The Church and Mediation: Pérez Serántes

Monseñor Enrique Pérez Serantes, born in Galicia, Doctor of Philosophy and Theology, ordained in 1910 and professor of the Seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio for six years. In the diocese of Cienfuegos he held the positions of Visor and Vicar General, where he founded the St. Paul Council of the Knights of Columbus. In 1922 he he was ordained as a bishop and was appointed second bishop of Camaguey by Pope Pius XI. In 1948 the Holy See appointed him archbishop of Santiago de Cuba.

Pérez Serantes was the bishop most committed to the social problems of Cuba, he called attention to the working world, became the prototype of a missionary bishop and one of the leading apostles of the Cuban church. His activity was inspired by the Rerum Novarum Encyclical (1891) of Pope Leo XIII, who favored the creation of groups, associations and Catholic unions, the germ of the current Social Doctrine of the Church. When the Moncada Barracks were assaulted on July 26, 1953, he assumed an attitude of commitment, as reflected in the circulars with which he assaulted the Batista government, and that involved the Church in the convulsive sitaution in Cuba.

The first circulars were Peace for the Dead, on July 29 of that year, and the Letter to Col. Rio Chaviano, the following day. Later he issued To The People of the East, on May 28, 1957, a pronunciation for social peace; We Want Peace, on March 24, 1958, a new call to seek peace, aimed at mediating between the government and the guerrillas; the circular With Regards to the Explosion of the Powder Keg of Cobre, on April 16, 1958, where he tried to show that those who set off the explosion didn’t think it would cause major damage at the National Sanctuary, avoiding any accusation against the Rebel Army; We Invoke the Lord, on August 22, 1958, issued during the counteroffensive of the Rebel Army; Walk Macabre, on October 7, 1958, where he castigates the parading of the corpse of a young rebel through the streets of the city and calling it a barbarism; and Enough of War, on December 24, 1958, in which he stated that “no one should idly enjoy themselves, while millions of Cubans writhe and groan in the anguish of intense pain and misery.” This position explained that in the act celebrated on January 2, 1959 in Santiago de Cuba, on hearing Fidel Castro for the first time, Monsignor Pérez Serantes was the first to make use of the word.

I heard one version that says Sarría saved him because he was following orders, and Fidel’s wife was the daughter of a politician very close to Batista, who had interceded for her husband. Regardless of which version may or may not be true, the fact that I want to emphasize is that, in the Letter to Col. Rio Chaviano of July 30, Pérez Serantes established his determination to intercede for the fugitives and his readiness to serve as a guarantor for their lives, a decision that allowed him to participate in the transfer of Fidel from the place he was captured to Santiago de Cuba, preventing his assassination. This latter was confirmed by General Juan Escalona Reguera in an interview with the journalist Luís Báez, in which he said that, being in Siboney, near where Fidel Castro was arrested, he could observe the moment when Sarría and Pérez Serantes were talking on the road with Col. Perez Chamont, who demanded that they turn over Fidel Castro, who was in custody.

In May 1960, after Fidel declared the socialist character of the Revolution, Pérez Serantes issued a circular in which he defined the position of the Church with regards to such a definitive turn of events: With communism nothing, absolutely nothing. After an ecclesiastical life, characterized by a commitment to social problems in Cuba, before and after the Revolution, and interceding for the life of Fidel Castro, Monseñor Enrique Pérez Serantes died in Cuba on April 19, 1968.

The contradictions between Church and Revolution were becoming more acute event to the point of open conflict. A proof of the worsening of relations was the detention for several hours in Camaguey — in December 1960 during a return trip to Santiago de Cuba — of the first speaker of the event held on January 2 in Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro addressed Cubans publicly for the first time.

After a prominent ecclesiastical life, characterized by a commitment to social problems before and after the Revolution, and interceding for the life of Fidel Castro, as did other men of the Church in conflict situations in the history of Cuba, men such as Pedro Agustin Morell, Antonio María Claret and Olallo José Valdés, Monseñor Enrique Pérez Serántes died in Cuba on April 19, 1968, at 84 years of age.

Pedro Agustín Morell, Antonio María Claret, Olallo José Valdés and Enrique Pérez Serantes are not alone, but are representative of the importance of ethics, courage, commitment and willingness to confront conflict. The facts, which are part of our history, are little reported and they contain many lessons for the present case of Cuban prisoners of conscience and for many other problems faced at the negotiating table.