Outspoken Cuban priest José Conrado Rodríguez shares his thoughts on Cuba

Cuban Catholic priest José Conrado during a visit in Miami in April 2015.
Cuban Catholic priest José Conrado during a visit in Miami in April 2015. el Nuevo Herald

It is difficult to find a person who speaks with as much passion and authenticity as Cuban priest José Conrado Rodríguez. He promises to speak "a calzon quitado" — without underwear, or with no holds barred — a phrase he likes to use frequently. And he does it. It's not anything new for a priest who had the courage to write a public letter to Fidel Castro in the dark year of 1994 asking him to "rectify" the course of the nation and agree to a national dialogue.

In another letter in 2009, he urged Raúl Castro to show "audacity" in enacting the changes needed by the country and reminded him of the "constant and unjustifiable violation of human rights" in Cuba.

His activism and critical statements have sparked conflicts within the Catholic Church as well as the Cuban government. In a controversial decision, he was transferred in 2013 from the Santa Teresita de Jesús Church in Santiago de Cuba, where he had been the parish priest for many years, to Trinidad, a "quieter" town in the center of the island.

Nevertheless, he remains willing to give his opinion on the most sensitive aspects of Cuba's reality. He recently spoke with el Nuevo Herald in Miami before returning to Cuba. Below is a synopsis of questions and answers:

We recently learned that Pope Francis will visit Cuba. There's always much hope among Cubans that a papal visit could bring changes to the country. And there's even more hope now, because Pope Francis helped to mediate the current warming in relations between Cuba and the United States. What impact could a papal visit really have on Cuba?

At this moment, the Cuban people need empowerment. We have depended on a totalitarian state for many years. I believe the Cuban government has not given up its totalitarian ideas, although little by little it has had to give way because of changing circumstances. I believe it (Francis' visit) will help the Cuban people — as it happened with Pope John Paul II and less so with Benedict XVI — to realize that they are protagonists in their own stories. The Cuban people have become accustomed to waiting for others to solve their problems.

For a time, many Cubans believed the United States was going to solve our problems. Many other Cubans believed that Russia was going to solve our problems. Then it was the Chinese, and then the Venezuelans. We cannot wait for others to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. We have to learn that we are the ones who must solve our problems. Logically, when a people has become so defenseless during more than 50 years under a government like the one we have had, it is difficult for people to have the courage to declare, "I am responsible. I have to join others to achieve what is good for all." That's difficult, but that's the future, and that's what I expect the pope will achieve with his visit.

In an extraordinary gesture, you wrote several letters to the rulers of Cuba. In the last one, addressed to Raúl Castro, you wrote that Cuba is "at a dead-end street." Do you believe that Raúl Castro sees this improvement in relations with the United States as his way out? And if so, do you believe it is the right way out?

I believe this is a good way because everything that leads from war to peace, from hatred to respect and love, everything that helps people to respect others and make themselves be respected, all of that is positive. I said in my letter to Fidel Castro (in 1994) that we chose the way of violence, and that is the wrong way. We did a lot of damage, but the worst damage was to ourselves. That's why I said in the letter to Fidel that "we are all responsible, but no one is more responsible than you, and no one has the possibilities of changing the rules of the game that you have. If you do that, those who are against you will agree with you because you will be doing what the entire world is asking you" —– which is to create the space, the possibility that each Cuban can think for himself, decide with his own heart and respect others in a climate of liberty and justice. That's what we have to hope for.

In the letter to Raúl Castro in 2009, you also referred to the human rights situation in Cuba. How is that now? Have you noticed any improvement?

No, at this moment I don't see that. I am not closed to saying so when the changes that the Cuban people need begin to take place. I have noticed that there has been a change in the language, and that is an improvement. That climate of insults, against the Yanquis, against whatever... The day there's real change, not only in the language but in the attitudes and the rights that all mankind has to speak without hypocrisy — that's the way that José Martí defined liberty — that day, as I told Raúl Castro, I will certainly be the first one at his side to help him.

Did the Church support you when you sent that letter? The Church has been criticized for not giving enough support to people like you, who are more critical or want to carry out civic or political work. Did you feel that the Church supported you?

The Church shaped me. I am a man of the Church. I don't have any political ambitions. I don't have any ambitions of any type. I am happy being a priest, helping people. Precisely because I want to be a man of God and a man of the people — because you can't be one without the other — I cannot overlook the suffering of my people, the injustices that I believe are avoidable. Dante said that the ninth circle of hell, the worst of all the circles, is reserved for those who in times of crisis crossed their arms and closed their mouths. And I don't want to go to that part of Hell. I want to go to Heaven. I can't just walk by. That's what it means to me to be a Christian, like a Good Samaritan. The Church educated me. I carry in me the genes of (Santiago de Cuba archbishops) Pedro Meurice, (Enrique) Perez Serantes. So, to say that the Church abandoned me, no, the Church was with me. The Church was me. And the Church shows its best when a Christian, a priest or a bishop can show solidarity with the pain of a people and does not miss the opportunity to defend the person who has fallen.

The Church has participated in mediations with the government and has improved its relations with the state. Do you believe the Catholic Church and its hierarchy must play a more active role in Cuban civil society?

Of course. That is the mission of the Church. The Church is not helping angels. They are already in Heaven. We are on this earth, where people struggle, suffer, sin and need the help of others. And the Church is on this earth to help the people of flesh and blood. Pope Francis is very clear on that, and has been very courageous in taking this step even though some people can criticize him.

I agree that this is what has to be done. The Catholic Church has tried to do this in many ways and continues to try to do it. Sometimes outside of Cuba, like in the exiled Cuban community, which is not aware of everything that the Church does, the Cuban Church has been judged harshly, and unjustly. But I believe the Church needs to be more daring. We cannot defend ourselves. God defends us. We cannot use up ourselves promoting the institution, because the institution is part of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is justice and the well-being of mankind. If the Church loses this, it loses its essence. Sometimes, we have been overcome by the fear that everyone has in Cuba. Me, too, because we have to speak the truth.

What do you fear?

The fear generated by a totalitarian regime is not defined. It is a fear that provokes a paralyzing anguish because one can't even define exactly what it is that one fears. What can they do to us? Can they take our lives? Can they take away our honor, by speaking badly about us, with defamation campaigns? They do that all the time. At least they do it to me, and my work is three time harder because they manage to sow discord everywhere I go. I notice the fear, the lack of trust that people have when I approach them. Well, yes, and so what? In the end, when people look at you they discover that you don't have any ulterior motives, that you don't lie. That's stronger than all of the lies they may tell about me …

Have you had the opportunity to explain your work, and your lack of ulterior motives, to members of the government?

The last time I had that kind of conversation, "a calzon quitado," was with an official in Santiago de Cuba and the first secretary of the (Communist) party in Palma Soriano, when I was the parish priest there.

It was the most difficult part of the Special Period, when my parishioners grew skinnier from Saturday to Saturday and many people died, like Sondra Miranda, a seven-year-old girl who died because there were no medicines for her diabetes. You cannot imagine the anguish we felt. In the middle of that situation, I traveled outside Cuba and explained the situation to a friend who brought together several top businessmen who decided to donate $1 million to the archdioceses of Santiago de Cuba. I went to speak with the Cardinal in New York for help with the export of the medicines. He spoke with (George) Bush, the father, and the president of the United States authorized the export of the $1 million in assistance to Cuba through the Church.

I returned to Cuba with the good news for my bishop, and we presented the information to the government. The government did not allow the medicines to enter Cuba. They visited me at the parish in Palma Soriano and I told them, "You have blocked the entry of medicines that could save thousands of people. Even if they save one, it's $1 million!" The woman from the provincial party in Santiago, who was in charge of Church relations, said something like, "Well, it's because the Church wants to score points with the people."

I told her, "You know well that that's what the government does. But you know Pedro Meurice well. You know that you are lying shamefully when you say that." She didn't say anything more. It was the last time they visited me.