A man is taken away by security as he shouts "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" shortly after Pope Benedict XVI arrived to Revolution Square for a Mass in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer identified the protester as Andres Carrion Alvarez, a 38-year-old resident of the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, and that he was still in police custody as of Friday March 30, 2012.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
From a second-floor balcony in the Park Village Apartment complex, a man in a jacket and a beanie leaned against the rail and stared across the parking lot to the other side of the complex, to a first-floor front door. His door.
The man, 41-year-old Andrés Carrión Alvarez, says he keeps watch to make sure his one-bedroom apartment off North Germantown Road is safe. Every day, he does “security work.” He declined to elaborate on what that entails, just in case the wrong people find out.
He says his enemies are many. He says those loyal to the Cuban government have never forgiven him for what he did two years ago, when he protested in front of international reporters as Pope Benedict XVI prepared to conduct Mass in Santiago, Cuba, Carrión’s hometown.
Since that day — March 26, 2012 — Carrión has been imprisoned, beaten, freed, targeted and jailed again. Last year, the United States granted him asylum. And two months ago, he came to Chattanooga. It was the government’s decision, though he has no complaints.
He likes the freedom here. He likes the peace, too, though he still fears that undercover Cuban agents will try to find him.
Carrión and his wife, Ariuska Galán, still talk to family back home on the phone. And Carrión also gets emails from members of his rebel organization, the Patriotic Union of Cuba.
Internet access is sparse back home, but members of the group sometimes manage to sneak online. When they do, they email Carrión videos of their work — their marches, their peaceful protests, their parties.
When he gets the videos, Carrión loads them onto the group’s YouTube channel, hoping their message will spread. Which is to say that, from a Chattanooga apartment with little more than a computer, a TV and a bed, Carrión believes he can help topple his country’s government.
“Fighting against the government in Cuba, you have to almost kill your nerves,” he said Thursday through a translator. “When you confront a dictatorship, you confront death.”
Carrión had never rebelled before the pope’s visit. In college, he says, he was the best student in his class. He became a physical therapist, and he married a doctor. They kept their heads down, stayed quiet.
“Nobody thought that somebody like me would confront the system,” he said.
But Carrión grew tired. He knew innocent people who spoke against Fidel and Raúl Castro and received 30-year prison sentences. He witnessed human rights violations. Even though he and his wife both worked in the medical field, together they made the equivalent of $41 a month.
When he learned the pope would visit Santiago, located on the country’s east coast, Carrión decided to speak out. He knew international reporters would follow the pope, and he hoped they would share his message. For a month, he planned. But he didn’t tell anybody.
On the morning of the event, he said goodbye to his mother, his grandmother, his cousins, his wife. He said he loved them. He didn’t explain what he was about to do. He didn’t tell them he expected to die that day.
He arrived at the site of the outdoor Mass six hours early and waited near the ropes keeping the people away from the pope’s stage. Then, around 5 p.m., with thousands of men and women in the crowd, all of them behind Carrión, a cardinal called for a moment of silence.
Carrión felt his heart race, a series of quick thuds pounding against his chest. He gripped the rope, stepped over it, pushed a pair of guards to the side and sprinted toward the stage, toward President Raúl Castro. In the quiet, he felt calm.
“Down with dictatorship!” he yelled.
“Down with communism!”
“Don’t be fooled! The Cubans are slaves!”
For about 10 seconds, Carrión ran free. But guards caught him, grabbed him and escorted him away. One man slapped him across the face.
The guards took him to a jail cell and beat him with sticks and fists. They kept him in isolation, in a room about 6 feet long and 10 feet wide. They gave him meals of moldy bread and crunchy rice. They denied him a toilet.
Carrión thought the guards would kill him. But something odd happened. The guards started to worry about his health. They brought a doctor to check on him. And after that first day, they stopped beating him.
Eighteen days after the arrest, the police released Carrión. When he returned home, he learned that reporters across the world had covered his outburst, and his time in jail.
That’s when he joined the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a group that was only six months old at the time but had rallied around his case. The group began to push back against the government. Its members held peaceful protests and marches. They handed out educational videos explaining how democracies like the United States operate.
In January 2013, when Cubans celebrate a version of Christmas, members of Carrión’s group passed out toys to children and explained their political philosophy.
But the government also pushed back, Carrión said. Police officers arrested about 40 members of the group. They killed others, he said.
Police targeted Carrión. They threw rocks at his house and sicced German shepherds on him. He and his wife lost their jobs. One day, government agents told others in town that Carrión was trying to poison the water that students at a school for the blind drink.
Another time, walking down the street, Carrión saw a car accelerating toward him. He dodged it and ran away. Later, he says, he heard that government agents ran over other rebels, killing them.
Then, last May, Carrión received a call from a member of the Swiss Embassy in Cuba. If he was interested, the United States could grant him asylum. So Carrión applied, and after six months of background checks and planning for a life abroad, Carrión and Galán flew to Chattanooga.
On average, about 60 Cuban refugees come to Tennessee every year, according to the state’s Office of Refugees. And of those people, about 25 come to Chattanooga, estimates Marina Peshterianu, director of the city’s Bridge Refugee Services program, which works with people like Carrión to help them adjust to life in a new country.
To qualify to come to the United States, Peshterianu said, Cubans must show their lives are in danger because of their political beliefs, religious beliefs or ethnicity. After they have applied, the U.S. Office of Homeland Security conducts a background check. Then, once the refugees arrive in Chattanooga, a case manager with the Bridge program brings them to their furnished apartment.
Carrión and Galán have been here since November. They still struggle with English and are taking language classes twice a week at Tennessee Temple. Soon, they will get blue-collar jobs. But one day, once their English is good enough, Carrión and Galán want to return to being a therapist and doctor in the United States.
They also continue to monitor the situation back home. Carrión is hopeful for Cuba’s future. Fidel Castro is 87 years old; Raúl is 82. With their eventual deaths, Carrión sees the potential for change.
“You just got to keep fighting,” he said. “Maybe in less than 10 years, it can happen.”
Then, and only then, will he return.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.