Cuba’s Political Police Threaten Young Evangelical Christian Because of His Leadership
September 7, the day on which 19-year-old YouTuber Iván Daniel Calás Navarro was to celebrate his 20th birthday, was going to be an unforgettable day, and it was, but in a very different way. That day, he received a summons, delivered to his house in Havana, for September 8, 2023, to present himself at a police station known for imprisoning and punishing political dissidents.
Although this was the first time he had received an official summons, Calás Navarro is certain that he became a target of the political police beginning in 2017, when, at the age of 14, he decided to share his faith and created the “Voz De Verdad” (Voice Of Truth) YouTube channel — which now has over 7,000 followers. A few years later, he began to work as a youth leader in his congregation, the Nazareth Baptist Church, which is part of the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, a registered denomination with a historic presence on the island.
Surveillance of Calás Navarro became even more intense after the peaceful protests of July 11, 2021, when, in less than a month, the Cuban regime announced Legal Decree 35, which regulates social media. According to FRANCE 24, the law prompted concern in Cuba because of its implication for freedom of expression. The law punishes any content that is critical of the government, or which the authorities deem to be “fake news,” or which incites protests. The government maintains that the law is meant to fight cyber-terrorism, however members of Cuban independent civil society believe that the law is nothing more than the formalization of the censorship that has spread across the island since internet use has grown more widespread.
The regime regularly targets independent communicators, especially those with wider audiences, and people in positions of leadership in civil society. The case of the young YouTuber is a clear demonstration of this.
On September 8, scores of Christians mobilized in prayer and shared news about the summons on social media. Calás Navarro arrived at the police station, accompanied by his family, four pastors, friends, and fellow church members. Only only his pastor — who had baptized him and officiated his marriage — accompanied him to the door, where Officer “Mario” of the political police, also known as the Department of State Security (DSE) which oversees counter-intelligence for the Castro regime, was waiting for him.
Another officer, “Olivia,” who had subjected Calás Navarro to multiple interrogations while he was completing his Obligatory Military Service (SMO) between 2022 and 2023, was also present.
Calás Navarro asked to pray out loud before the “interview” began, and the military officers permitted this, but then mocked him when he finished praying. They told him that this was proof that Cuba respects religious freedom, because they were aware of comments he had made on social media about religious freedom violations which he had not been questioned about before.
They also asked him to sign a document that obliged him not to say anything critical of the authorities, and not to promote counter-revolutionary ideas through his social media accounts where he is always talking about various current issues from a Christian perspective.
Calás Navarro refused to sign the commitment, and when one of the officers threatened to harass him with phone calls, he told them that if they wanted to know anything else they could summon him again and speak to him at the police station. “My commitment,” Calás Navarro said to them, “is to ‘present myself before God, as a workman who does not have to be ashamed, who correctly handles the word of truth,’ as Timothy 2:15 says. Why? ‘Because we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard,’ says Acts 4:20. The only thing I do is bless my land.”
Between 2020 and 2021, Calás Navarro broadcasted weekly on Facebook Live about the barriers to the full enjoyment of religious freedom on the island, such as the prohibition on access to the media (all of which is in the hands of the State), the failure to recognize the right to conscientious objection, and the fact that parents cannot choose what type of education their children should receive.
A few months before the summons, he took up a position as a youth leader at his church. The young man had given a class on what religious freedom means, and shared some pictures of himself in front of a room of teenagers, with a blackboard behind him, on social media.
His influence in the community had already become clear years ago through the “Routes with a purpose” initiative, which he organized along with other young evangelical Christians, as they met up for “bicicleteadas” (massive bicycle outings), where scores of Christians pray in the most distant points of the capital, interceding about the critical economic and spiritual situation of the country. This activity also meant that Calás Navarro’s message was heard outside the circle of faith communities.
As he adjusted his large eyeglasses, Calás Navarro, explained to me that even as a small YouTube channel, his interviews with Christian singers had attracted thousands of views.
Calás Navarro mentioned that on the afternoon of September 8, the military officers “were worried that I am around young people, that I have participated, I’ve served, and I’ve been part of the leadership of events for hundreds of young Cuba Christians. The youth worry them, and because of this, they talked to me about the votes for leaders of the University Student Federation at the university, where I refused to vote, although they kept insisting that I do so, so that they could get a 100% vote in the room.”
After the threats finished, Calás Navarro asked if he could pray for his interrogators, for their families, and for Cuba, and they allowed him to do this as well.
Once he was at home again, the young Baptist admitted on social media: “Yes, I am afraid for my life. But God is in control. God is stronger than the DSE. God is the King of Kings.”
This article was originally published by FoRB in Full.
Yoe Suárez is an independent journalist who has written extensively about human rights and freedom of religion or belief issues in Cuba.