In July of this year, a humble Cuban priest received a prize of international scope which, although it never appeared in the national press, became known to us with suspicious speed. Father José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría, pastor of the church “Saint Therese of the Child Jesus,” in Santiago de Cuba, was awarded the Prize of the Community of Democracies, in Poland, for his enormous efforts in the service of freedom and human rights in Cuba.
Up until then I knew little of Father Conrad. I am not Catholic nor do I practice any particular religion, but I try to surround myself with the most varied and different things possible. Getting to know the life and work of this man with a brilliant attitude is a priceless gift to me.
A priest whom the Cuban church had to exile almost by force in the mid-’90s, because they feared for his life. A priest who suffered, on December 4, 2007, a horrible act of repudiation at his parish, which led to pure violence, and had wide international repercussions.
What I am publishing here now is just a snippet of the interview of at least 4 hours that Father Conrado and I enjoyed in Santiago de Cuba, just a month ago. The full text will appear in my book of interviews with prominent personalities in the alternative cultural and public life in Cuba, which will soon be completed.
I must confess to my readers that it was a real exercise of journalistic contortion to summarize an interview of nearly 30 pages, with a rather lengthy introduction, which I offer you here. When an interview subject is so brilliant, it is painful and complex to select some answers and leave the others for later.
In any event, I believe that few interviews published in this blog have so much depth and relevance as this one that the priest José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría was kind enough to grant me from his church.
THE FORMATION OF CHARACTER
For those who know of his priestly office, one of the hallmarks of Father José Conrado is his concern for creating awareness among his people about the reality of our country. This is not someone who surreptitiously, when the opportunity arises, refers in his oratory to related aspects of Cuban politics and life. Rather, José Conrado has shown a particular interest in raising awareness among his followers; giving them arguments to assess in full measure the reality in which they are immersed.
– Father, do you remember when you first became conscious of this? Or do you remember when was the first time you began to define yourself as a religious official with very defined positions on politics?
– From the Seminary I was very clear about the role of the word, in my case the Word of God, implying a serious commitment in this sense. In fact that is the definition of a homily, it is preaching the Word of God and the reality that is before you.
I fully agree with the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, when he said that a homily was delivered with the newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other.
Therefore, the very essence of the work of the Church is to refer to this reality that must change itself in light of the Word of God …
– But while some priests in their masses avoid direct references to the plight of Cuba, you do the opposite …
I question the claim that other priests do not. What I think is that everyone has their own style and their own way of approaching issues.
Look, I always make reference, for example, to the fact that if there had not been a person with a video camera the day I read the letter to Fidel Castro in 1994, it wouldn’t have been known that I read it before 700 people one day in Caridad. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read it just the same. But the fact that it had the repercussions it did was coincidental.
That is to say, what isn’t known at the social level, or not known by those who don’t attend Church, doesn’t meant that Cuban priests don’t have the same principle.
Especially during the hardest time of the Special Period, I think all the priests and bishops had the same feeling. Maybe not always as directly, but there was always a serious reflection on the reality that the people were living through..
We must also take into account one thing: we all feel fear. The essence of the totalitarian system is precisely to provoke this response of paralyzing fear. It would not be honest to say that we are not afraid. We all are. The problem is when you have to overcome fear in the name of a responsibility. That responsibility is what leads you to express yourself and, what you believe, in reality. And that is the result of an ethical awareness of what concerns us all.
My insistence on the political issue in homilies stands out because the totalitarian system always tries to silence the critic, to make disagreement impossible, and this makes it rare for a person to express something which, in the background, is likely shared by the vast majority of his listeners. But not all dare to say it.
However, I think that is precisely the responsibility of a priest in a country like ours. The fact that people are not able to raise their voices for fear of reprisals, or because of the habit of silence (as Eliseo Alberto Diego says: “In silence we became so dumb.”) is one of the challenges a priest faces under a system like this.
I was thinking about the number of letters that still circulate online, signed by him. The letter to Raul Castro, in 2009, his farewell speech when he had to go into involuntary exile in 1996, the text he wrote on the occasion of the retirement of Archbishop Pedro Meurice. I remember the impression his highly narrative prose gave me every time: an absolute fascination.
– I have felt with your words something unique: the vibration of truth. You feel deeply what you say, and whoever hears it or reads it, it is a very vivid warning. When you condemn totalitarianism, not only in Cuba but universally, you do so with a passion that makes an impact. Where does that this strong aversion to totalitarianism come from?
– I would say it was the experience that led me to a very critical position. The experience of the reality I was living every day. This was exacerbated specifically with the Special Period.
No doubt this was a situation that all the people suffered, and it was the humble people who paid a high price for it. I’m talking about people suffering from polyneuritis, the agony of a country that was expressed by those who threw themselves into the sea at the risk of losing their lives. The terrible tragedy of families separated by distance or death.
I saw in the parishes where I was at that time, in Palma Soriano and Contramaestre, how people grew thinner from week to week, how they steadily lost weight. It was an awful thing. There was this horrible despair, and suffering. And that there was no response from those who had the authority, and all the power in totalitarian systems is with those in power, was perhaps what bothered me most.
The essence of this system is to take away people’s responsibility for their lives and give it to the powers-that-be, those who rule. That makes them more powerful and more responsible before History: obviously, there is no possibility for people decide for themselves, to assume that share of power that is the responsibility of each person, and the centralization of all the decisions in every facet of life — economic, political, social, cultural — makes them responsible for everything that can happen in a country.
But I cannot give up my own responsibility, the share that falls to me, and that is why I have taken a clear position and am critical with respect to the form of this country and how it is governed.
GEREMEK AWARD AND ASSESSMENT OF THE CHURCH IN CUBA
– The Community of Democracies gave you the “Bronislaw Geremek” Prize this year in Krakow, Poland, for your well-known and undoubted efforts with regards to freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Cuba. Your speech, entitled “Every generation has the right to dream its own dreams,” should be studied in all universities, should be read before all the good people of this world as a beautiful testament to the commitment of a priest to the full freedom of man.
You also said in your speech that you received the award “on behalf of the Church that suffers, fights, prays and waits in Cuba.” Do these words really describe the feelings of the Cuban Church?
– Of course. I think the Catholic Church in Cuba has made an effort to serve and is dedicated to the cause of man.
When you look at the communities that make up our parishes you see this: people fighting, suffering, waiting, praying from the fact that he lives. These communities are composed for the most part of very simple people who have withstood the difficulties, have resisted even persecution. For over 50 years the Church has not been seen as a good thing Cuba, and Christians have never been “first class” citizens. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but the suspicion has always been political: they are not people who can be trusted. But they are the faithful and it is the Church.
Many believers and even priests have left the country. They saw no way out. Others abandoned the Church. I remember times when the parishes were virtually empty because of the persecution of Christians. But always there were those who stood their ground.
In fact I believe that if today the Church is present and alive in the hearts of this people it is the result of the faithfulness of the institution towards those in need.
– It is impossible not to ask you your views on the current process of releasing the political prisoners, in which the Catholic Church had a role. The controversy was centered primarily on two aspects: 1. Was if right for the church to ignore the opposition in its dialog with the Government, and 2. Was it ethical and humane that those who were released were immediately exiled. What is your position on this?
– We must start from a known fact: the rules of this game were not defined by the Church. It had a mediation role only between the persons directly affected, the Ladies in White, the families of the prisoners, and the Government, which finally ceded to solve the problem.
I think that the Church is not civil society, nor can it supplant the opposition. Nor did it try to do so. Simply, there was a specific problem, a really serious situation with these prisoners of conscience, and the opportunity to reach an agreement was there.
In itself, by definition, it was a very serious thing that these people were arrested for their opinions or for exercising their right to free opinion. There was never any guilt in this sense. On the contrary, the exercise of freedom for every person is the guarantee of justice and the proper exercise of social life.
Then, that they were given long sentences for this reason can only be called an aberration.
That point is the problem that motivated the Government’s response, and among other factors influenced the church in this; it was, first, the serious criticism of the repressive acts against the Ladies in White, and, second, the expression of their disagreement with the existence of these prisoners of conscience, among whom were many Catholics as well. But whether or not they were Catholics, it was an unacceptable situation.
An interesting question would be why the Government chose the Church. In my opinion, it was because they knew that it is listened to by all parties, and this is undoubtedly a recognition of the seriousness of the institution and the church community.
What space did the Church have for this negotiation? That is assuming it was nothing more than a mediation. To get the parties to agree, to counsel them, and to lead them to a positive outcome for everyone.
I agree that unfortunately the prisoners did not get a real release, because what has happened is only a change of conviction: instead of prison, deportation. It’s obvious: in Cuba, where many people see the highest ideal of happiness as getting out of the country, and where it is so hard to do so, some see it as a prize. Like they won the jackpot. But that is a reading as it is seen from here; for the rest of the world it is not the same. Nor is it for those who understand how this process should have played out, since obviously there has not been compliance.
LETTERS TO FIDEL AND RAUL
– First tell me about the letter sent to Fidel Castro in 1994. What was the essence and motivation of this letter?
– It was not really a letter but rather a letter that I read. As I said before, someone took a video and then spread it around the world.
It was, in fact, an act of desperation. I saw the agony of the people, heard the testimonies of those who came to tell me their tragedies, and it filled me with a feeling of impotence at not being able to solve their problems and I saw that, on the other hand, those who were responsible for it did not give them a hearing. That was truly the breeding ground that made this letter possible.
I remember that day, which was of Caridad, when I finished the homily in front of 700 people, I said: “I know that in all my masses there are crazy sheep who come hear what I say when I go to other places. I urge these crazy sheep to forward to its destination this letter which I am going to read now.” And I began to read.
Perhaps the most important phrase, which sums up the feelings of the full text, is where I say “Everyone is responsible, but nobody more so than you.” The reason for the letter was this: to address myself to the one most responsible, who had the largest share of power.
– Did you receive any response from the president, or any official spokesperson?
– No. The answer was silence.
– Then, 15 years later, in 2009, you sent another one to his brother, newly installed as President. This one was a letter, and it had a wide digital circulation throughout the country. Did you have any real hope this time for a response, or that your claims would influence Raul?
– Look, there are times when one acts as a way of asserting your own voice, because you have a commitment and a responsibility. But not because you know that this act will have the desired response.
What I cannot do is remain silent before the reality I see, that I suffer and that so many people suffer. What’s more, my voice represents nothing more than another Cuba, but it has value.
So I felt that it was my duty to let him know what I think, and also to hold him accountable for what happens in this country. And it is not that, as I clearly said in the letter to Fidel Castro, “It is not that you don’t know the reality of Cubans,” because it would be an insult to tell someone so well informed that he didn’t know what was going on in his own country. No. They know perfectly well what is happening. What is missing is the real political will to change it, especially because those who suffer most in this situation are not them.
Raul Castro could not be uninformed about what is happening in this country. But for me to publicly say it to him was a form of compromise, to say something like, “Hey, you know what’s going on, at least you can’t say that you didn’t, because I told you publicly.”
What’s more, when there are few possibilities to make decisions that won’t be final, it gives those who have all the power twice the obligation. Because under a system that puts everyone in a straitjacket, depending on the decisions of the bosses, they must be held accountable for everything they do or don’t do.
So I believe that we have to respect and acknowledge the work of all the bloggers, of the independent journalists, of the peaceful opponents, of people like Yoani Sánchez or the Ladies in White, who have raised their voices and are fighting against all odds. We would be in an even worse position without these people who run the risk that needs to be run to be faithful to a fundamental commitment to the truth.
Clearly, one of the foundations on which the system operates is what Soledad Cruz described as: “There is no one who can bring it down, but no one who change it.” That is: They put in your head the idea that no matter what you do, nothing will change. This concept is the basis of totalitarianism.
And basically, I do believe many things are changing. I think they, the rulers, are assuming their responsibilities. What is happening is that they are admitting it publicly. But if they change something, however minimal, it is because they are realizing the responsibility that they have.
Therefore it is very important that we not remain silent. When you raise your voice, you warn of danger, and that has power. A system with such an absolute power, if there are no restrictions, no compensations, it is a real monster. So, although we pay a heavy price, we must raise our voices.
As Father Varela said to those who accused him of imprudence, “It is imprudent to speak out and warn of the danger? That is the prudence of the weak. My heart does not know it.”
– Finally, father: in your own words you officiated at your first mass citing Marti’s credo: “I have faith in human betterment, the utility of virtue, and in you.” Still today, many years later, do you really believe in a future of reconciliation for our country, despite the great anthropological damage suffered by the Cuban people?
– Gandhi said, the tyranny and wickedness of men does not have the last word. The last word goes to the other side. It’s always a word of salvation, not condemnation.
And I think that when, a hundred years from now, someone writes the history of Cuba, and of this period, many will remember all those things with sadness. But many will also react. In the end the human being is made to be happy. Eventually people wake up to a better, more just, life.
It is real that in any country, under any system, criminal situations can occur, human aberrations, we can also have this evil within us. No one is immune from error or falsehood. But I also think that man is able to evolve and change, and I deeply believe in the possibility of conversion. And conversion for the better is the challenge of every age and every person.
The temptation to be discouraged, hopeless, it is somewhat logical. But for the Christian it has no place. Not that you can not go through stages of despair, what happens is that eventually you have to overcome it. Because life goes on and we all have a responsibility to keep fighting and to build a different future.
In addition, I repeat that we must distinguish between systems and people. Systems pass, but human beings, to the extent they open themselves to grace, the deep love and mercy of God that is capable of transformation, of breaking down barriers, it is capable of reversing any circumstances.
But above all, I believe in the possibility of overcoming, because basically man, by his nature, always wants the best. And the best is certainly not what we have. The best is not this.
October 6, 2010