Andrés Carrión Alvarez says he knew it would be up to him to shatter the image of peace and order clamped on Cuba by government security agents when then Pope Benedict XVI said Mass last year in Santiago de Cuba.
“I could not allow the international news media there to think everything was OK,” said Carrión, the man seen in a memorable video shouting “Down with communism!” before the Mass and then being pummeled and hauled away by plainclothes agents.
Carrión, 41, and his wife, physician Ariuska Galán, 38, received U.S. refugee visas and arrived Nov. 21 in Chattanooga, Tenn., where they have been filling out papers for work permits, Social Security numbers and medical checkups.
They had some initial concerns about the crime-ridden and racist capitalist society that Cuba’s official news media always portrays, but found the city to be safe. Americans smile a lot, Carrión said, and even say “Excuse me” when they bump into people.
“You are even treated very well in the shops, not at all like in Cuba,” he said. His Facebook page shows him in gloves and hat pulled way down over his ears, hugging a store Santa Claus and pointing at a reindeer in a shop window.
“But most of all I am breathing freedom, an incredible sense of freedom,” Carrion told El Nuevo Herald in his first interview since leaving Cuba.
That was not what he was breathing in Cuba after his notorious outburst minutes before Benedict began the Mass in Santiago on March 26, 2012, on the first leg of a three-day visit to Cuba, the first papal tour of the communist-ruled nation since John Paul II visited in 1998.
Government officials threatened to kill him, fired his wife from a public clinic and evicted them from their apartment above the clinic. Two State Security infiltrators tried to get close to him. And an Interior Ministry car seemed to try to run him over, he said.
Carrión said he was not active in dissident groups before his outburst. A physical therapist who lived with his wife quietly in Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, he had been dismissed from his job as part of a government belt-tightening, and was unemployed.
“I was a normal person, with some political worries, but then little by little came an increase in my political consciousness,” he said in a telephone interview.
He realized he would have the perfect opportunity to attack the government publicly when it was announced that Benedict would say Mass in Santiago — an event sure to be attended by the international news media and Cuba’s ruling elites, but not by dissidents.
Carrión was right. Following past procedures, police detained hundreds of dissidents and blocked their phones during Benedict’s visit to make sure they could not get anywhere near the pope in Santiago and Havana.
“I took advantage of that moment because I was a person unknown in the political world,” he said. “If not, I could not have reached that spot.”
Carrión said he got cold feet on the morning of March 26 and almost abandoned his plan. But he got to the Antonio Maceo Revolution Plaza at 11 a.m. and found a spot by the innermost security railing long before Benedict’s late-afternoon Mass.
Security was tight but not overwhelming. Maybe the guards “did not believe that someone would have the audacity to do something so dangerous,” he said. On a previous visit to the plaza, he said, he saw snipers posted on nearby buildings.
The pope had not arrived at the plaza when someone on the altar asked for a minute of silence for something — Carrión was so nervous he cannot remember what — so he slipped past the security railing and ran toward the altar shouting at the top of his lungs.
Carrión recalled shouting “Down with communism” and “Down with the Castro dictatorship,” as well as “Cubans are not free. Don’t be fooled. We are slaves.”
Television videos shows him being pummeled by several government sympathizers, including a man wearing a Cuban Red Cross vest and carrying a folded stretcher, before plainclothes security agents carried him out of the cameras’ view.
One security officer then cuffed him tightly, threw him into an Interior Ministry car and told him the outburst “was going to cost me my life,” Carrión said. “He told me, ‘I myself will shoot you in the head’ . . . I did not think I was going to get out alive.”
But his captors’ demeanor changed abruptly after he was taken to Versailles, a notorious State Security interrogation center in Santiago, and a senior official arrived to take over his case.
Guards offered him food, got him a chair and asked whether he was in good general health, he said. They ran alcohol and drug tests. They called in a psychiatrist and told him “the revolution was benevolent.”
They clearly did not want to give him reason to complain about his treatment after he was released, Carrión said.
He was charged with public disorder but never tried, and was freed after 18 days at Versailles and after signing a promise not to give media interviews and not to utter “hurtful words” about Cuban leaders. He promptly violated all the promises.
When he told the taxi driver that took him home from Versailles why he had been at the State Security center, he was told the ride was free. His neighbors were clearly scared of being seen with him, Carrión said, but offered secret support.
“They sent me little notes at night, or they visited me at home at night,” he said. They asked him to let them know if he ever needed anything like money or food, he added, “but always through another person, someone trusted, not in person.”
Cuba’s security services, meanwhile, continued to breathe heavily down his neck.
Carrión said that while he was in Versailles, Santiago lawyer and “dissident” Ernesto Vera urged Galán to appoint him as Carrión’s exclusive representative and leave all public comments to him. She refused, and the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) later said it had solid proof that Vera is a State Security collaborator. Vera denies the allegation.
As Carrión crossed a Santiago street with a friend, a car from the Ministry of Interior, in charge of State Security, seemed to go out of its way to run them down, he said. His wife was followed. State Security agents asked neighbors for the name of his dentist.
Soon enough, a government-organized mob of about 500 people turned up outside their apartment for an “act of repudiation” against the couple. Galán was fired the next day, and the couple was ordered to vacate the government-owned apartment.
Carrión and Galán, who have no children, moved to her parents’ home in Palma Soriano, 18 miles northwest of Santiago. The local State Security agents tried to poison the well there as well.
“On the very day that we arrived, the State Security told [Palma residents] that one of the worst terrorists had arrived there,” Carrión said. At first, the residents “would not even say hello to me, but little by little they realized that I was not a monster.”
He joined UNPACU and traveled to Havana several times to tell his story to the U.S., Canadian, Spanish and other diplomatic missions in meetings arranged by Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
But Carrión’s life was growing increasingly difficult.
An UNPACU member suspected of being a State Security collaborator kept turning up at his house and asking about any planned protests. Galán sensed she was watched almost everywhere she went.
Both were unemployed, but were leery of engaging in the semi-legal schemes most Cubans regularly use to make ends meet, knowing that State Security could throw them in prison for a “common crime” with the slightest excuse.
“My family was experiencing hunger,” Carrión said.
The couple decided to apply for political asylum in the United States, and got it in two months. U.S. authorities resettled them in Chattanooga.
Living in exile is tough, and so is learning English, Carrión said. He and his wife have yet to decide what they will do or where they will settle eventually, but have been in touch with some of the anti-Castro groups in Miami to figure out where he fits in.
“The only thing I know,” he said, “is that I will not stop working for the freedom of my country.