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Southern Baptist leaders urge prayer amid Cuban unrest, antigovernment protests

Police stand guard near the National Capitol building in Havana, Cuba, Monday, July 12, 2021, the day after protests against food shortages and high prices amid the coronavirus crisis. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

HAVANA (AP) — As Cuban authorities confirmed Tuesday that one person has died during demonstrations that have shaken the island in recent days by protesting over food shortages, high prices and other grievances against the government, Southern Baptist leaders urged prayer for safety and for the advance of the Gospel despite the continuing turmoil.

Demonstrations that erupted Sunday have seen thousands of Cubans in the streets voicing grievances against shortages of goods, rising prices and power cuts. Some protesters have called for a change of government. The demonstrations were extremely unusual on an island where little dissent against the government is tolerated.

Although communications from the island were spotty — internet and cellphone data service continued to be disrupted — Southern Baptist leaders called for prayer. Julio Arriola, executive director of Hispanic relations with the SBC Executive Committee, said he has been in contact with several U.S.-based leaders in recent days who have expressed grave concern because of reports they’ve received from ministry partners in Cuba.

“The beloved people of Cuba can count on the love and prayers from our SBC family in the U.S.,” Arriola said. “God is doing amazing things there and nothing can stop God’s movement. The truth of the Gospel of Jesus needs to continue shining in the island. May the power of the Holy Spirit be on full display through His children there.”

Bobby Sena, director of the Spanish studies program at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, expressed concern for the Cuban people.

“We join the thousands of Hispanics in the United States and across the Hispanic world that send their love and prayers for the Cuban people,” said Sena, adding that his team would “continue to pray for Cuba, the evangelical church, and especially for the 48 Midwestern students from Cuba.”

The Cuban Interior Ministry said in a statement that Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, 36, died Monday during a clash between protesters and police in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality on the outskirts of Havana. It said an unspecified number of people were arrested and there were some people injured, including some officers.

The last major public demonstration of discontent, over economic hardship, took place nearly 30 years ago in 1994. Last year, there were small demonstrations by artists and other groups, but nothing as big or widespread as what erupted this past weekend.

Havana still had a heavy police presence Tuesday, with officers particularly guarding key points such as the Malecon coastal promenade and the Capitol.

There were no reports of new protests, which the government has sought to blame on Cuban Americans using social media to instigate unrest in Cuba.

The demonstrations in several cities and towns were some of the biggest displays of antigovernment sentiment seen in years in tightly controlled Cuba, which is facing a surge of coronavirus cases as it struggles with its worst economic crisis in decades, at least in part a consequence of U.S. sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

The rare outpouring of dissent led former President Raul Castro to join with other top leaders Monday to discuss the situation. The Communist government continued to downplay the protests and to allege violence by demonstrators. A statement by the Cuban government accused demonstrators of vandalizing houses, setting fires and damaging power lines. It also alleged they attacked police and civilians with knives, stones and other objects.

“On July 11, there were riots, there were disorders on a very limited scale, opportunistically taking advantage of the difficult conditions in which we Cubans are living today,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Tuesday, adding that government experts had found evidence of outsiders using sophisticated equipment to widely broadcast alarmist and inciting messages over social media.

But, Rodriguez said, “On July 11, there was no social explosion in Cuba. There was not because of the will of our people and because of the support of our people for the revolution and its government.”

Cuba’s Roman Catholic bishops issued a call to avoid violence.

“We understand that the government has responsibilities and has tried to take measures to alleviate the aforementioned difficulties, but we also understand that the people have the right to express their needs, desires and hopes,” they said in a statement.

The U.S. has, so far at least, not detected any surge of migrants from Cuba, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. He also cautioned Cubans that any migrants intercepted at sea are returned to their homelands or sent to other countries under long-standing agreements intended to discourage people from trying to make the dangerous crossing.

“The humanitarian message to the people of Cuba is do not take to the seas,” Mayorkas said. “People die when they try to migrate in the maritime channel irregularly.”

The issue of Cuban migration in opposition to the government resonates with Mayorkas, whose family fled the Cuban revolution in the 1960s.

“I understood what it meant for my father to lose everything that he had built for his young family,” he said. “We stand with the people of Cuba.”

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. Baptist Press contributed to this story.

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  • Andrea Rodriguez