Meet Cuba's Most Outspoken Priest

Meet Cuba's Most Outspoken Priest
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In Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971, historian Lillian Guerra chronicles how "the grand narrative of the Revolution," shaped by Fidel Castro, began with 1959 media coverage of the executions of "agents, police chiefs and military officials" loyal to the exiled dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

The media gave legitimacy to kangaroo courts, "and their (mostly) fatal conclusions," writes Guerra. As Castro solidified power, the Revolution muzzled the press, making it subservient to the Communist Party.

"The Catholic Church was an institution advocating a democracy in which Fidel had no interest," said Guerra, a University of Florida professor, in a recent interview. "He had to get them out of the way in order to create a story about the Revolution for young people to consume." By 1964, the Revolution had closed Catholic schools and colleges and driven two-thirds of the priests and nuns into exile.

That year, 13-year old Jose Conrado Rodriguez Allegre entered seminary in the town of Santiago de Cuba. The young seminarians absorbed a counter-narrative of the reform-minded Second Vatican Council in Rome.

"The papal nuncio brought documents, books and articles which we shared using mimeograph machines," the priest recalled in the kitchen of his modest rectory in the town of Trinidad de Cuba on a recent afternoon. "We were like Russians passing along the samidzat" (censored literature during the Soviet era that intellectuals duplicated and shared in secrete networks). "It was a humble way to share information."

Father Conrado is Cuba's most outspoken priest. The comparative freedom he has gained in recent years, with several multi-city speaking tours in the U.S., is a sign of how the regime has scaled back its tactics.

Conrado's problems began when he gave a sermon in his parish in Santiago de Cuba in 1994, pleading with Fidel to start reforms for a free society. "Someone taped the sermon and smuggled it to the U.S," he reports. As the tape became a hot news item, "someone warned me, a good friend, that there were crazy people who wanted to kill this priest." Conrado called an attorney friend in America, and got him to tape record his statement on death threats. The ensuing media coverage, he believes, staved off the assassination attempt; but his archbishop ordered him to study abroad.

In 1996 he went to Salamanca, Spain, for two and a half years of study. His thesis was on the role of dissidents in totalitarian and post-totalitarian countries, paying particular attention to the writing of the Czech dissident Vaclev Havel, who later became president. 

"People in power induce the idea that there is no way out from hopelessness," said Conrado. "But in the depths of this policy, someone learns they have power they can use to free themselves and to stop this alien power that is crushing them. I think Christ lived to free the many, to teach man to be responsible for the power to free himself. This liberty is the maximum expression of the Son of God."

Conrado was in his Spanish exile when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, an event that by many reckonings had a major impact on reducing state pressure on the church. As Conrado gave bolder sermons, and talks on his visits to the U.S., he realized he was gaining space in the public square.

"The challenge for the church is to continue its presence in the life of the country. The church has freer expression than the Cuban press. The press can talk openly, but only to say good-bye."

That assertion may seems an overreach to some; but with the news media subject to Communist Party censorship, bloggers have forged openings in cyberspace to criticize the Revolution.

The 12 years he spent in seminary were "an era of confrontation," says Conrado. "The church became an enemy of the government and it was crushed. A Communist party official at the time said the church in Cuba would only live another twenty years. Now, these many years later, the church has survived and is growing."

But aftershocks of the 1960s persecution of the church are everywhere apparent.

"Churches were not closed, but people were closed, fearful of attending Mass." states Conrado. "The church suffered the double disruption of those who left the country, and those who stayed but left the church."

"We had to become a missionary church in our own country."

In 2009, he sent a letter of unvarnished candor to President Raúl Castro that found its way onto the Internet: "Must I describe the situation of our country," he asked tartly. Then he gave his answers to the president:

The economic crisis affects every household and makes people live in misery, asking themselves: What am I going to eat or what am I going to wear? How am I going to get the most elemental things for my family? The difficulties of everyday life become so overwhelming that they keep us mired in sadness and hopelessness...[and] lead to our becoming amoral, hypocritical and two-faced.

Raúl Castro's decision to ignore new criticism from the priest, who has a following among Cuban-Americans, signaled a tolerance for certain changes as well as the church's expanding role in Cuba's social safety net through groups like Caritas, using donations from America.

"It's our duty after the pope's journey to take our future and destiny in our hands. The church has no alternative -- we can't just wash our hands."

Jason Berry, a religion correspondent for The GroundTruth Project, is the author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.

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