Cuban priest says he’s skeptical of talks between church and Castro

Cuba’s most outspoken Caholic priest, Jose Conrado Rodríguez, Thursday expressed skepticism on how the church has benefitted from talks with the government that led to the release of more than 100 political prisoners.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega now “has more access to the people who hold power,” Rodriguez told The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. “And yes, that does reflect as an advantage for Cubans and Catholics.”

But that’s not much in real terms, he added. “The church now does have a larger space, but to express ideas that do not affect the power.”

Rodriguez also noted that during his recent visit to Krakow, Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz told him he understood the pressures the Cuban church faces in the Communist-ruled country and urged him to “keep going.”

“He told me that church must always be on the side of the people. It can never abandon the people, because God is on the side of the people,” the priest added.

Asked if the Cuban church — harshly criticized by some Miami exiles because of Ortega’s apparently good relations with Cuban ruler Raúl Castro — was indeed on the side of the people, he discretely replied, “I think the church, yes.”

Rodríguez has long been known as Cuba’s toughest government critic within the church, writing harshly critical letters to Fidel Castro and brother Raúl and blasting the government in his homilies and comments to the news media.

The Catholic church hierarchy, which gets regular complaints from government officials about Rodriguez, apparently considers him a “hot potato” for his blunt talk and sent him abroad to “study” for several years.

He has been harassed by government-organized mobs, and state security agents have raided his church to drag away protesting university students who had sought refuge there.

Rodriguez is returning to the island next week after a three-month trip to visit Cuban communities in the United States, Spain and several other countries. He also has met with church officials in the Vatican, Poland and Lithuania.

During his lengthy visit to The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, Rodríguez repeatedly expressed skepticism about the Ortega-Castro talks, the release of the political prisoners and Castro’s promised economic reforms.

“The impression I have is that the church has gained a presence in the mass media, in relation to this process” of freeing the prisoners, he said.

Ortega’s talks with Castro, launched a year ago Thursday, led to the release of more than 100 political prisoners — but the priest noted that virtually all were freed only after they agreed to leave immediately for exile in Spain.

Some of the relatives who accompanied the prisoners to Madrid have been denied Cuban permission to return to the island, he said, which appears to be a “grave violation” of the agreement announced by Ortega last summer.

Rodriguez also said that he would not call Castro’s promised economic reforms an “opening” but described them as “a little half-open door that must be pushed. It’s not enough, but we have to enter through there.”

He added that Cubans are increasingly loosing their fear of government retribution if they speak out, and declared: “What is happening is that people are losing their fear … They feel every day more frustrated and demand their rights.”

Rodriguez also said he welcomed the visits of U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba on humanitarian or religious permits because they deliver material and moral support.

But he noted that state security agents had ordered one group of visiting U.S. citizens to leave Santiago immediately about two years ago because they had met with him, saying they considered him an enemy rather than a priest.

“That was very disagreeable, very humiliating,” he said.

The group still sends him some support, Rodriguez said, but has not met with him again. When it visits Cuba, its members presumably meet with priests and other church officials who are not as outspoken as Rodríguez.