Monday, February 20, 2012

Three Catholic dissidents criticize Cuba, communism and the church

Posted on Sunday, 02.19.12

Three Catholic dissidents criticize Cuba, communism and the church

Three well-known Catholic critics attack both communism on the island,
as well as the church and its leaders.
By Juan O. Tamayo

One is a Cuban priest who wrote letters criticizing Fidel and Raúl
Castro. Another is a Catholic layman who collected 25,000 signatures
seeking change. The third edited a church journal muzzled under
government pressures.

The Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez, Oswaldo Payá and Dagoberto Valdés are
the best-known Catholics who regularly and aggressively attack Cuba's
communist system — and sometimes even their own church leaders.

All plan to attend the Masses that Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate in
the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba and in Havana during his March
26-28 visit. But they are not likely to be seated in the front rows.

Rodríguez, 59, has long been a thorn in the side of a government that
was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992, and to this day bans Catholic
schools and requires prior permits for street processions.

Sometimes called the "people's cardinal," he first made headlines in
1994 with a letter blaming Fidel Castro for the island's financial and
social crisis, and urging him to open a dialogue with dissidents and exiles.

The church sent Rodríguez to study in Spain in 1996 — supporters say
church officials wanted to protect him, at the same time get him out of
the way — and he returned just before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in

In 2007, State Security agents burst into his Santiago parish, Santa
Teresita del Niño Jesús, to beat and arrest at least 15 young
dissidents. The barrel-chested, blunt-talking Rodríguez branded the raid
a "terrorist party."

He followed up with a letter to Raúl Castro in 2009 complaining that
"the daily difficulties are becoming so crushing that they sink us
deeply into sadness, hopelessness . . . [and] a widespread sense of
being defenseless."

"We are at such a critical moment that we must undertake a profound
revision of our criteria and our practices, of our aspirations and our
objectives," the priest wrote. Castro did not answer.

Rodríguez later reported that State Security agents had told his
superiors that he was "the only thing standing in the way of good"
church-state relations, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable made public
by WikiLeaks.

He also told U.S. diplomats in Havana to watch what Raúl Castro does,
not what he says, and that he would not be surprised if there's a
"social explosion" on the island, other WikiLeaks cables noted.

Rodríguez also has been critical of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and
another WikiLeaks cable quoted him as saying that although the church
has a role to play in the island's future, "it is not stepping up to the

Although other priests in Cuba quietly complain about the communist
system, Rodríguez argues that the island's church has failed to carry
out its "prophetic mission" — the requirement that it publicly denounce

Church officials transferred him last summer from Santiago, Cuba's
second largest city, to the nearby rural village of El Cristo. But he
remains in Santiago, apparently because his replacement has not yet arrived.

Soft Oppositionist

Cuba's best-known Catholic dissident is Payá, 59, who founded the
Christian Liberation Movement and launched the signature-gathering
Varela Project — neither recognized by the government.

One Vatican official praised him as a "committed Catholic who wishes to
work within the system" in 2003, and said he had urged Cuban officials
to "cultivate Payá as a 'soft oppositionist,' " according to a WikiLeaks

He opposes the U.S. embargo, does not accept U.S. support funds, usually
remains aloof from other dissidents, and favors compromise over
confrontation and a dialogue between government and dissidents. But the
25,000 signatures he gathered for a petition seeking a referendum on the
communist system was a black eye for the government. Most of the 75
dissidents sent to prison during the 2003 crackdown known as Cuba's
"Black Spring" were active in his Varela Project.

Payá won the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in 2002, has been
nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize more than once and was briefly
greeted by Pope John Paul II at the end of a public audience in Rome in

Cuba's government allowed him to travel abroad to pick up his prize, and
the engineer remains employed at a state enterprise that makes and
repairs surgical equipment. He is married and has three children.

He said he's glad Pope Benedict is going to Cuba "to try to add
something positive to our people."

But the visit should not help the government "apply an anesthetic" over
the "grave tensions and suffering" afflicting Cuba.

"We hope his visit will be one of love and liberation. . . . But this
event cannot take the place of a movement toward a true democracy," Payá
added in a telephone interview with El Nuevo Herald.

While Payá clearly has support in the Vatican, Valdés appears to be more
controversial because of his more directly political dissent and clashes
with some church hierarchs.

One U.S. diplomatic cable reported in 2003 that Msgr. Giorgio Lingua,
then head of the Caribbean desk at the Vatican equivalent of a foreign
ministry, had complained about "Cuban dissidents who 'take advantage of
the church to promote their politics,' like Dagoberto Valdés."

Not backing down

A top agronomist with a state tobacco enterprise in western Pinar Del
Rio, Valdés was demoted in 1996 when he became editor of Vitral, a
provincial Catholic magazine that often criticized the government.

Government officials regularly demanded Vitral tone down its reports.

One U.S. diplomatic dispatch from Havana reported Valdés had alleged
that Ortega "maneuvered" to force him to quit Vitral in 2007 by
replacing Pinar del Rio Bishop José Siro Rodríguez, who supported Vitral
but was retiring, with a weaker Bishop Jorge Serpa. Valdés "asserts
[Ortega] is in bed with the Cuban regime. In his estimation, Bishop
Serpa, therefore, is as much of a regime figure as Cardinal Ortega, and
not to be trusted," the cable added.

Another cable quoted a Vatican official as saying that the Cuban
government "must be happy because the Church did its dirty work for it"
in the Valdés case. Vitral curtailed its criticisms of the government
under Serpa.

Valdés, who said he prefers to be described as "a Catholic who thinks
differently" rather than as a "dissident," now publishes the digital
magazine Convivencia — Fellowship — and remains a steadfast government

He declined to discuss the cables and his clashes with Ortega but
welcomed Benedict's visit as an opportunity for all Cubans to mark the
400th anniversary of the finding of the statue of the Virgin of Charity,
Cuba's patron saint.

The anniversary's motto, "Charity unites us," refers to "all members of
the Cuban nation, believers, nonbelievers, government, opposition and
civil society, those who live on the island and those who live abroad,"
he said.

"It means we all must participate in the changes that Cuba needs,
without excluding from the church any programs, persons or groups in
order to normalize relations between church and state."

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