Priest alleges that foreign hurricane aid to Cuba is not reaching the people

Outspoken Cuban priest Jose Conrado Rodriguez alleged that foreign aid sent to his native Santiago de Cuba province after Hurricane Sandy last year was diverted to government, military and tourism facilities but denied to private homes.

“The situation in Santiago is very grave” because many of the more than 100,000 homes damaged by the storm have not been repaired, Rodriguez told El Nuevo Herald on Tuesday. “The aid has not reached the people.”

Rodriguez first made the allegations in a public letter to the head of the Communist Party in the province, Lázaro Expósito, urging him to crack down on the diversion of the aid and “the corruption that surrounds you.”

“We have watched with astonishment the theft of the assistance that so many countries sent to our people,” he wrote, “how that aid was sold … at inflated prices in flagrant violation of the intentions of the donors.”

“We have watched with astonishment as government or armed forces installations were repaired in record time, while the people remain without roofs,” he wrote in the letter, dated June 16.

Warning of possible civil unrest, he added, “We are witnesses to the people’s frustrations, to their desperation and impotence, to a … threatening silence that makes us think that it could explode at any time with justified and uncontrollable fury.”

Rodriguez told El Nuevo that foreign diplomats who visited him after Sandy noted “a very high degree of exasperation” in the city of Santiago de Cuba, due to host the July 26 celebrations this year that mark the start of the Castro revolution.

Sandy pummeled eastern Cuba in October, killing 11 people and causing $2 billion in damages. Many of the homes belonging to 100,000 families remain without roofs or the families are jammed into the one or two rooms that have roofs, Rodriguez said.

The priest, whose own church and parish house in the city of Santiago lost parts of their roofs, said he was offered black market zinc roof sheets roughly six-by-three feet at 300 pesos per piece, compared to 250 pesos for nine-by-six pieces on the legal market.

Several protestant pastors in eastern Cuba have complained that authorities seized assistance they were trying to distribute to Sandy’s victims, according to a U.S. State Department report on religious freedom around the world issued last month.

Rodriguez, who has long complained that the Catholic church’s hierarchy has been too meek in its relations with the communist government, also noted in his letter to Expósito that it should have been written by someone higher than a simple priest.

“I am aware that, given the hierarchical structure of the church, I am not the one who should be taking this action, but rather my bishop, Mons. Dionisio Garcia, to whom I have suggested several times that he should do this,” the priest wrote.

Rodriguez also told El Nuevo during a lengthy interview that the church hierarchy has been “much more conservative now. When the times were much more difficult, it was more daring.”

He announced in June that Garcia had asked him to hand over his parish and work on a book on Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. Garcia did not offer a new parish, so the priest obtained an assignment in the dioceses of Cienfuegos.

Rodriguez said he was in Miami at the start of a two-month trip that will take him to Brazil for Pope Francis’s visit, as well as to Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and perhaps Costa Rica.

The priest wrote a public letter to Fidel Castro in 1994 blaming him for Cuba’s chaotic economy, asking for fair elections and urging him to open a dialogue with dissidents and exiles. He followed up in 2009 with an open letter to Castro’s brother and successor, Raúl Castro, urging changes in the island’s Soviet-styled politics as well as the economy.

He received the “Tolerance Plus” last year awarded by three Cuban dissident groups.

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