Posted on Thursday, 12.26.13
Man who shouted "Down with communism!" during pope's visit to Cuba is
now in Chattanooga
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
Source: Man who shouted "Down with communism!" during pope's visit to
Cuba is now in Chattanooga - Cuba - MiamiHerald.com -