Imagine a world where preaching in a church, killing a cow or carrying one pound more of coffee than the allowable limit can earn you more time in prison than murder. In that same world, the government can isolate children from their parents and only allow one visitation day a week. For Historic Northeast residents Gresia Cabrera and her father Leo Cabrera, pastor of Jesus Cristo El Buen Pastor, 4925 St John Ave, this was their reality.
When Gresia was six years old, her father was sentenced to eight years in prison on accusations of rebelling against the Cuban government while preaching. As a political prisoner, Leo spent four years behind bars before Pope John Paul II interceded in 1998. Although he was released from prison, the Communist government in Cuba exiled the Cabrera patriarch, forcing him to start a new life in the United States.
“The country practically kicked us out, but the U.S. opened their doors for us,” Leo said. “They’re two complete opposites. Ninety miles south from the coast of Miami is one of the worst dictatorships in our history.”
Leo said he feels secure with the freedom he’s experienced in America, but that doesn’t mean he can forget his people who still suffer at the hand of the same government that cast him out. He’s using his experience to help lead the charge in Kansas City and inform Americans of the tragedies his countrymen are facing today.
His daughter shares that same mission of educating people on what’s actually happening in her home country. She blames the media for the abundance of misinformation, or lack of information, that has created a blindspot in Cuba.
“I want to bring attention to the oppressive regime that’s happening that everybody has misinformed everybody about for so long,” Gresia said. “Healthcare is not good. It’s actually terrible. It doesn’t compare to here, even in the worst places. Free education is not free, because all the students have to work in very harsh conditions through their school. It is not free, and you have no future if you study.”
She and her father are calling for the U.S. government to intervene and help Cubans.
“Even though we are asking for intervention, I don’t think this presidential term is going to do it,” Gresia said. “We still will continue to ask for it because this country has to watch how Cuban people get killed. Cuban people get killed on the streets of Cuba by the regime and this government isn’t doing anything about it.”
Leo Cabrera said Cuba’s special forces have been deployed to mercilessly beat and kill Cuban protesters on the streets. He repeatedly pleaded for the American government not to turn a blind eye and do something about the treatment of his people.
“It would be good for the United States government, speaking as an American citizen, to play the role that pertains to them: making a humanitarian intervention,” Leo said. “The Cuban government is massacring people who are disarmed. The president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, went on national television and told his people to massacre everyone.”
For the last 62 years, Cubans have suffered through food shortages, a crippled medical system and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 11, thousands of Cubans gathered to protest the government and its treatment of citizens. It resulted in one of the largest anti-government protests the nation has ever witnessed.
As the week passed, more protests appeared across the country demanding for human rights. Gresia believes that the reason the country is uniting in protest is due to the new accessibility to information and blatant negligence of citizens’ wellbeing.
“They’re starting to see that not everything the government has been telling them for 62 years is actually true,” Gresia said. “Then on top of that, the government comes and confiscates their food. Anything they produce, they get taken away. They’re not allowed to run their small enterprises and maintain things like mangoes from your backyard or selling chickens or, you know, things like that.”
In addition to Cubans starving, the pressures of a failing medical system is negatively affecting everyone. With doctors being sent out of the country to work, no medical professionals or supplies are present to help those on the island.
The Cabreras still have family in Cuba that are experiencing the daily protests and stay in contact with those in the States.
“One of my cousins was taking pictures of people organizing,” Gresia said. “They got a call from the next municipality to let them know that they needed to be ready for any protests. There’s people making bats and sticks to, I guess, beat up their neighbors. It’s been stressful.”
Experiencing what life is like in the United States has made it difficult for Gresia to watch her family endure what she experienced as a child.
“I have been in a lot of heartache all these years over those people that stayed behind and still go through the same thing that I suffered,” Gresia said. “I think a lot of Cuban people that you ask are gonna tell you that it’s extremely hard. We all wish we could be out there in the streets with our friends and family, asking — demanding, not asking — demanding our rights and our freedom.”
Following Leo Cabrera’s exile in 1998, the Cabrera family couldn’t go back and defend their extended family and fellow Cubans in their motherland. However, they’re holding rallies in Kansas City to play their role of education in the fight against the Cuban government.
Cubanos por Kansas City, a Facebook group for Cuban Americans in Kansas City, has hosted VivaCubaLibre rallies at the fountain at Mill Creek Park at the intersection of 47th Street and Mill Creek Parkway. They invite all Kansas Citians to join in support of those who are fighting for freedom in Cuba and learn from people who have survived.
“I got to experience Cuban health care firsthand with 1940’s syringes that were made of glass,” Gresia said. “I saw it firsthand and then after being here and having such access to information, I looked more into my history. I looked more into policies and government systems, and I put two and two together.”
Gresia’s main focus in these rallies is educating the world of the tragedies befalling her people in Cuba. Her father explained her drive to lead and inform people as an “innate” characteristic of their family when a just cause presents itself. Gresia plans to hold rallies for as long as she needs to and as long as those in Cuba are risking their lives to do the same.
Since leaving the country at age 11, Gresia has only been able to return to her home country three times in the last 23 years, and has been harassed each time she’s entered the country.
Gresia and her father wish to, one day, return to their homeland without fear of government oppression. For now, all they can do is push for a better Cuba from Kansas City.
“I love that land, I love my people,” Leo said. “They exiled me and I cannot go back because they will make me disappear. It’s my heart’s desire to go back to my land.”