Across the Spanish-speaking world on January 6, families and communities came together to celebrate the Día de los Reyes Magos—Three Kings’ Day, also known as Epiphany. In many Hispanic cultures, this day, rather than Christmas, is the main gift-giving occasion of the holiday season. Rather than Santa, the Three Wise Men bring toys and sweets to the children.
Unless those children are in Cuba.
On the communist-ruled island, religious celebrations were banned for decades and have only recently, grudgingly, been permitted under close regime scrutiny. Three Kings’ Day celebrations are still viewed by the regime with intense suspicion.
Thankfully, the Three Wise Men have some help in bringing their gifts to the children of Cuba: a network of free-minded activists both in and outside of Cuba. Every year, opposition movements on the island work together with Cuban-American advocacy organizations to raise funds and surreptitiously purchase toys for distribution—all without being discovered by the regime.
How do they do it? Dissident spoke to Elisa Cantero, a Special Programs Assistant at the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), one of the organizations that helps sponsor Three Kings’ Day celebrations in Cuba, who outlined their annual strategy. Because of the difficulty in smuggling American toys into Cuba directly, CANF sends money: $10 per child. “Once they receive the money, our partners buy the toys over several days so the vendor or the regime do not become suspicious,” Cantero explains. “Then, our partners usually organize some type of celebration for the children where they teach the history of the Three Kings, distribute the toys, and celebrate this special tradition.”
Unfortunately, CANF and its partners—including the Sakharov Prize-winning dissident group known as the Ladies in White—are not always successful in keeping their holiday preparations confidential.
“Every year we hear testimonies of partners being arrested, money and toys being stolen, celebrations being shut down. Thus far, we have had a total of $700 stolen from our on-island partners. Last year, government officials entered a partner’s home with weapons during a Three Kings celebration and confiscated all the toys from the children.”
“This is the type of oppression and tyranny we deal with,” laments Cantero.
State security officials will frequently ambush activists outside of Western Union offices, where they go to withdraw the transmitted funds, Cantero adds.
“It is not just about food and toys,” Yuri Pérez, a Latin America expert at the human rights advocacy group Freedom House, told Dissident. “but the fact that it is not the regime’s distribution operation. Thus, it can’t be allowed. The Castros have been able to hold power for decades because of their brutal repression against any independent enterprises. Although this kind of activity seems—and is—very innocent, the regime considers any independent civil society organization’s activities to be a threat.”
In the runup to the holiday, the repression intensified. Lourdes Esquivel, a member of the Ladies in White, was detained on January 5 and her home was raided. “The regime has tried to stop the children from having this little bit of happiness. I’ve been in the capital since Wednesday, and, up until today, the children have been asking us, in front of state security, if we were going to give away toys,” Esquivel told Diario de Cuba.
This weekend, black-bereted state security officers broke into the home of Vladimir Martín Castellanos, a local coordinator for the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), at 5:00 a.m. on the morning of the planned celebration. “They took all the toys, sodas, candies, a stereo that I had borrowed for the party we had planned,” Castellanos reported to Martí Noticias. “The party was scheduled for 2:00 p.m. and about 70 children had been invited.”
The homes of Caridad Burunate and other Ladies were effectively “besieged” throughout the day by the police. Other opposition figures, like Nelson Acosta and Felix Navarro of the Pedro Luis Boitel Party, were arrested as well.
Nevertheless, some gatherings were still held successfully—Elisa Cantero provides a series of photos of smiling children in party hats enjoying their candies and newly-donated toys. Most are too young to understand the courage displayed by those who face harassment, imprisonment, and assault to organize such festivities.
There is no shortage of activities that can bring one under the baleful scrutiny of the Castro regime’s state security apparatus. Painting, singing punk rock, organizing non-government labor unions, advocating for the building of a new school, walking to Mass dressed in white, and distributing food to the poor—to name but a few—are all suspicious enough to draw the attention of the regime’s many enforcers throughout Cuba. Stunningly, giving gifts to children on a Christmas holiday can be added to the list as well.