“Life is worth nothing
if I ignore that the assassin
took a different path
and is preparing another ambush.”
– Pablo Milanes
When I retrospectively analyze my pastoral relationship with Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, I discover that neither international forces or media campaigns were interested in him. Instead, God, who is never neutral before the situations which humans face, was the one who was very interested in this man. And he was preparing me so that I could be the Samaritan, seeing as they had already tossed him alongside the path.
I met THE STUDENT (the nickname by which he was introduced to me) in March of 2010. Orlando Zapata Tamayo had just died on February 23rd as consequence of the authorities ignoring his rights as a striker. Moved by events such as these, which are nothing new in Cuba as seen by antecedent and appalling deaths like that of Pedro Luis Boitel, I found out about the Hunger and Thirst Strike which Guillermo Farinas decided to undergo. Understanding that God does not let actions such as these go by unnoticed, and while spiritually burning my desire to present myself at the epicenter of all these happenings with the Gospel in order to liberate, and using the divinities left by Jesus on the Sermon of the Mount, I made myself present, equipped with two very powerful weapons–the Bible and prayer.
Juan Wilfredo was a good friend from the intimate circle of Guillermo Farinas. I can’t recall visiting the hospital and not seeing THE STUDENT there. During the days in which the survival of Guillermo constituted an authentic miracle, Juan Wilfredo did not move at all from the hospital-neither day nor night.
From the very first moment in which THE STUDENT heard me read the Bible and pray to God so that He may bring salvation onto all the souls involved in the issue as well as reconciliation among all Cubans, (Juan Wilfredo) approached me with his very Cuban spontaneity which he always had when he would give me a hug and when he would express his most profound admiration. Since then, he treated me with the same fidelity he treated Coco (Farinas), despite the fact that, as opposed to me, he had known Coco for a very long time–ever since childhood in fact–when they would play basketball together in the Palace of the Pioneers and having been his neighbor for nearly 17 years.
“Thank you, Pastor, for accompanying us and bring us God. Not everyone does that,” he would flatter me during each of my visits. I would explain to him that what I was doing did not surge from my own kindness nor from my limited bravery, but instead that it came straight from God, who is the one that puts the desire of wanting and doing into each of his children.
“I am the one who admires you, for your fidelity towards your friend, and because of the fact that, despite your legs being so swollen, you have not moved from this hospital”, I would respond to him, impressed by his authentic friendship, and that human valor which is pointed out in the Bible. “At all times, love your friend. And he will be like a brother in times of anguish.” (Proverbs 17.1)
Wilfredo was not the only one. Evidently, that man who languished in the Intensive Care Unit had known how to cultivate true friends who were willing to give their lives for him if it would have been necessary, for this, in fact, was what he was doing for more than fifty prisoners, some of who he did not even know personally. But God wanted it so that, from his circle of friends, Wilfredo would be the one that I would befriend the most. I quickly learned about his health ailments: hypertension, gout, diabetes, and dilated myocardium. It was difficult to believe that a man so corpulent and with such a strong spirit actually suffered from all these things. The majority of his ailments were scars left from mistreatment he suffered during periods of imprisonment, which (under three different causes) summed up to 3 times, adding up to 12 difficult years in total, which began in 1984 when he was only 18 years old and was barely even a high school student (Which is where he gets the nickname THE STUDENT from). He was then sentenced to 4 years for the first time under the accusation of “Enemy Propaganda”- a sentence which he served in the section for minors of the Manacas prison.
I was so moved by his ailments that in addition to my spiritual priority over his life–during this year I was simply his pastor–I did all that I could to get him the medicines he needed. For this reason he handed me a Clinical History Report which I sent out to fellow pastors abroad so that they could help me. Despite the fact that Juan Wilfredo was from Santa Clara and that I am from Taguayabon, he visited me a couple of times as a display of profound admiration. He always told me about his desire to assist the church which I am a pastor of, despite the distance. But I recommended that he assist other excellent organizations which reside in Santa Clara, which he did every once in a while. THE STUDENT also established relationships with other Cuban pastors, and even foreign ones. I am omitting their names because I do not have their permission to mention them, but I do know that they feel just as shocked as me because of this arbitrary death.
On Thursday, July 8th 2010, when the Cuban government had not other option but to publish an article in Granma about the liberation of all the prisoners from the group of the 75, which led to the conclusion of Guillermo Farina’s strike; Wilfredo abandoned that battlefield of peaceful struggle which the hospital had been converted into, and returned to that other place which, with his small town spirit, he felt was his: the Leoncio Vidal Park of Santa Clara.
His status of former political prisoner on the one hand, and as a sick person on the other, forced him to survive in this place, immersed in the black market. As a part of my job as a professor at theological institutions, I travel weekly to Santa Clara. God allowed Wilfredo and I to meet weekly, each Wednesday, which strengthened our personal friendship and facilitated my pastoral relationship with him. But neither of us imagined the situation for which God was preparing us.
The day before the beating, Wednesday May 4, Juan Wilfredo and I had our usual meeting in the park where, as always, he made me aware of his health. Despite his chronic illnesses he was feeling quite well and was eager to fight for survival in the sense that we Cubans understand. His biggest concern was his mother who had recently had surgery for a hip fracture. We prayed for her. Little did we imagine our last meeting the following day and under embarrassing circumstances I will never forget.
Like every Thursday in recent months, I was accompanying a patient to outpatient treatment at Oncology Hospital of Santa Clara. This hospital facility is located halfway between the center of the city, where the park and the Hospital “Arnaldo Milian” Hospital are, where Wilfredo went shortly after eleven in the morning.
He wanted the Divine providence that I, Juan Wilfredo’s pastor, with whom he had maintained a relationship that significantly affected the last year of his life; I had spoken with him just the day before, and seen that he felt fine; I had a fully activated Twitter account, @maritovoz, with the ability to publish one hundred forty characters from my phone, without direct access to the internet; one day earlier he had put money on my phone which, for more than twenty days had remained at virtually zero, coinciding in time and place with my beaten friend, I felt the need to denounce the abuse in that tweet published at 11:55 AM on that sad May 5.
It was John Wilfred, from the bicycle taxi in which he was traveling, I first made out. As if to confirm that, despite the violence and disorder that yet reign in this world, there is a God interested in our suffering, whether physical or spiritual, he stopped the bicycle taxi to approach me as one who found the very same doors to the sky open.
“These people killed me, Pastor. They beat me with billy clubs. I’m going to the hospital because I can not stand the pain,” Juan Wilfredo said, obviously physically and spiritually broken. It wasn’t the same as the previous day, the difference was a result of that beating. I harbor no doubt about that and am willing to testify before any court willing to offer justice to Juan Wilfredo and recognize my right as an eye-witness; otherwise, what was I doing posting a tweet of that nature the morning of the crime, when I couldn’t anticipate such fateful consequences from the impiety.
The patient I was accompanying heard the difficult words of THE STUDENT. Despite his own ailments he could sense the urgency and seriousness of what he was telling us and was extremely affected. We had come out into the street at that precise moment but we hadn’t finished our business. I was caught between two human beings who needed me.
“What a situation you’ve put me in, STUDENT! I can’t let you go alone like this, but I can’t abandon this person I’m with who is depending on me,” I told him anxiously.
“Do not worry, Pastor, I didn’t call you to accompany me. I would be grateful if you would alert someone who can go with me, if you can let Coco know,” he reassured me.
“You can count on that Wilfredo, hurry to the hospital and I’ll get Coco know to let your family know right away,” I told him.
The last thing I remember is that bicycle taxi and John Wilfredo moving away from us forever. Then I found in my inquiries that the bicycle taxi driver that was taking him is a member of one of the churches of the city, but so far he hasn’t been able to overcome his fear and is not disposed to offer declarations, like the other witnesses. I have hopes that this terrified brother, and many more, will set aside their fear because, as it says in the scripture, “In love there is not fear, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear exists in peril, and he that fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4.18).”
After this unforgettable encounter with THE STUDENT I turned back to helping the patient I was accompanying, and once re-situated I sent a text message to Guillermos Farinas mobile phone to complete the last favor Wilfredo asked of me. No satisfied with my inevitable decision to leave him to continue alone, I felt a deep need to at least send a tweet broadcasting his complaint. It would not be the first time I had sent a tweet to denounce some abuse. Sadly, many of these tweets have fallen into oblivion without being given the importance due to them. We are so used to this kind of news, that the beatings have come to seem as normal in Cuba as its royal palms. Sadly, someone has to die for the world to react, and this time it was our unforgettable John Wilfredo.
After sending the messages and confident that doctors, many friends and family would look after him, I continued in my duties and routines until eventually I fully confirmed what Juan Wilfredo told me was not a boast or a fake victim. I understood when he told me, “These people have killed me, my Pastor …” John Wilfredo was not speaking metaphorically but horribly literally, but many people did believe or want to help him. The further confirmation that what he said was the truth was his painful death.
Little did I imagine that this trip Juan Wilfredo took to the “Arnaldo Milian” Hospital had been unsuccessful, and on the orders of State Security, when he first arrived at the hospital, attending physician staff quickly dispatched him after just measuring your blood pressure. Hector Bermudez Duniesky Santana, who was stoned on Tuesday, March 10, received a head injury, was one of those who was a witness to the scene and after exchanging after receiving a 10 head injury, was who had to witness the scene, and after confronting the police with a few words he took Juan Wilfredo home in his car. Others also affirm having seen troops of Cuban intelligence in the park at the time of the terrible events, supporting the hypothesis that we are in the presence of a kind of execution.
Perhaps even more criminal that the beating itself is the fact that those who should have fulfilled their medical oath preferred to abide by other orders and did not provide the care Wilfredo urgently needed, he wasn’t even given an ultrasound. When, the following day, THE STUDENT was taken back to the hospital by his family, it was already too late. His belly was full of liquid, the acid from his pancreas, injured by the beating, had leaked out and was eating away at the pancreas itself the liver, and perhaps even his kidneys and bladder.
The assessment made by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet (+535-276-9405) may be helpful in this regard; he has made a very scientific assessment about what usually happens when the pancreas is damages by some external effect, as in this case. The efforts of the ICU were useless, the damage was irreversible, and he ended up–like Orlando Zapata Tamayo at the end–first at the Canaguey Hospital and then at the Military Hospital at Combinado del Este, from where he was finally taken to die at the Almeijeira Hospital.
The death of John Wilfredo had begun in countdown when people in uniform, as Gen. Raul Castro called the police, clubbed him with their billy clubs. And it was accelerated when, desperately knocking on the doors of an institution of public health, he was sent home to die.
Roughly speaking, this is all I have to say about the dramatic death of Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, whom divine providence has wanted to surround with witnesses like myself. Another issue related to this would be the suicide, that same Mother’s Day Sunday at the tomb where we buried Wilfredo, of the patrol officer Alexis whom the people of Santa Clara associated with the beating of THE STUDENT. According to rumors in the neighborhood, after two suspected visits of State Security to the officer, he ended up shooting himself.
If the widespread rumors were true this is a telling example that the government encourages its people to violence: the family of a peaceful opponent, and that of a policeman, both mourning forever, and I don’t even want to think about these mothers just breathing in the tragedy on a day that should be celebrated.
I will not again, I did in previous post, relate the vileness with which the regime followed the crime with its three desperate declarations in the newspaper Granma, manipulating declarations, masking facts, questioning my words and those of the other thirty witnesses willing to testify, although the government has not publicly mentioned our names. I personally feel disrepected as a citizen.
In rebutting my testimony, I consider they are also questioning me and the religious institutions I represent. If I am a liar I should be judged as such and expelled from the ministries that I would then be unworthy to participate in. I feel aggrieved by the regime and continue to affirm it is responsible for the beating of Juan Wilfredo and I demand an investigation by impartial institutions of international character. I challenge the Cuban regime once again in the name of God and demand they rove which of us is lying.
Local congregations and communities in which I am a pastor, the Association of Western Cuba Baptist Convention that officially recognized me as a pastor, and seminaries where I teach need to know who is the liar here. If I am, then I should be barred from continuing; but if it is the government, as I assert, then they are invalidated to continue governing.
I see protection in believing in a God who gave his blood to every victim, from the ancient story of Cain and Abel, none has gone unnoticed. He greatly loves justice and truth. He promises: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5.6).” On their behalf I am raising my voice for Juan Wilfredo, this death will not go unpunished.
Pastor Mario Félix Lleonart Barroso
Translated by Raul G.
May 30 2011