Andrés Carrión: “I thought I wouldn’t return, I thought this would be the last day of my life.” / Yoani Sánchez

From El Pais: Andrés Carrión, en el momento de gritar '¡abajo el comunismo!' ante el Papa en Santiago de Cuba el pasado 26 de marzo. / Spencer Platt (Getty )

A few weeks have already gone by since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, and one name comes up again and again to evoke those last days of March. Andrés Carrión, age 40, the citizen who shouted at the Pope’s homily in Santiago de Cuba, “Down with Communism!” He turned the eyes of the world from their contemplation of the Pope’s miter to the face of a man held by his captors and beaten by a supposed member of the Red Cross. Today, still under the effects of passing from anonymity to notoriety, he answers a few questions.

Video of Andrés Carrión being beaten with a stretcher by a member of the Cuban Red Cross, after his arrest.

Yoani Sanchez: How did the idea come to you, of taking that action at the Plaza Antonio Maceo? Was it a personal initiative or was there a group?

Andrés Carrión: I do not belong to any opposition party, even today I still do not belong to any. However, these days I have received the solidarity of various activist groups, especially in the east of the country. The idea of this action came to me alone, and I didn’t tell anyone, fearing that the information would filter out and keep me from carrying it out. José Martí said, “There are things that in order to achieve them you have to keep very hidden.” That was how I was able to get there. I had a civic motivation and principles: Cubans should do something so that the world will know about the violations and the great problems confronting us here with the freedom of expression and human rights. I carried all this inside for a long time and it was time to say something.

YS: How did you reach the place despite the police cordon?

AR: I arrived about eleven in the morning. I saw the preparations for the Mass and found a strategic place for my position. There I stood. In my pocket I had some candy and a bottle of water, and with that I held out until 5:40 in the afternoon, when I rushed into action. There were two security cordons. At one point I decided, and crossed the first cordon. Once inside I went running to stand before the altar and shouted several slogans: ‘Down with Communism! Down with dictatorship! Freedom for the people of Cuba! ‘ and when they caught me and held me I managed to shout ‘Monsignor don’t be fooled, the people of Cuba are not free!’

YS: Many have applauded your actions on March 26, but others criticize you for using the space of a Catholic Mass to shout a slogan of a political nature. What would you say to the latter?

AR: I sent a letter to the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba to explain why I did it and to apologize to the Pope and the entire Catholic community. But they must understand and everyone should understand that we Cubans do not have spaces in which to express ourselves. Because of that one looks for a place to be heard and I think this was an opportunity that could I not pass up. It was not my intention to tarnish the Mass, so I’ve told several priests with whom I have spoken and they have understood me. I’m Catholic and I did it with no interest in harming the Church or the figure of the Pope.

YS: What were the main accusations leveled against you by the police during the 20 days you were detained? What punishments did they threaten you with?

AR: I was not physically abused. I know the beatings other opponents have received, but I think with so many eyes on me or maybe because the Pope had interceded, they decided not to retaliate physically against me. Yes, they put me for several days in a cell that was very dark and very smelly. There was no clean water there and the light went on only for ten minutes at six in the morning and again for ten minutes at six in the evening. After 20 days they released me but they made me sign a paper where I am limited in my freedom. I have to show up every Wednesday at the police station, I cannot leave town without permission, I cannot meet with any opponents, I cannot give interviews, I cannot participate in demonstrations. But I have complied with almost none of this. They are not going to shut me up that way.

YS: A man, wearing the logo of the Red Cross, attacked you and even hit you with a stretcher. What do you think they should do about such aggressive behavior? How do you feel towards him right now?

AR: I feel sorry for him. I have a Christian vocation and I can not feel any other way, because I think it is a product of 53 years of indoctrination and decades of telling people that it is good to use violence against those who express themselves freely. Some friends brought me the address where the man lives and they said “we must take action against him,” but I do not think so. We would fall into the same cycle of violence and revenge. I am against any violence.

YS: Some people claim that you shouted ‘Down with Communism!’ to get a visa as a political refugee for the United States. Is that true? How do you answer that question?

AR: That’s not true. My main goal was, and so I told the State Security, was a call to the conscience of the Cuban people. Let people see that you can fight. Yet another objective was a call to the consciousness of Raul Castro to recognize our rights. Today it was me, but tomorrow it may be hundreds, thousands, or an entire people. I thought my screams would be like an engine that would lead a lot of people who were in the Plaza Antonio Maceo to do the same, but it didn’t happen and I confess that I was disappointed. I did not do it in order to seek political asylum, but now I’m living with a harassment that is unsustainable. My house is surrounded and they follow me wherever I go. For now they do not dare do anything to me because many are watching my situation, but sometimes I fear that in three or four months the worst will happen. I am very concerned for my safety.

YS: Would you do it again?

AR: Yes, of course. I did it for my country, my people, and at that moment I knew that this action could cost me my life. I even said goodbye to my family without their knowledge. I said goodbye to my mother, my sister, my wife … I told her that morning before leaving for the Mass ‘I love you very much.’ I thought I wouldn’t return, I thought this would be the last day of my life.

Translated from original article in El Pais.

24 April 2012