14ymedio, Havana, 30 December 2017 — More than a man who believes, the priest José Conrado Rodríguez Alegre (b. 1951, San Luis, Santiago de Cuba) is a human being who overflows with credibility from every pore of his skin.
He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1976 and since then he has managed to reconcile, without a shadow of contradictions, his devotion to the Church and his love for Cuba. He proved it in the almost 14 years that he was parish priest of the church of Santa Teresita in Santiago de Cuba and continues to do so in his new parish of San Francisco de Paula, in Trinidad, where he was sent in 2013.
In October, José Conrado presented his book Dreams and Nightmares of a Priest in Cuba at the Amphitheater of the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami; in the book he says, “The Catholic Church of Cuba has a future of hope because despite the forces that have wanted to sow hatred in the Cuban nation, love has always triumphed.”
His pastoral work, his absolute detachment from material goods in favor of the most needy and, above all, his personal courage to conduct himself as dictated by his conscience, against all hierarchies, make this pastor a personality of the first order in today’s Cuba.
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14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 4 November 2017 — The Catholic priest José Conrado Rodríguez, parish priest of the church of San Francisco de Paula in Trinidad, visited Miami last week to present his bookDreams and Nightmares of a Priest in Cuba.
On the way to Miami’s Ermita de la Caridad, where he planned to offer his book to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, he spoke with 14ymedio about the Cuban reality and the role of the Catholic Church, the largest religious group on the island with a presence in each one of the municipalities of the country.
14ymedio/Mario Penton. What is your assessment of the Cuban reality?
José Conrado. Cuba is facing a huge material, economic, political and leadership crisis. It is the crisis of a model that has become insufficient and incapable of solving the problems of the nation, but at the bottom of this reality there is a deep spiritual and moral crisis. That is the root of the other crises. continue reading
What we are experiencing today has not come suddenly, but is the result of policies and deep attitudes that have led the nation to this deadend. The repression of freedom in Cuba and the religious conscience for many years has caused the crisis in which the country is sunk. It is the result of fear that has been planted, which is deep in the bones of people, in the most intimate, in the most personal.
14ym. If you keep raising your voice inside Cuba, why do you think the island government lets you leave and return, officiate Masses and even move freely around the country?
José Conrado. When one reaches a certain level of public and international recognition, the measures taken by the repressive organs are different. Because of being a priest, faithful to my convictions and pastoral work, they take care not to convert me into a problem with the Church. Nothing I do is bad. In no country in the world is it a crime to visit people, establish bridges and promote dialogues. The reality is that anyone can leave Cuba as long as they have the money for the passport and the visa of the country that receives them.
14ym. Do you feel guarded or persecuted by State Security?
José Conrado. Ah, yes. In Trinidad the largest urinal in the town is the door of my house, for example. I have denounced it many times, even from homilies, and nobody does anything. The men open their flies and in front of everyone they urinate on the door of the Church. There are even women who also do it. That is degrading. It is not by chance that we have denounced this so many times and it continues to happen.
14ym. Trinidad is a tourist village but you also know its poorest side. How is it that the city that does not appear in the guides for foreigners and what has the Church done to alleviate the hardships?
José Conrado. The Church does not have many possibilities to help because the spaces given by the government are very small and because the Cuban Church is poor. People get confused about the Church because it gives, but the reality is that it gives from its poverty. When the Church helps, it is because someone from outside the country gave something or because the faithful in Cuba, from their poverty, are capable of sharing. It is a true epic of the Cuban Church to help so many people with so few resources.
The programs of the parish are maintained thanks to my salary and the donations of the faithful. There is a lot of poverty in the cities but even more poverty in the rural towns. In the parish we are helping with food a group of about 20 children who do not have lunch at the rural school, but Hurricane Irma took the roof of the Church. Part of the money that is collected with the sale of the book Dreams And Nightmares Of A Priest In Cuba will be used to rebuild that site and another part will go to the victims of the hurricane in Ciego de Ávila.
We do everything we can to help people, but the service of faith in a people that has no hope is the greatest service we can provide. That is the mission of the Church.
José Conrado.The Church did what it had to do – I’m speaking of Pope Francis. However, I see an important fissure: it was an agreement between the greats: the hierarchy of the Cuban Government, the Church and the United States, but the solutions Cuba requires are deeper. If we must have a healing as a nation, we need to do it for all Cubans, not just the rulers. That is why any arrangement that only touches the upper echelons is an insufficient arrangement.
In Cuba, everyone wanted and had hope with the path that President Obama initiated, but the United States Government yielded and yielded without demanding. That is an insufficient way to negotiate. Human rights are the entitlement of every human being and it is not a subject that is dispensable in negotiations with Cuba. This agreement between Cuba and the United States did not reach where it had to go.
14ym. Many people criticize the silence of the Cuban ecclesiastical hierarchy regarding issues such as the violation of human rights on the Island.
José Conrado.I myself have said on several occasions that this silence can be considered a complicit silence, but it would be very unfair not to remember that the Church has raised its voice many times to warn of danger. When one thinks of the Pastoral Letter Love Hopes All Things, or the letters of the bishops at the beginning of the Revolution and the documents of the Cuban National Ecclesiastical Meeting, a more objective assessment of the role of the Church in the history of the country can be made.
Normally nobody collects the homilies of priests and bishops, where they also denounce, but that is not written. We have more commitment to doing than to saying. I think there is a lot of injustice, but above all, ignorance among those who say that the Church is silent.
14ym. How much remains for the Cuban Church to do to accompany the people?
José Conrado.We have made our way in the silence, in the dedication of each day, in the fidelity of the Christian people who have lived alongside the Cuban people and have suffered their pains, sharing their needs and witnessing the presence of God in the midst of the people. The Church has to look ahead and that has to be the legacy of the Cuban Church.
The Church runs the danger of the self-referentiality that Pope Francis speaks so much of, to become an end in itself. As if all that would be needed is that there were ever more powerful and numerous Churches, but we know well that this is not what would allow us to achieve the realization of the vocation of the Church.
In this sense, the Cuban Church has an advantage: it is already in the peripheries, but it must have more audacity. God calls us in a certain circumstance and the Church is called to serve, that is his vocation: to serve the needy, those who are being persecuted and crushed.
14ym. What leadership does Cuba need to get out of the crisis?
José Conrado.Leaderships can be of many types, for example Fidel Castro, who gathers power in one hand and takes it away from individuals. There are other leaders, such as Mandela, who did not need to divide because he discovered that in the forgiveness of the other, in the recognition of the other person and in confronting violent attitudes and the denial of the other is true freedom and the best way to be a leader.
I believe that the leadership that Cuba needs is the one in which the leader denies his power so that people learn to be free and build a nation with all and for the good of all that is born of participation and responsibility in the face of to the common good.
14ym. How do you assess retirement of Jaime Ortega at the head of the Archdiocese of Havana?
José Conrado.It is too early to answer that question, but knowing as I know the new archbishop of Havana – a man of deep faith and a very radical commitment to the gospel – I am sure that his presence in the Archdiocese will be of great benefit for the people of the capital.
14ym. How do you value the evangelical churches gaining more and more ground in Cuba?
José Conrado.If Christ gains ground in Cuba, we all win. If a person truly becomes a Christian, we are happy whether he is Catholic or Protestant. Those who are not being Christians are those who, by considerations of doctrine, leave the path of charity. Among Catholics and Protestants in Cuba I see above all a lot of understanding and a lot of love. There are rare cases of those who react violently to another religious belief.
14YMEDIO, 22 July 2014 – On 22 July 2014, the opposition leader Oswaldo Payá and the activist Harld Cepero died. Payá led the Christian Liberation Movement and promoted the Varela Project, which managed to collect some 25,000 signatures to demand a national referendum. Freedom of expression, of association, freedom of the press and of business, as well as free elections, were some of the demands of that document signed by thousands of Cubans.
Nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Payá was one of the most visible and respected figures of the Cuban opposition. In 2002 the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights by and he was able to tour several countries to offer information about the situation on the island. He was also an official candidate for the Prince of Asturias Award and received honorary degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami.
Paya’s death occurred in the vicinity of the city of Bayamo, while he was traveling accompanied by the Spaniard Angel Carromero, the Swede Aron Modig, and his colleague Harold Cepero. The Cuban government explained the death as the result of a car accident, but his family and many Cuban activists have maintained their doubts about that version. An independent investigation into the events of that tragic July 22 has been requested in various international forums, but Cuban authorities have not responded to those requests.
On the second anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Payá, we asked activists who shared his democratic ideals, “What is the greatest legacy of the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement?”
Guillermo Fariñas, a psychologist and the winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize
The main legacy left by Oswaldo Payá Sardinas for the Cuban nation, beyond its geographical boundaries, was that he showed his people and the world that the Cuban government breaks its own laws. When the Varela Project submitted almost 25,000 signatures to the People’s Assembly on a citizens’ petition for a plebiscite, the Cuban government refused to hold one and in a crude way changed the Constitution. That in my opinion was his main contribution: demonstrating that the Cuban government is beyond anything that could be construed as the Rule of Law and that it does not even respect its own draconian laws that support Castro’s totalitarian state. continue reading
Manuel Cuesta Morúa, promoter of Constitutional Consensus
I see the legacy of Oswaldo Paya in his pioneering activity to demonstrate that it was possible to generate civic trust towards democratic change. Even he had many doubts that the public would respond positively, would commit itself to a proposed change, especially at a time like the 90s and early 2000s when it was even more difficult for the civic movement. That’s what he sowed, what he left as a legacy, which demonstrated this as a future possibility for all pro-democracy activists on the island.
Dagoberto Valdés, director of the digital magazine Convivencia
First we recall our brother Oswaldo Paya with much love and affection and I would especially emphasize the future, in his legacy, the legacy he has rendered to all Cubans and so I think of the three gifts he left us. First, his posture, his civic attitude. He was a citizen who forged this society and who knew how to awaken a consciousness to fight for democracy in a peaceful way, and from there came his second contribution. Oswaldo was a man who fought tirelessly throughout his life with peaceful methods without being provoked or coming to violence. Finally—I have to say it—as someone who is also a Christian: he was a man who understood that religion could not be alienated or be divorced from the reality in which he lived, and that was why he was deeply committed as a Christian to work for democracy in Cuba.
Jose Conrado Rodriguez Alegre, Catholic priest
Oswaldo has left us a legacy full of sincerity and honesty; a love sacrificed for his country and a genuine commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel embodied in social life, in political life, in the good of others, everything that has to do with society as such. His was a radical commitment to the gospel, but at the same time, as it should be, to every human being. In remembering him, we must pay tribute to the man he was in every dimension, while we feel the pain of the brother we lost and we ask God that there be many others like him, men who can give their lives for others, in silence, in humility, in the midst of the misunderstandings of men, but certainly with a total commitment and a quality of life that today illuminates the existence of those of us still here.
José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU)
There is no doubt that the late Oswaldo Payá left an everlasting impression. We remember him as a determined and courageous Cuban who, from an early date, assumed the method of nonviolent struggle with the intention of bringing Cuba the rights and freedoms that we have lacked for half a century. The work of the Christian Liberation Movement set a tone in peaceful actions in favor of the fair, free, democratic and prosperous Cuba that we all want, this was the side he was on.
The Varela Project, the citizen initiative launched by Oswaldo in which so many of us became involved full-time, also set a tone in the actions of the fighters for democracy. Initially, there were more than 11,000 people, in complex and difficult circumstances, circumstances that were against those who collected signatures and against those who signed that citizen petition. The fact that for the first time so many Cubans defended a proposal, putting their names and identity data, supporting the five points that made up the project, it was a real milestone.
Personally Oswaldo was a great friend with whom I shared both difficult and happy moments. We are very mindful of that. The Cuba Democratic Union (UNPACU) will render the homage he deserves on this second anniversary of his tragic death.
José Conrado describes himself as a “small-town priest.” But from his parish in Santiago de Cuba, or in the colonial city of Trinidad, to where he was transferred, he throws verbal darts with a “language of the barricade” against corruption, repression, and other hallmarks of the Cuban government. Close to the dissident movements, Conrado has suffered pressure, aggression and even exile. But he has continued denouncing the leadership of his country, as in this dialogue with LA NATION newspaper, during a visit to Buenos Aires, after attending the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.
Conrado only set aside denunciation in favor of enthusiastic praise when he analyzes Francisco‘s performance at the head of the Church, a man he trusts, and whom he hopes that “when Dilma, Cristina, or whoever goes to kiss his hand, he tells them the truth.”
How do you see the Cuba of today?
– Cuba is a bankrupt country, economically and morally bankrupt. From a family point of view, it’s an eroded country. There is not a single Cuban who doesn’t have relatives abroad, including Fidel Castro, who has several grandchildren and a daughter outside of Cuba as political exiles. It is a country where everyone, for one reason or another, has suffered the imprisonment of a family member, the death of a family member, in front of a firing squad or in the Straits of Florida. It’s a country with a history of political imprisonment.
-Why in Latin America there are those who still have a good image of the Castro regime?
-I think there is a certain complicity of the Left that wants to see Cuba as paradisiacal paradigm of what Revolution is and what social accomplishments are. There is also an ongoing press campaign on the part of the Cuban government. And there are the visitors to Cuba, because tourists see Cuba from air-conditioned buses and from five-star hotels.
-People came out into the streets to protest in many countries, democratic and non-democratic, but they did not do it in Cuba.
-People in other countries saw a space for freedom that made them decide to forget the spaces of their fear. We haven’t yet gotten to that point. I believe we have a point where this will happen, but we aren’t there yet. In Cuba, a popular saying goes: There’s not one to turn the government over to, but nor is there anyone who can fix it. Everyone in Cuba knows we must have change. It is a silent and unanimous agreement among all Cubans.
Will perhaps a minor incident light the fuse like in the “Arab Spring”?
-Yes, that could happen. I think the government stays away from large crowds. They don’t have as many large demonstrations as before. I think the government has been very astute to not permit acts of unchecked violence on the part of the police. I think that people would throw themselves into the street [if such acts happened].
-And in this context, what prospects does the government have?
-The seriousness of the situation is forcing the government to think of another way out. Today they are proposing that those whom they always considered their eternal and bitter enemies, Cubans in exile, invest in Cuba..
As a Latin American priest, how did you experience the election of Pope Francisco?
-Francisco is a gift from God for a time of crisis. He is man who is above the conventions of the left and the right, because he goes for the essential, and the essential is God and the people who are suffering. Pope Francisco knows that he is a servant.
-Could he influence not only for Cuba, but for democracies in trouble?
-I think that he is going to have great influence, because the Church needs a reform from within. How is he going to preach to the politicians not to steal otherwise? A Church renewed from within is an example for these men who have great responsibilities.
-In addition to being an example, could Francisco influence through his discourse, through direct denunciation?
-Yes, of course. I don’t ask the Holy Father to speak the language of the barricade, like I, a small town priest, do, but I do ask him to be very firm with the rulers. That when Dilma, Cristina, or whoever goes to kiss his hand, he tells them the truth.