The recent news that St. Lawrence Catholic Church of Tampa won permission from the Cuban government to start building the first new Catholic Church in Cuba since it embraced communism in 1959 has many hoping for more religious freedom in the island nation.
But in a visit to Tampa this week, an outspoken religious leader who lives in Cuba advised people against getting their hopes up.
“Cuba uses religion to further politics,” said Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor of Ebenezer Church in Taguayabon, Cuba.
The Cuban government, Lleonart Barroso said, forces religious leaders to propagate its own message — that Communism works in the best interests of the people — along with the word of God. Religious leaders who say otherwise risk losing their churches.
So the new Catholic Church to be located in Sandino, he said, amounts to a new weapon for the Cuban government.
The Rev. Ramon Hernandez of St. Lawrence, who spoke with The Tampa Tribune recently about the drive to raise money for the church and his own upbringing in Cuba, could not be reached for comment Wednesday on this view of the government's motives in allowing him to proceed.
Lleonart Barroso was in Tampa as keynote speaker at a luncheon hosted by United for Human Rights, a Los Angeles-based education group.
The luncheon celebrated the 66th anniversary of the signing at the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The event was held inside the Church of Scientology's Ybor City headquarters.
Gracia Bennish, United for Human Rights' president and a member of the Church of Scientology, said the church publishes her organization's materials but has no other link to it.
Lleonart Barroso and his 16-member Cuban delegation will travel to Clearwater later in the week to visit the Church of Scientology center there.
The significance of Scientology's Tampa location in Ybor City was not lost on Lleonart Barroso.
Now the redeveloped Ybor Square, it was in the late 1800s the home to the V.M. Ybor Cigar Factory, where Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti rallied workers to donate money to the militia that would free Cuba from colonialist Spain.
“This is beyond dreams to be here where Jose Marti was,” said Lleonart Barroso. “He is still an inspiration for a free Cuba.”
Following the luncheon, he led a procession to the nearby Jose Marti Park honoring the Cuban patriot.
Lleonart Barroso did not mention religious freedom during his speech at the luncheon, focusing instead on the lack of human rights in general in Cuba. But through an interpreter, he told the Tribune about how he believes the Cuban government uses religion to further its messages.
“Cuba wants churches to pretend everything is OK,” he said. “If they tell the people that it is all good in Cuba it is hoped the people will believe it and not question anything. It is another way to control.”
According a 2014 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal commission, the Cuban government has outlawed individual churches from opening bank accounts. Rather, accounts are restricted to one per denomination nationwide.
This way, if one church leader gets out of line the entire denomination can be punished — forcing them to police from within.
“The government picks and chooses which religious groups and freedoms to tolerate and at times co-opt based on politics, but otherwise does not accept inalienable freedom of religion as a fundamental right,” said Ted Henken, associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York and author of the book “Cuba: Nations in Focus.”
The U.S. report lists other anti-religion tactics by the Cuban government, including destruction of church property, confiscation of supplies, surveillance of outspoken members and short term detainment.
Lleonart Barroso said he has been detained more than once.
“There is always a challenge in shepherding sheep in a land full of wolves,” he said.
In 2012, he said, he suffered broken ribs for helping a human rights defender obtain medical treatment after being beaten by authorities.
“Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart and his family are under constant harassment by Cuban State Security,” said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, editor of “Voces,” a magazine critical of the Cuban government. “They have been threatened and arrested temporarily without any charges just as a way of intimidation and coercing them to go to exile.”
Pardo Lazo was arrested and temporarily held in March 2012 when Pope Benedict XVI visited the island but was not charged with a crime.
The reason for his incarceration, Pardo Lazo said, was to keep the pope from learning the full story of how dissidents are treated.
He has since moved to the U.S.
Still, said Henken, religious freedom is slowly taking hold in Cuba.
“But it has a ways to go,” he said.
The U.S. commission's report said Cubans do enjoy more religious freedom than ever before under the Communist regime. Mass is allowed in prison, religious denominations report increased opportunities to conduct charity work, many receive contributions from outside of Cuba and religious leaders can travel abroad.
The new Catholic church and Lleonart Barroso's visit serve as examples.
Even some of Lleonart Barroso's demands have been met.
In 2013, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak before the Congressional Caucus on Religious Freedom, where he issued a 30-point challenge to the Communist government. Among his requests was streamlining permission for new churches, a halt to the freezing of church bank accounts and freedom for the imprisoned Sonia Garro — a prominent member of Cuban dissident organization Ladies In White.
Garro, Lleonart Barroso said, was also arrested during the pope's 2012 visit. She was freed earlier this week.
“So one of my list was completed,” Lleonart Barroso said. “But I think I will just amend that one because she is still under house arrest and that should end, too.”
He said he hopes that the construction of the new church in Sandino with the help of Tampa's St. Lawrence parish means the permitting process is indeed easing.
Mass is already being held on the property. The foundation will be laid in January.
And St. Lawrence has raised $45,000 — half of the $90,000 needed for the project but enough for Cuba to approve the start of construction.
The local church hopes to raise the rest of the money by the end of 2015.
“You always have to believe in change,” Lleonart Barroso said. “And keep working toward your goal.”