to think that way.
Weeks earlier across the Atlantic, Miami’s own Gloria and Emilio Estefan meet with Pope Francis, delivering a similar message. “What do you say when you’re standing in front of a pope?” says Emilio Estefan, who left Cuba when he was 14. “I told him that I was proud we have a Hispanic pope, that he understands the suffering of the people in Latin America. I asked him for his prayers to bring peace and human rights and liberty to Cuba. To never forget Cuba.”
The pope smiled, nodded and asked that the couple pray for him during the April 19 early morning meeting at the Vatican, Estefan said.
Gloria Estefan was in Rome to give a TEDx Talk on faith, forgiveness and reconciliation. The daughter of a Bay of Pigs and Vietnam veteran, left Cuba when she was barely 2 years old, yet it’s never far from her heart. This was the second time that she asked a pope to help Cuba’s people, to give them guidance, to free them of the fear. In 1995, she performed before Pope John Paul II, who later would go to the island and ask that Cuba open its doors to the world.
It may seem that Cuba is doing that now, but don’t be fooled. As some of Cuba’s peaceful activists and dissidents are allowed to leave the island under the regime’s new travel rules, they have all pointed to the lost generations growing up without ethics, without morals, without hope. They have all noted that the ballyhooed economic changes that Raúl Castro has launched on housing and jobs are cosmetic at most. They point to growing alcoholism among youth and a lack of values.
Berta Soler, cofounder of the Ladies in White who peacefully march every Sunday after church services in Cuba to protest human rights violations and seek freedom for political prisoners, finally got to meet the pope last week at Saint Peter’s Square. Having been unable to have an audience with the previous pope, Benedict, when he visited the island last year, Soler handed Pope Francis two letters from the wives of Cuban political prisoners. She said the pope blessed her and told her to keep up the fight, to bring hope to Cuba’s lost generations.
Those of us who still have family in Cuba know the reality that Soler, Morejón, Yoani Sánchez, Rosa María Payá and so many others face. We know that new travel rules mean nothing when those freedom-seeking opponents of the communist regime return to the daily harassment of state security or the mobs “in defense of the revolution” that are instructed to beat them. We know that some dissidents remain blacklisted from travel.
One of those blacklisted is Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet. He was freed from prison but isn’t allowed to leave until his 25-year sentence is completed on the island. Except Cuban authorities also have told him he can leave if he never comes back. Such are the travel “rules” — conveniently scrapped if it suits the dictatorship’s purpose.
Morejón and her doctor husband Biscet are Christians in a country that outlawed God until its dictator decided it was fine to believe again. They followed their hearts, not the tyranny’s rules. Biscet, imprisoned several times for a total of 13 years so far, got into trouble in the 1990s when he hung a Cuban flag upside down to protest illegal late-term abortions that were covered up by the regime.
Biscet and his group are collecting signatures for the Emilia Project, which brands the communist government as illegitimate and seeks non-violent political change. It’s named after Emilia Teurbe Tolón, who fashioned the first Cuban flag for independence and became Cuba’s first known female political exile, kicked out of Cuba by Spain. History repeats.
That a dozen or so dissidents are now touring world capitals, asking key leaders to defend human rights — removing the veil of legitimacy that so many democracies have granted the dictatorship for so many years — gives us hope that change is coming to Cuba not because a 54-year-old dictatorship allows it but because people of faith demand it, one prayer at a time.