If Cuban priest José Conrado Rodríguez is proud of anything, it is of being a humble man.
"I try to live like the people live," he says. And those who know him confirm that's true. He uses part of his salary to support a program that feeds underprivileged children in his parish.
Conrado recently came to Miami to baptize Pablo, a 16-year-old he helped to leave Cuba so that the boy could receive cancer treatment in the United States. "That's what fulfills me," he says with a smile.
In the first part of an exclusive interview with el Nuevo Herald, the priest spoke about the planned September visit to Cuba by Pope Francis, the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba and the fear felt on the island. During this second part of the interview, he speaks about what he describes as a "crisis of spirituality."
Never miss a local story.
His words are often charged with emotion. "I believe that a man is worth what his heart is worth," he says. "The phrase is not mine. It is from a friend who is in Heaven. Either you believe that others are important for you, or there's no meaning in your life."
The Cubans who go to your Church today, what are they looking for?
I hope they are looking for God, because that's the only thing we can give them. People look for truth, something that is real, something that brings them to life.
Are there Communist Party members among your parishioners?
Yes, of course. Some of them used to walk out when I said something strong during the homily. Now they don't leave. (He laughs). The majority are humble people and people who have never had anything to do with the government.
Has Church membership increased recently?
I just added 18 benches to my Church. They are not always full but, yes, in general I believe it is growing although not as much as I wish. In my case, there is a silent war. We have had problems because we are trying to provide food for children who live in two small towns far from the school. They criticize us, and they have tried to persuade people to stop sending their children. We don't teach them the catechism, we give them lunch. We have some cots where they can take naps, we teach them how to eat. Many rural schools have closed because of the country's poverty, and the number of children in the country has dropped.
What you are saying reflects a government that is not ready to decentralize and lose control. Do you see any type of political opening in the future?
That's one of the great challenges faced by the Cuban government. In Cuba, it's not just the economic problems that need to be fixed. And they must be fixed, because otherwise we will die of hunger. I hope the government understands that we can only save Cuba precisely by opening the doors to other actors, creating a climate of respect for those who are different and seeking help from everyone — not with a totalitarian mindset but a desire for democracy, for the real participation of people in the future.
The Patriotic Union of Cuba is very active in Palma Soriano. Do you believe that these kinds of dissident groups have roots among the people? (The Cuban government dismisses dissident groups as miniscule "grupúsculos").
Grupúsculo? What is that? A small group of people can sometimes change history because at a certain moment they embody a truth, a justice needed at that time. It is not the number that decides, but the truth of the work they do. Many times, selfish interests turn up in struggles that should be selfless, but that happens everywhere. I do see the groups growing. For the first time, I see there's a commitment to coordination, to dialogue. Cuba's grave problem always has been that all of us want to be generals, not soldiers. There are people who never want to be part of "us," and they end up alone.
Do you see anyone who could become a political leader in Cuba?
Not just one, there are several. There are also many people who have the education, the interest — but are careful — and who are not in those groups today but are in the wings.
Could some of them even be within the current government?
I believe the (future) government of Cuba will be made up of people who were also part of the (current) government. And I hope that will happen because it is not good to sweep everything away. There are good people in the Communist Party. I don't know how many, but there are some. Cuba needs all of its children and we have to learn tolerance, to accept that others are different, and the greatness of forgiving those who made a mistake. The fatherland belongs to all, not to one or two or to a small group.
What's the biggest problem for the Cubans in your Church and those who live in the towns you serve?
There is a very big crisis of spirituality. It manifests itself in different ways in towns and cities. Trinidad is a wealthy city, with more than 1,000 families who rent rooms in hard currency and more than 100 private restaurants. This creates jobs. It is a prosperous city where you can see all the houses have been painted — something you don't see in other places. But I see that people still have a lot of fear and hang on to material things, because people sell their souls to the devil when there is big scarcity. There is the quest to own and not share. On the other hand, there's a lot of poverty …
Do you believe that a priority for the Cuban government should be the design of a strategy to combat poverty?
Of course. With the help of the Church and all the other Cubans. I don't believe that the Church is the government's co-protagonist. The government must learn that each Cuban has the right to struggle and the possibility of doing it by themselves. If you don't empower people so that the individual can be truly responsible, you are lost because you cannot meet so many demands.
There's a lot of speculation about who will succeed Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Who would be the best person to become head of the Cuban Church and reflect your ideals?
I have my candidate to succeed Jaime, which I expect will happen soon. But I can't say who it is because I would get into trouble with other friends.
What qualities are important for the leaders of the Cuban Catholic Church?
To be men of God. That is fundamental. To be men of God, pious. Without that, there's nothing to be done.
As a priest in Cuba, what is the most difficult thing for you?
That question is very good, but very difficult to answer. I am hit hard by a hard heart. It is a kind of distrust, of skepticism, of intolerance. It's like a many-headed hydra. To be a priest in Cuba is very difficult because there are many people who believe in nothing and no one.
Sometimes one bears the weight of the suffering of the people and becomes depressed. I am an optimist, and that is one of the characteristics of the Cuban people. We believe in the future. As bad off as we are today, we know there will be a tomorrow. But when one struggles and struggles and does not see any results, or you try to do good and they do you wrong, they betray you, they defame you … the same people for whom you would be willing to die …
And sometimes, there's also fatigue. Of course, what has hit me the hardest is when I have run into incomprehension, suspicion or indifference within the Church itself. When it is your own brothers, that really hurts.