LAKELAND, Fla. — Two Cuban Baptist leaders held two weeks while authorities investigated what they regarded as suspicious economic activity have reportedly been released from jail.
Rubén Ortiz-Columbié, 68, and Francisco “Pancho” Garcia-Ruiz, 46, were arrested Oct. 3 by agents of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police as they entered the province of Guantanamo to deliver financial aid to churches. They were detained in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba while authorities investigated the source and destination of currency worth $4,000 they were carrying at the time of their arrest.
Ray Johnson, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) of Florida, said he received a call Oct. 17 from the son of one of the captives, Ruben Ortiz, saying they were released without formal charge. The younger Ortiz, who is pastor of First Hispanic Baptist Church in Deltona, Fla., could not be reached for comment Oct. 19 for this story.
The Florida CBF entered into a partnership with the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention in 2008. Ortiz-Columbié, former general office manager of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention and long-time teacher at the Baptist Seminary of Eastern Cuba, now volunteers as the convention’s coordinator for special projects. Garcia directs the convention’s teen department.
The Florida CBF has so far collected and transferred $7,000 to fund ministry projects in Cuba. First Hispanic Baptist Church in Deltona has been sending money to the island on a regular basis since 2001.
Sources in Cuba said it is unlikely the men were targeted for religious activity but probably aroused suspicion by carrying around such a large amount of cash. The State Department estimates Cuba’s average monthly salary at $17.
Ned Walsh, a former Baptist minister and current executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Johnston County in Smithfield, N.C., recently returned from a trip to Cuba. He said government officials are particularly wary of money coming from Florida.
Opposition in Florida to Cuban leader Fidel Castro is strong, especially among the large population of Cuban exiles in the Miami area. Also, Walsh said, some evangelical groups in the United States are openly hostile to Castro and thereby viewed in Cuba as capable of supporting activities the government would deem subversive.
Walsh compared it to the suspicion that would likely greet Muslim clergy bringing a large sum of money from Iraq to a mosque in the United States.
Cuban Baptists have always been politically diverse. But those differences have intensified of late as shortages and lack of opportunity have weakened support for the nation’s communist leaders and citizens increasingly say they would like greater freedoms.
One Baptist pastor in Cuba said recently he was forced out of a Baptist convention for condemning the rapprochement of the nation’s Baptist leaders with Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother as Cuba’s president in 2008.
Other Baptists believe they fare better by getting along with the government. Walsh said a pastor with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba pointed him toward a landscape hit by a hurricane. Massive oak trees that once stood there were gone, but the palm trees remained. The reason, the pastor told Walsh, is the palm trees were able to bend.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)