12/29/13 - Sacramento Bee - Man who railed against communism during pope's Cuba visit now in Tennessee
MIAMI -- Andres Carrion 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 celebrated Mass last year in Santiago de
"I could not allow the international news media there to think everything
was OK," said Carrion, the man seen in a memorable video shouting "Down
with Communism" before the mass and then being pummeled and hauled away by
Carrion, 41, and his wife, physician Ariuska Galan, 38, received U.S.
refugee visas and arrived Nov. 21in Chattanooga, Tenn., where they have been
filling out papers for work permits, Social Security numbers and medical
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, he 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 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 leaving Cuba.
That was not what he was breathing in Cuba after his notorious outburst
minutes before Benedict started Mass in Santiago on March 26, 2012, on the
first leg of a three-day visit, the first papal tour of the communist-ruled
nation since John Paul II was there in 1998.
Government officials threatened to kill him, fired his wife from a public
clinic and evicted them from the 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.
Carrion 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 phone
He realized he would have the perfect opportunity to attack the government
publicly when it was announced that Benedict would celebrate Mass in
Santiago - an event sure to be attended by the international news media and
Cuba's ruling elites but not dissidents.
Carrion was right. Following past procedures, police detained hundreds of
dissidents and blocked their phones during Benedict's visit to make sure
they could not go anywhere near the pope's activities in Santiago and
"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."
Carrion said he got cold feet on the morning ofMarch 26and nearly abandoned
his plan. But he got to the Antonio Maceo Revolution Plaza at11 a.m.and
secured 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 had seen snipers posted on
The pope had not arrived at the plaza when someone on the altar asked for a
minute of silence for something - he 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.
Carrion recalled shouting "Down with communism" and "Down with the Castro
dictatorship," as well as "Cubans are not free. Don't be fooled. We are
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 security agents in plainclothes 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,"
Carrion 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 180 degrees after he was taken to
Versailles, a notorious State Security interrogation center in Santiago,
and a senior official arrived on the scene to take over his case.
Guards offered him food, got him a chair and asked if 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, Carrion 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, Carrion 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 his
Carrion said that while he was in Versailles, Santiago lawyer and
"dissident" Ernesto Vera urged Galan to appoint him as Carrion's exclusive
representative and leave all public comments to him. She refused, and the
dissident Cuban Patriotic Union later said it had solid proof Vera is a
State Security collaborator. Vera denies the allegation.
Crossing 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.
Galan was fired the next day and the couple was ordered to vacate the
Carrion and Galan, who have no children, moved to her parents' home in
Palma Soriano, 18 miles northwest of Santiago. And 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," Carrion 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 Carrion'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. Galan 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 slightest excuse.
"My family was experiencing hunger," Carrion said.
The couple decided to apply for U.S. political asylum, and got it in two
Living in exile is tough, and so is learning English, Carrion said. He and
his wife have yet to decide what they will do or where they will settle
eventually, but has 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."
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