September 24, 2013

Dissident Cuban pastor says change is inevitable

Mario Felix Lleonart says some Miamians are afraid to contact him, perhaps fearing the Cuban government will deny them permission to visit the island in retaliation if they contact a known dissident.

Cuban pastor and dissident blogger Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, making his first visit to the United States, said Monday that the communist elites that led the economy to ruin cannot be allowed now to project themselves as its capitalist saviors.

“The transition is inevitable. The question is, who will do it and who will benefit from it,” the outspoken Baptist pastor said during a visit to El Nuevo Herald with his wife, Yoaxis Marcheco Suarez, also a blogger.

“The same communist elite that caused all the trouble, that threw away all the resources, now wants to be the capitalist elite, while the people continue under the same suffering,” Lleonart said. “They are the same people and the same (communist) party.”

Pro-democracy and civil society groups on the island of 11 million people are stepping up their activism to “fill the spaces being abandoned by the government” and have forced the government to reluctantly undertake some reforms it did not favor, he added.

The 38-year-old pastor of a Baptist church with about 100 members in Taguayabon, a town of 4,000 in Villa Clara province, has become known in recent years for his sharp-edged criticisms of the Raúl Castro government in his blog and tweets.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British organization that works for religious freedom, financed his trip to Washington earlier this month to meet with the Congressional Caucus on Religious Freedom and aides to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl,., and Barbara Boxer, D-Ca.

The British group reported this spring that violations of religious freedoms in Cuba in the previous 15 months had spiked harshly, especially as the government jailed hundreds of democracy activists to keep them away from visiting Pope Benedict XVI’s masses.

Lleonart said he has preached in two Baptist church in South Florida since arriving in Miami last week and wants to preach in as many as will ask him, including some in Texas and North Carolina, before the couple returns to Cuba around December.

The pastor added that some people in Miami surprised him by keeping their distance from him, apparently fearing that any contact with a dissident would trigger Cuba government reprisals against them, such as denials of permission to travel to the island.

Such concerns did not bother Lleonart, who has been detained five times since 2008, created the blog Cubano Confesante — Cuban Believer — in 2010 and has repeatedly criticized the lack of religious freedom in Cuba, officially atheist from 1962 to 1992.

He also teaches at the seminary linked to the La Trinidad Baptist Church, in the provincial capital of Santa Clara, and the Baptist convention of Western Cuba, one of four umbrella Baptist organizations on the island.

“The danger for Cuba today is that if they (the ruling elites) get a little oxygen, what kind of attitude are they going to take on the Cuban people,” he asked.

“These are the same people and the same party that are going to try to keep the transition from being like the ones in East Germany and Poland, and make it more like the Russian one, what’s being called ‘Putinismo,’” he said.

But Lleonart added that change in Cuba is inevitable as the central government’s power weakens, and told one anecdote that he said reflects how even long-time government supporters and veterans of Cuba’s wars in Africa are feeling “abandoned.”

Neighbors who have been reporting his activities to the State Security police for many years could not believe that he was being allowed to travel abroad, the pastor said, and predicted that authorities would stop him at the airport.

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