Christian pastor arrested and detained in Cuba, hours before Obama's state visit

A prominent pastor and religious freedom activist was arrested on Sunday in Cuba, hours before President Barack Obama arrived in the country for his official state visit.

Rev Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso's home and church were surrounded by police and state security agents early in the morning on March 20, he told Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) ahead of his arrest.

As well as pastor Barroso, dozens of human rights activists linked to the Ladies in White were arrested and detained on their way to attend morning Mass in Havana yesterday.Reuters

The pastor was then arrested and taken away by officials, while his wife, Yoaxis Marcheco Suarez, was placed under house arrest. She and the couple's two young daughters have been locked inside their home, in Taguayabon, Villa Clara Province, and their phone connection has been cut.

Before being cut off, Marcheco Suarez was able to speak to CSW over the phone. Though the family and church have not been allowed to speak to Barroso directly, she said she'd been told that her husband had been taken to the city of Santa Clara, and was being refused food or drink.

She added that the pastor had already been ill over the weekend, after a stranger pricked him with a pin while he was on public transport last week.

"Last night we began Holy Week, and my husband could not give the church the sermon he had prepared... we continue to do all that we can for him and for all the activists who woke up behind bars," Marcheco Suarez told CSW.

According to CSW, there is an ongoing crackdown against churches in Cuba, and the organisation has accused the government of targeting church properties "to tighten its control over the activities and membership of religious groups and thus eliminate the potential for any social unrest."

An annual report into religious freedom in Cuba released last May branded a rise in violations of religious liberty in the country "troubling". Every Sunday scores of men and women are violently arrested and temporarily imprisoned to stop them attending Mass, and foreign students involved in religious activities have been expelled and had their visas taken away.

Barroso's arrest came just hours before US President Obama arrived in Cuba. He will today hold a landmark meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, and has pledged to raise freedom of speech and assembly during talks. "I will raise these issues directly with President Castro," he told Cuban dissident group the Ladies in White in a letter on March 10.

However, more than 50 human rights activists linked to the Ladies in White were arrested and detained on their way to attend morning Mass in Havana yesterday.

"President Obama has an extraordinary challenge. He will go into history as the first US leader to either give a great boost to the old Cuban dictatorship, or he will be remembered as the one who found the antidote to eliminate it," Marcheco Suarez said.

"For the moment, we will see if he, at the very least, vehemently condemns the human rights violations that this regime commits every day. For now, all I can say is that there was a huge contrast between Obama's big smile when he arrived in Havana and saluted the lackeys of the system, and the repressive environment which the real Cuba breathes, something which I'm sure he won't be able to truly appreciate in the short hours of his visit to the island."

CSW's chief executive Mervyn Thomas condemned Barroso's arrest. "The Cuban government's decision to detain Reverend Lleonart Barroso, to put his wife and children under house arrest and cut off their communication, and the violent mass arrests of members of the Ladies in White and other human rights activist on the very day of President Obama's historic arrival to the island is a slap in the face to the United States, as well as to the European Union and other countries which have been encouraging improvement in respect for human rights in Cuba," he said.

"We are deeply disappointed at this turn of events, and call on President Obama to demand the release of these prisoners as matter of urgency. If the events of the weekend are allowed to pass in silence, it bodes ill for the likelihood of any improvement in human rights in the future.

"Our prayers are with Rev Lleonart Barroso and Yoaxis Marcheco Suarez, and with all human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists who find themselves behind bars today, on what was supposed to herald a new era for Cuba."