“Bags of Hope” to Bring Smiles to Cuban Children this Christmas

December has arrived and in Cuba there will not be multiple days off from school or work.  There won’t be rows of homes lit with multicolor lights.  Nor will there be songs of celebration in public spaces, or signs along the road wishing passer-bys a holiday season full of joy and peace.  That is how Christmas is in Cuba, and not by the will of the people.

The young Cuban exile, Rufina Velazquez, remembers those kinds of Christmases in her home town of Las Tunas.  For that very reason she has decided to play the role of “Santa Claus” with children of her old neighborhood, and others, creating the initiative dubbed “Bags of Hope”.  With this project, Velazquez aims to send presents to those Cuban children to add a bit of happiness during this time of the year which, in majority of countries around the world, is celebrated with lots of joy.

I am doing this because I once was like those kids who do not have a Christmas“, tells Rufina, “my house was the only one on the block with a Christmas tree, and it was just a little pine scarcely decorated and with few presents“.  Velazquez still conserves that Christmas spirit and wants to share it with her fellow Cubans.  “Since I am over here in exile and since I am prohibited from going into my own country to celebrate with my family, it occurred to me to share this moment with them from a distance and give those kids something I never had“.

Rufina is the daughter of Cuban dissident Ramon Velazquez Toranzo, reason why the regime impedes her entrance to Cuba.  Regardless, the young exile points out that this initiative “has nothing to do with politics, it’s just a gesture to share some love and a message of hope to those who suffer the most in Cuban society: children“.

To take part in this goodwill project, one can visit the Facebook group page for “Bags of Hope“.  All sorts of donations are accepted, including toys, sweets, post cards, and candy, all of which will be collected and sent off by the 15th of December.  You may also visit the PayPal page for the group, where cash donations are accepted.

The Cuban dictatorship outlawed Christmas during the beginning of its rise to power.  Despite the fact that in 1998 after a visit to the island by Pope John Paul II the authorities announced that the holiday was supposedly no longer illegal, Christmas is still not publicly respected by those who rule the country with an iron fist.

Despite this, many Cubans on the island have chosen to never abandon their faith and traditions, and have continued (and continue) celebrating Christmas and noche buena (Christmas eve party) in any way they have been able to.  “I remember my grandmother telling me how Christmas was celebrated before the current regime, and although she was poor at the time she tells me that it was a time of joy and festivities, where family and friends would come together“, recounts Velazquez.  Perhaps it is that same memory of the past which has allowed Christmas to survive, even in the darkest depths of the censorship and violence unleashed by the dictatorship of the Castro brothers.

For many of these kids it will be their first encounter with Christmas, the first time they receive gifts, the first time they see a card with Santa on it, and even the first time that someone talks to them about love and peace“.

The first time, perhaps, but hopefully the first of many times to come.

Some of the presents collected so far. Via "Bags of Hope" Facebook page
“Bags of Hope” to Bring Smiles to Cuban Children this Christmas

Repression on 143rd Anniversary of ‘The Cry of Yara’

UNPACU carries out protest, faces both repression and solidarity

A patriotic date for Cubans- the 10th of October, when independence fighter Carlos Cespedes granted freedom to black slaves and initiated the Ten Years’ War  for independence, in an act known as ‘the Cry of Yara’- was celebrated 143 years later by dissidents on the island carrying out non-violent protests, and also with repression on behalf  governmental forces.

According to former political prisoner of conscience Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), an organization headed by him and other dissidents, carried out a peaceful protest through the streets of Palmarito de Cauto in correlation with the historic date and in demand for the respect of the inalienable rights of all Cubans.  “A number of activists took to the street with signs which read ‘Down with Fidel’, ‘Fix our streets’, ‘Milk for our children’, and ‘Internet for all’, and shouted these same slogans along with others and also sang the national anthem“, explained the distinguished dissident.  The protesters were able to see that the majority of the neighbors stared from their windows or doors in a sign of support, while the only ones who tried to stop them were 7 members of the government’s Rapid Response Brigade and a lady who is an active Popular Power delegate and Communist Party member, who hurled rocks at the dissidents from her house.

Upon noticing the absence of excessive violence towards the demonstrators on behalf of the locals, officials from the Political Police, Revolutionary Police, and State Security began to arrive to the city.  “Those agents began to surround the entire town, and one could clearly hear how they felt rage upon not seeing a massive display of aggression against the activists.  The officials were asking themselves and everyone around how this had been possible“, while the superiors scolded the local militants, declaring that such behavior was “not acceptable“.

According to Ferrer Garcia, this position assumed by everyday citizens is becoming more and more common every time, with less or no neighbors participating in acts of mob repudiation or other forms of violence.  “It is true that many people still feel fear and therefore do not protest publicly, but we are also witnessing that more and more show sympathy to us and even tell us we are doing a very brave thing“.  A recent example of this occurred minutes after the march, when “various youths began to shout the same slogans which they had heard dissidents shout during the peaceful march, and these people are not even openly opposition members, yet they confronted the Rapid Response Brigade.  This has been frequently happening, despite the fact that the authorities try to make it seem otherwise, using the tactic of blackmailing and utilizing workers of certain sectors such as commerce or food, telling them to pretend to be upset and to shout offensive slogans at us.  If they fail to do so, they lose their jobs“, denounces Ferrer.

Although initially there was no excessive violence, just a few moments after the officials showed up armed with sticks and rods.  Various agents used these weapons of repression against two female dissidents who had participated in the march- Oria Casanova and Tania Banderas, both who are mute.  Casanova and Banderas were victims of a severe beat down.

In order to try and impede such reports to be brought quickly to light, Cuban authorities blocked the phone lines of Jose Daniel and his wife, Belkis Cantillo since the prior day, Sunday October 9th, when other brutal acts had occurred against dissidents on the island.  In one case, 13 Ladies in White were beaten while they attempted to assist mass at church.  The uniformed government soldiers persecuted those activists which were reporting the events and capturing the aggressions on film.  They were trying to confiscate their cameras.  One of the victims of the physical violence was also Belkis Cantillo, who suffered various kicks to the stomach.

Other acts of repression in the island

In the Eastern city of Las Tunas there was also repression while activists attempted to celebrate the historic date.  From her Twitter account, the exiled daughter of activist Ramon Velazquez Toranzo, Rufina Velazquez, denounced that her father had been arrested along with other opposition members.  He was detained when he tried to step out of his house.  Political police officials stopped him and shoved him in a police vehicle, keeping him there for a few hours.  Other dissidents belonging to the Christian Liberation Movement suffered the same fate.

In Placetas, Jorge Luis Garcia ‘Antunez’, recounted that he was on his way home after visiting recently released activist Sara Marta Fonseca when he noticed that countless government officials were following him.  Antunez lives knowing that these watchdogs are keeping a close vigilance on him, as they have set up a circle around his neighborhood, taking note of his activities as well as those of his wife and other dissident friends.  The 10th of October was no exception.  “The uniformed officials were keeping a close vigilance in their attempt to impede anyone from going in our out of my house“, denounced the dissident.

Meanwhile, in Santa Clara Guillermo Farinas and the independent journalist Carlos Baluerdy Oregon were detained while they tried to get to the local Leoncio Vidal Park to carry out an act of solidarity with activists of the Central Opposition Coalition who have maintained a hunger strike in demand for the immediate end to violence against resistance members.  Both were released during afternoon hours.  In the province of Matanzas, State Security carried out a brutal beating against members of the Independent Alternative Option Movement , according to a note published on Babalu Blog which was written by former political prisoner Miguel Sigler Amaya, now exiled in Miami.  The activists were planning to march all the way to the local cemetery, paying tribute to deceased martyrs on that patriotic day.

Repression on 143rd Anniversary of ‘The Cry of Yara’

Ramon Velazquez Toranzo: “Cuba must be free and independent from all sort of dictatorship and tyranny”

An article written by the coordinator of the National Boitel and Zapata Live March for Freedom in Las Tunas, Ramon Velazquez Toranzo, about the release from prison of a Cuban spy, the patriotic date of October 10th, and the persistence of those who continue the non violent struggle in Cuba.  His daughter, Rufina Velazquez, has provided the article.

Chronicles of an Announced Repression

For the slave owners of Cuba- the Castro brothers-there is nothing impossible when it comes to saving their family thrown and power.  For them, it is the same to order the drowning of a ship filled with women and children trying to flee the country, or to fabricate a hero out of any failed spy, order the shoot-down of a pair of civilian planes in the air, or execute three young men who also tried to flee the country.  It just comes that easy to them.

This upcoming 7th of October, one of those spies turned into a hero (but without any achievements) will be released, thanks to the work of other heroes of the same nature, from prison in the US, the country in which he was born and which he betrayed, like he also betrayed the freedom, democracy of the Cuban people.  Whoever defends a cruel and despicable dictatorship also betrays the people which the dictatorship oppresses, humiliates, and enslaves.

However, and despite how ironic it may seem, the 13 years this spy spent in US prisons is nothing compared to the three years of supervised freedom he will have to live in that country, alongside those which he at some point laughed at.  I would think that now he understands more than ever the saying of ‘he who laughs last, laughs best’.

Meanwhile, here in our island-prison, a group of us patriots will be repressed on October 10t by the same government which has assassinated so many freedoms and which now sheds crocodile tears so that they allow its abominable accomplice return home safe and sound, without serving what the law has sentenced.

I repeat we will be repressed on that day, and it’s not because we can read the future, it’s just that we know how the monster functions, for we live in its insides.  And we also know that we will never, never renounce our own rights, despite whatever price we must pay.

On October 10th of 1868, the Father of the Nation and of all Cubans, Carlos M. de Cespedes granted freedom to the slaves and declared Cuba independent from the Spanish metropolis.  On this same date, 143 years later, we are also declaring that we are slaves of no one and that Cuba must be free and independent from all sort of dictatorship and tyranny.

Juarez, distinguished figure of America, said that peace is the respect of the rights of others.  We believe that dignity is the respect of our own rights.

Long live the rights of the Cuban people! Long live a Free Cuba! And long live peace!

-Ramon Velazquez Toranzo
Coordinator of the National Boitel and Zapata March for Freedom in Las Tunas, Cuba.

Ramon Velazquez Toranzo: “Cuba must be free and independent from all sort of dictatorship and tyranny”

Cuban Dissident on Hunger Strike, Daughter Asks for Solidarity

Ramon Velazquez Toranzo is a Cuban dissident from the Eastern province of Las Tunas.  He has suffered imprisonment, detainment, and threats due to his activism in defense of human rights, as well as for being an independent journalist.  Towards the end of 2006, Velazquez headed “The March for Dignity” together with his wife and youngest daughter.  The objective of the march was to walk throughout the island, passing all sorts of cities and towns on the way, demanding that the fundamental rights of Cubans be respected, and also, as the name suggests, so that the dignity of the Cuban people be respected.  The march kicked off in Santiago de Cuba, in the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity, and the family was able to traverse various provinces, but not without countless obstacles on behalf of the tyranny.  They were finally impeded from continuing upon arriving at Ciego de Avila in January of 2007. 

Today, Ramon Velazquez is on hunger strike, and his daughter Rufina Velazquez (now exiled in Miami) is asking for solidarity for her father and his protest.  Rufina has explained that due to her families’ anti-government stance, she has difficulties in communicating with her father as often as she likes, considering that their phone line is commonly intercepted and e-mails are censured, while hand written letters often never arrive to her father’s hands. 

Rufina answered some questions for ‘Pedazos de la Isla’, bringing us her father’s message and explaining the reasons as to why he has decided to carry out a hunger strike:

PDLI: Tell us a bit about your father, Ramon Velazquez.

RV: My father, Ramon Velazquez Toranzo, joined the opposition before I was born, in the late 80’s. He began his dissident activities as an independent journalist, with the goal of denouncing all the violations and atrocities suffered by our  country.  My father is a very determined person, and his love for Cuba is one of the things for which he lives and fights for each day, as well as his love for life and respect for God.  He has refused to abandon the country on numerous occasions, despite that State Security frequently tries to get him to leave through countless threats.

PDLI: Just a few years ago, when you were still living in Cuba, you carried out a non-violent march alongside your parents.  Can you tell us a bit about this march? Did your family suffer impediments because of this? Would you say you achieved the objective of the march?

RV: In December of 2006, my father, mother, and I carried out a march which set out from Santiago de Cuba under the name of “March for Dignity”.  With that march, we were demanding respect for human rights, freedom for all political prisoners, and that the violence against peaceful dissidents come to an end.

We were able to carry the march all the way to Ciego de Avila and that took us approximately two months due to the many arrests and interrogations we were subjected to.  In February of 2007, my father was arrested once again but this time they unjustly sentenced him to 3 years of prison after a brief trial based on lies and false proof, accusing him of “anti-social dangerousness”.  My mother and I decided to not continue the march without him.

After serving his total sentence of 3 years, he went right back to his dissident activities.  He spent the last year and a half working as an independent journalist, setting up a human rights center in our house and supporting any activity, organization, protest, or other act against the tyranny which was at his reach.

PDLI: When did Ramon Velazquez  begin his hunger strike?  What are his reasons for initiating such a protest?

RV:  Being one of the organizers of the current National Boitel and Zapata Live March in Cuba, he was detained by State Security at a bus station while he was trying to travel East, where the march would commence.

This occurred on September 9th, and since then he has been on hunger strike.  When he was released on the 12th, they threatened to detain him again if he would just as much step out of his house.  He was also told that they would use all their means to impede his participation in the march.  That is why he decided to carry out a hunger strike as a form of protest.  His main demands are that the right which Cubans have to march peacefully be respected, that ALL human rights be respected, and that a UN human rights inspector be allowed inside Cuba so that they can document and verify all the violations in this country.

PDLI:  How is your father’s health at this moment?

RV:  Health-wise, he is weak, with ailments which three years of prison have produced in him, along with a 16 day hunger strike which he carried out previously.  However, his spiritual state is as strong as that of a titan.  He is decided to take the strike to the final consequences, if the government does not give in to his demands.

PDLI: Do you have a message you’d like to share with readers in regards to the situation which your father is confronting?  

RV:  My message to those who read, hear, or know anything of what is happening in Cuba is a petition of solidarity, in whichever way possible so that we unmask and remove the Castro tyranny.  We cannot allow so much human sacrifice, selflessness, and bravery from those who fight from inside to be in vain.   We should unite forces and cross barriers.  We have to make the suffering of Cubans our own, and support them.  We are a family, and together we can achieve our goals.

More than anything, and on a more personal note, I ask for solidarity with my father.  Please divulge the news of his situation, of his health, and that justice be demanded through every mean possible.

And don’t give up, for the day in which we achieve freedom is very near.

Cuban Dissident on Hunger Strike, Daughter Asks for Solidarity