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 book Dreams 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.
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.