Cuba is a communist military state with total control of its people, their movements, employments, international news, and flow of information. Cuba has one of the highest prisoner population ratios in the world with an excess number of political prisoners – those who speak out against the state. Along with the regular prison population of drug dealers, murderers, thieves, and violent men and women, the prisons are also filled with many who were jailed for trying to survive the system. Prostitutes are imprisoned up to 15 years for a third offence. Farmers are imprisoned for selling fruit and vegetables, and dairy products to family and neighbour without the state permission. One man was imprisoned 5 years for transporting building supplies without an official receipt of purchase, in the aftermath of a hurricane. A woman was imprisoned for five years for being caught transporting chocolate from her own planation to sell in the city. The chocolate was only to be sold in the government stores. It is said that cattle are more sacred in Cuba than in India. The majority of beef are raised for tourism and therefore a farmer can raise cattle and milk cattle but is not allowed to eat the beef. If caught he faces a sentence of 15 years behind bars. For every man or woman serving time for breaking the law, there are families who suffering the loss of their loved one and the income they would normally bring. Prison families endure severe hardship along with their loved ones in prison. There are a total of 105 prisoners on the island of Cuba.
The majority of political and non-violent offenders are sent to work cams where they are imprisoned behind cell walls and bars during the night but work from 8 am until 3 pm on State run projects such as sugar cane planting and harvesting, agricultural projects, road building and state work projects run in isolation from the general public. It was in these work camps that pastors and religious teachers were jailed for 2 to 3 years between 1962 and 1965 along with the heads of multinational corporations and foreign businesses to receive re-education training.
The largest prisons in Cuba are closed prisons where there is little interaction between the prison population and public. There are highly restrictive institutions where the worst of Cuban society are housed. Each province has both a Provincial men’s and women’s prison and many of Cuba’s largest cities have their own closed prisons as well. The prison population in some of there institutions reach as high as 8,000 prisoners, especially in the men’s prisons. They are run by the military with little access by family and no access to friends. Until recently, it was close to impossible for men and women in these closed prisons to have outside visits by Christian clergy or chaplains. That has recently changed.
In many ways Cuba’s chaplaincy program began in the early 1960s with all of the pastors, priests, and religious teachers in prison to be indoctrinated into Socialism. Since the clergy have been allowed to accompany family members on special occasions (birthdays, Fathers/Mothers Day, etc.) It has only been recently that the prison doors have opened for non-family members to be allowed into Cuba’s closed prisons. Chaplains have taken clothing, food, New Testaments, and study materials into the prisons to leave with inmates. As the warden of one of the largest prisons stated, “Our methods of isolation, punishment, and re-education have not changed the hearts, minds, or attitudes of the prison population. Men and women who have come into our system as hardened offenders have left after 25 and 30 years of incarceration, in the same condition. It is your teaching (a message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ) that is making a change in the hearts and lives of these prisoners. Chaplains work in teams of two or more with women working with women and mem working with men. The chaplaincy program is changing not only the hearts of the prisoners and their families but also the hearts of the wardens and prison officials towards changed lives through Jesus Christ. This has been the key to opening the door of Cuba’s closed prisons. Each prison decides on its own whether chaplains will be allowed entrance into their prisons, yet doors formally closed are being opened to this ministry. To further the program, Emblaze Ministry has committed to support a minimum of 20 chaplains full time at $25 per month ($20 wage and $5 for resources). We ill support more as God provides the resources.
A huge door opener has come through sports. Besides clothing, shoes, bibles and tracts, Emblaze Ministry has provided baseball, soccer, and volleyball equipment to enable chaplains to entrance into the prisons. Recently we brought baseball gear for prisons in Central Cuba. One chaplain told us, “Before we had no access to the provincial prison. Now we can share testimonies, lead Bible Studies, and preach. We have three baseball teams in that prison including one team made up of prison guards. Baseball has provided an open door for Christ!” Some local churches sent ball teams to play baseball and share Jesus with both prisoners and guards resulting in decisions for Christ amongst both groups. One Warden shared, “This is kind of teaching and helps we welcome in our prisons”.
Woman chaplains have been instrumental in reaching out to the prisoner’s families. As one Lady chaplain stated, “Jesus was a chaplain. He came to bring freedom to the captives and that doesn’t mean just those behind bars. Many of the families we visit have seen violence, abuse, and abandonment. They need freedom too”. The Chaplains write letters to the families expressing the love of God, give counsel, share messages of salvation, and send word from their loved ones inside. They minister to the families as they do for the prisoners. Many of these families are living in abject poverty with little hope. On one occasion, I met thirteen women chaplains ministering to prisoners and their families around Havana. I asked what the families needed. They replied: shoes, clothing, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, blankets, and towels – the needs seem endless. I had brought duffel bags of shoes and clothing but noticed their own clothing was threadbare and shoes were worn out. I told them to choose one thing from the duffel bags and give the rest to the prisoners and their families. The outreach to prison families has resulted in thousands finding freedom in Christ and many cell groups and house churches being planted within the prison walls.
The chaplaincy program has made huge inroads into Cuba’s prisons. Some prisons have allowed regular worship services and Bible studies. Chaplains have been sharing tracts, New Testaments and even Bibles with those incarcerated in the open prisons. Now they are allowing church services with worship, evangelism and even alter calls both open and closed prisons. Some prisons have cell churches operating inside allowing prisoners to study the Bible and study to be pastors and church planters. This has never been allowed before.
I asked what tools the chaplains need to reach prisoners for Christ and most of them replied that God supplies everything they need. I then asked the Superintendent of the chaplaincy program what the needs were. He shared that only a handful of chaplains receive any financial support at all. Donations of used clothing, shoes, and food were given by their home churches, but truly little in the way of spiritual resources – Scriptures, evangelism tracts, discipleship booklets, or training materials. He told me many of the chaplains travel 20 to 30 km and more to the prisons on foot – they need bikes. They also need backpacks, musical instruments, and CD players. I told him we would help. The leadership of the chaplaincy ministry has asked for 20 digital cameras to take into the prisons for recording the work and taking photos of the prisoners for their families.
Psalms 79:11 “Remember those in prison as if I was in prison with them”.
Together the Superintendent and I have planned to bring chaplains from many denominations from across Cuba to gather for a 3-day conference. We will provide the transportation, accommodations, food and resources for the conference. I hope to provide backpacks, bikes and the tools they need along with sports equipment and resources to help the prisoners and families.