Outspoken Cuban priest José Conrado Rodríguez shares his thoughts on Cuba
By Nora Gamez Torres ngameztorres@elNuevoHerald.com
It is difficult to find a person who speaks with as much passion and
authenticity as Cuban priest José Conrado Rodríguez. He promises to
speak "a calzon quitado" — without underwear, or with no holds barred —
a phrase he likes to use frequently. And he does it. It's not anything
new for a priest who had the courage to write a public letter to Fidel
Castro in the dark year of 1994 asking him to "rectify" the course of
the nation and agree to a national dialogue.
In another letter in 2009, he urged Raúl Castro to show "audacity" in
enacting the changes needed by the country and reminded him of the
"constant and unjustifiable violation of human rights" in Cuba.
His activism and critical statements have sparked conflicts within the
Catholic Church as well as the Cuban government. In a controversial
decision, he was transferred in 2013 from the Santa Teresita de Jesús
Church in Santiago de Cuba, where he had been the parish priest for many
years, to Trinidad, a "quieter" town in the center of the island.
Nevertheless, he remains willing to give his opinion on the most
sensitive aspects of Cuba's reality. He recently spoke with el Nuevo
Herald in Miami before returning to Cuba. Below is a synopsis of
questions and answers:
We recently learned that Pope Francis will visit Cuba. There's always
much hope among Cubans that a papal visit could bring changes to the
country. And there's even more hope now, because Pope Francis helped to
mediate the current warming in relations between Cuba and the United
States. What impact could a papal visit really have on Cuba?
At this moment, the Cuban people need empowerment. We have depended on a
totalitarian state for many years. I believe the Cuban government has
not given up its totalitarian ideas, although little by little it has
had to give way because of changing circumstances. I believe it
(Francis' visit) will help the Cuban people — as it happened with Pope
John Paul II and less so with Benedict XVI — to realize that they are
protagonists in their own stories. The Cuban people have become
accustomed to waiting for others to solve their problems.
For a time, many Cubans believed the United States was going to solve
our problems. Many other Cubans believed that Russia was going to solve
our problems. Then it was the Chinese, and then the Venezuelans. We
cannot wait for others to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. We have to
learn that we are the ones who must solve our problems. Logically, when
a people has become so defenseless during more than 50 years under a
government like the one we have had, it is difficult for people to have
the courage to declare, "I am responsible. I have to join others to
achieve what is good for all." That's difficult, but that's the future,
and that's what I expect the pope will achieve with his visit.
In an extraordinary gesture, you wrote several letters to the rulers of
Cuba. In the last one, addressed to Raúl Castro, you wrote that Cuba is
"at a dead-end street." Do you believe that Raúl Castro sees this
improvement in relations with the United States as his way out? And if
so, do you believe it is the right way out?
I believe this is a good way because everything that leads from war to
peace, from hatred to respect and love, everything that helps people to
respect others and make themselves be respected, all of that is
positive. I said in my letter to Fidel Castro (in 1994) that we chose
the way of violence, and that is the wrong way. We did a lot of damage,
but the worst damage was to ourselves. That's why I said in the letter
to Fidel that "we are all responsible, but no one is more responsible
than you, and no one has the possibilities of changing the rules of the
game that you have. If you do that, those who are against you will agree
with you because you will be doing what the entire world is asking you"
—– which is to create the space, the possibility that each Cuban can
think for himself, decide with his own heart and respect others in a
climate of liberty and justice. That's what we have to hope for.
In the letter to Raúl Castro in 2009, you also referred to the human
rights situation in Cuba. How is that now? Have you noticed any improvement?
No, at this moment I don't see that. I am not closed to saying so when
the changes that the Cuban people need begin to take place. I have
noticed that there has been a change in the language, and that is an
improvement. That climate of insults, against the Yanquis, against
whatever... The day there's real change, not only in the language but in
the attitudes and the rights that all mankind has to speak without
hypocrisy — that's the way that José Martí defined liberty — that day,
as I told Raúl Castro, I will certainly be the first one at his side to
Did the Church support you when you sent that letter? The Church has
been criticized for not giving enough support to people like you, who
are more critical or want to carry out civic or political work. Did you
feel that the Church supported you?
The Church shaped me. I am a man of the Church. I don't have any
political ambitions. I don't have any ambitions of any type. I am happy
being a priest, helping people. Precisely because I want to be a man of
God and a man of the people — because you can't be one without the other
— I cannot overlook the suffering of my people, the injustices that I
believe are avoidable. Dante said that the ninth circle of hell, the
worst of all the circles, is reserved for those who in times of crisis
crossed their arms and closed their mouths. And I don't want to go to
that part of Hell. I want to go to Heaven. I can't just walk by. That's
what it means to me to be a Christian, like a Good Samaritan. The Church
educated me. I carry in me the genes of (Santiago de Cuba archbishops)
Pedro Meurice, (Enrique) Perez Serantes. So, to say that the Church
abandoned me, no, the Church was with me. The Church was me. And the
Church shows its best when a Christian, a priest or a bishop can show
solidarity with the pain of a people and does not miss the opportunity
to defend the person who has fallen.
The Church has participated in mediations with the government and has
improved its relations with the state. Do you believe the Catholic
Church and its hierarchy must play a more active role in Cuban civil
Of course. That is the mission of the Church. The Church is not helping
angels. They are already in Heaven. We are on this earth, where people
struggle, suffer, sin and need the help of others. And the Church is on
this earth to help the people of flesh and blood. Pope Francis is very
clear on that, and has been very courageous in taking this step even
though some people can criticize him.
I agree that this is what has to be done. The Catholic Church has tried
to do this in many ways and continues to try to do it. Sometimes outside
of Cuba, like in the exiled Cuban community, which is not aware of
everything that the Church does, the Cuban Church has been judged
harshly, and unjustly. But I believe the Church needs to be more daring.
We cannot defend ourselves. God defends us. We cannot use up ourselves
promoting the institution, because the institution is part of the
Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is justice and the well-being of
mankind. If the Church loses this, it loses its essence. Sometimes, we
have been overcome by the fear that everyone has in Cuba. Me, too,
because we have to speak the truth.
What do you fear?
The fear generated by a totalitarian regime is not defined. It is a fear
that provokes a paralyzing anguish because one can't even define exactly
what it is that one fears. What can they do to us? Can they take our
lives? Can they take away our honor, by speaking badly about us, with
defamation campaigns? They do that all the time. At least they do it to
me, and my work is three time harder because they manage to sow discord
everywhere I go. I notice the fear, the lack of trust that people have
when I approach them. Well, yes, and so what? In the end, when people
look at you they discover that you don't have any ulterior motives, that
you don't lie. That's stronger than all of the lies they may tell about me …
Have you had the opportunity to explain your work, and your lack of
ulterior motives, to members of the government?
The last time I had that kind of conversation, "a calzon quitado," was
with an official in Santiago de Cuba and the first secretary of the
(Communist) party in Palma Soriano, when I was the parish priest there.
It was the most difficult part of the Special Period, when my
parishioners grew skinnier from Saturday to Saturday and many people
died, like Sondra Miranda, a seven-year-old girl who died because there
were no medicines for her diabetes. You cannot imagine the anguish we
felt. In the middle of that situation, I traveled outside Cuba and
explained the situation to a friend who brought together several top
businessmen who decided to donate $1 million to the archdioceses of
Santiago de Cuba. I went to speak with the Cardinal in New York for help
with the export of the medicines. He spoke with (George) Bush, the
father, and the president of the United States authorized the export of
the $1 million in assistance to Cuba through the Church.
I returned to Cuba with the good news for my bishop, and we presented
the information to the government. The government did not allow the
medicines to enter Cuba. They visited me at the parish in Palma Soriano
and I told them, "You have blocked the entry of medicines that could
save thousands of people. Even if they save one, it's $1 million!" The
woman from the provincial party in Santiago, who was in charge of Church
relations, said something like, "Well, it's because the Church wants to
score points with the people."
I told her, "You know well that that's what the government does. But you
know Pedro Meurice well. You know that you are lying shamefully when you
say that." She didn't say anything more. It was the last time they
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