HAVANA – Amid decades of persecution of Roman Catholics on the island, Rev. Jose Conrado Rodriguez Alegre has faced his fears with courage several times for the sake of his parish.
In 1994, Rodriguez dared to ask Fidel Castro, who was educated in a Jesuit school and declared Cuba an atheist state when he took power in 1959, to "rectify" the course of the nation.
About four years later, Pope John Paul II met with Castro during a five-day visit to the island asking that he release political prisoners. The pope also celebrated a Mass in Havana's Revolution Square that Rodriguez remembers.
"A modern state cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances," Pope John Paul II said in Havana, adding that Cuba "needs to open herself to the world and the world needs to draw close to Cuba."
Rodriguez; Rev. Castor Jose Alvarez de Devesa, priest from the parish of Modelo, in Camaguey; and Rev. Roque Nelvis Morales Fonseca, priest from the parish of Cueto in Holguin; signed a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's historic visit.
"In Cuba, there are votes, not elections," the letter says.
The priests are also urging Castro to allow free elections and promote freedom of expression and freedom of religion on the Communist island. They argue that the one-party system has silenced the Cuban people.
"Our country lives in fear, lives in hypocrisy and a lie," Rodriguez said.
Many know Rodriguez as an activist. This is why the Roman Catholic priest from the parish of San Francisco de Paula in Trinidad earned himself the nickname of the "Cardinal of the People."
This isn't the first time Rodriguez writes to Raul Castro. His first letter to the Cuban president was dated Feb. 5, 2009. He asked Castro to focus on the economic crisis that continued to drive young Cubans to abandon the island. He had hoped President Barack Obama and Cuban-Americans would help bring change to the island.
"The recent election of a black citizen to hold the presidency of a country formerly known as racist and a violator of the civil rights of blacks, says that something is changing in this world," Rodriguez wrote in 2009. "The laudable and fraternal concern of our brothers in exile before the weather phenomena that have recently beaten our people, and their generous, selfless and immediate assistance, are signs that something is changing here."
About three years later, Raul Castro greeted Pope Benedict XVI, who declared himself a "pilgrim of charity" and urged Cubans to move toward greater freedom and openness. He celebrated a Mass in Santiago de Cuba, 14 years after his predecessor's historic Mass in Havana.
"I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons," Pope Benedict XVI said.
In 2015, Pope Francis called on the Castro brothers and their Communist regime to set a global "example of reconciliation" with a culture of dialogue with the United States. During his nine-day tour, Fidel Castro was too frail to attend any of the ceremonies, so the Pope asked Raul Castro to convey his "sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother."
Rodriguez said the three historic visits made an impact on the Cuban people but not on the government policies.
"There have been changes, but I would refer to them as cosmetic,” Rodriguez said.
In April, Raul Castro is expected to step down. Miguel Diaz-Canel might be his successor, while Castro still leads the Communist Party. Rodriguez believes very little will change with the new leadership. The Roman Catholic priest wants free elections and more choices for Cuban voters.
"They will maintain the scheme,” Rodriguez said. “There is one absolute power at the hands of the party."
Quotes from the priest's 2018 letter to Raul Castro:
- The monopoly and control of social media means that nobody can access public media freely.
- Cubans have the right to have educational alternatives and options for the education of thought, Cuban parents have the right to choose what kind of education they want for their children.
- Cubans have the right to participate as investors in the economy and in the negotiations of our country.
- Cuba is submerged in violent changes that would only add more useless suffering. We still have time to make a progressive process towards a plurality of options that allows a favorable change for all. But time is running out, I urge you to open the door.