50 Defectors Saw Mass As Last Chance For Freedom

TORONTO — “Cuba sí,” say several billboards around Toronto, trying to lure Canadians to visit the sunny beaches of Cuba.

But a group of about 50 Cuban pilgrims to World Youth Day in July said “Cuba no!” and defected to Canada during the July 28 papal Mass in Toronto.

“In Cuba,” Renier Figueredo, one of the defectors, told the Register, “we are young only in age, because we are forced to live like people with no hope in the future.”

Raisel Dominguez said he knew his actions would strain Church-state relations in Cuba. “I know what this means for the Church, and I am sorry,” he said. “But I hope they will understand that this was the only opportunity we would have.”

The group separated from their 200-member group during the Mass to become, at least temporarily, illegal immigrants.

The Cuban delegation at World Youth Day was visible and rowdy. Father Thomas Rosica, director of World Youth Day 2002, said both the Canadian and the U.S. bishops joined forces to pay for up to 1,000 Cuban young pilgrims to attend the event, but finally only 200 professionals in their 20s made the trip after Castro issued an 11th-hour approval.

Headed by the bishop of Guantánamo, Carlos Baladrón Valdez, and joined by priests, nuns and three other bishops, Cubans proudly waved their flags during World Youth Day activities, frequently attracting cheers and signs of support from fellow Latin Americans.

Then on July 29 Canadian news reported that “a group of Cuban pilgrims” had evaded their security guards and gone into hiding, defecting from the official delegation.

The news was surprising for World Youth Day organizers. In fact, Bishop James Wingle of St. Catherines, Ontario, said the Canadian bishops gathered in World Youth Day “unwinding” meetings were “caught by surprise by this news like everybody else.”

Paul Kilbertus, spokesman for World Youth Day, said the organizers of the event were not aware of either the number or the whereabouts of the group but that the news was disappointing.

“This is not why we put on World Youth Day,” he said. “You do your best to have the best system in place. We knew this was one of the risks.”

Later, Ismael Sambra, president of the Toronto-based Cuban Canadian Foundation, revealed that the group of Cuban youth contacted his organization and revealed that the first group had about 23 members, “but now we know there are some 50 of them.”

According to Sambra, the Cuban young people who defected “were not only tired of their lives in Cuba, but also of the control of their moves even here in Canada.”

That's understandable, according to what Joanne Boisvert, a World Youth Day organizer of the Diocese of St. Hyacinth, east of Montreal said. She hosted the Cuban pilgrims the week before the main World Youth Day events.

“They were always under special rules governing their stay. When they were in our diocese, they were all there,” said Boisvert, who revealed that the group's leaders “even kept their passports. There were constraints. We couldn't billet them in homes and they had to be in large groups and sleep in church basements and community centers.”

Some of the nearly 50 Cubans who left their country's delegation announced later in the week that they would apply for refugee status, placing the Canadian government — usually friendly to Castro's regime — in a difficult situation.

Some of them have already contacted a local Cuban-Canadian lawyer, Andrés Perera, who has committed help from his law office.

And Joe García, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation, announced that his organization has sent a lawyer to provide further legal help to the group.

“We are willing to provide any kind of support that is possible, especially now that we know the group seems to be growing,” García said.

When asked for an interview with the defectors, Perera warned that most of them are “obviously paranoid and scared.”

But two of them, who are staying together near Toronto, discussed their decision and why they defected.

Raisel Dominguez admitted being divided about remaining with his relatives or starting a new life, but said that finally the possibility of “starting anew, with opportunities and a future before me,” made the decision for him.

Both he and Renier Figueredo criticized the lack of opportunities in Cuba and the critical situation the country is currently facing at all levels.

Dominguez said the youth delegation was requested by Cuban priests not to defect to Canada because it would hurt the Catholic Church in Cuba.

Church Leaders Upset

As predicted, the news was not received well among Catholic leaders in Cuba.

“I have been informed that this development has embittered the rest of the delegation,” Bishop Baladrón said. During World Youth Day, the bishop declared that the presence of a large Cuban delegation was a goodwill gesture from Fidel Castro toward the Church.

Bishop Baladrón denied reports that his delegation traveled to Canada under the surveillance of Cuban security forces. “We felt totally free during our stay in Canada,” he said.

The bishop also denied that there is any sort of religious prosecution in Cuba. He said the defection was basically a “migration issue.”

“Young people migrate from one place to another, frequently for material reasons,” he said.

Another young Cuban defector in Canada, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that material reasons were involved in his decision but said that stories of religious persecution in Cuba are not exaggerated.

“I understand that the bishops must refrain from openly criticizing Castro, but for Catholics and Christians it is not a secret that there are serious religious limitations on the island,” he said. “You can go to church and to religious activities, but whenever you try to organize something that will bring your faith to the social or political level — I mean, to any kind of public presence — then for one reason or another, you end up in jail.”

He mentioned as examples of such persecution the situations of Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, a Catholic pro-lifer who is in jail for protesting against abortion and the death penalty, and Oswaldo Payá, a militant Catholic founder of the Liberation Christian Movement who has suffered imprisonment and permanent harassment for proposing a national referendum called the Varela Project on behalf of Cuban hero and priest Father Felix Varela.

However, Payá was critical of the defectors. “It is true that the oppression and the lack of perspectives for the future are making millions of Cubans desire to leave the island,” he said. “But in this case, these people earned the trust of the Catholic Church and finally ended up using the representation of the Cuban laity for their own personal projects. I don't want to be harsh on these kids, but I think it was very low for them to use the Church for their personal purposes.”

Pablo Alfonso, a journalist and expert in Cuban issues for the Miami-based El Herald, shared that opinion.

“I don't know the reason why they ‘defected,’ but I can say it is deplorable,” Alfonso said. “They were not part of an official or government's delegation but of youth allegedly committed with their Church and lay organizations.”

Concluded Alfonso: “They did not defect from the government but from their own commitment and responsibility with the Church, which is striving uphill to evangelize in Cuba.”

Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru.