Cuban-American clergy must stand united with the growing chorus of Catholic voices on the island condemning communist oppression, Father Fernando Hería, who heads the Cuban exile community’s most important Marian shrine, told Breitbart News this week in an exclusive interview.
Hería noted that, after decades of Catholic leaders in the country struggling not to “lose the little they have achieved” after the mass firing squad killings of Catholics that defined the early days of the Cuban Revolution, Catholic voices are rising to condemn the anti-Christian practices of the Castro regime, often risking their lives. Now, more than ever, he asserted, they need unity from those on the other side of the Straits of Florida.
Father Hería, who arrived in America himself as a refugee from the island, currently serves as the rector of Our Lady of Charity National Shrine in Miami, commonly known in Spanish as the Ermita de la Caridad. Our Lady of Charity is the patroness saint of Cuba and her shrine is widely seen as the most important religious and cultural site for Cuban-American Catholics in the country. Father Hería also serves as an adviser to the Global Liberty Alliance, which offers legal and advocacy aid to victims of human rights abuses around the world.
As the head of the Ermita, Father Hería has written multiple public letters in support of priests and human rights activists in Cuba seeking an end to communism. Given social distancing requirements in place to fight the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, the Ermita has begun to broadcast Catholic Mass online through the U.S.-funded Radio and TV Martí, which makes Father Hería’s Mass accessible to Cubans on the island.
He first published a statement in early November in response to remarks published online by Father Alberto Reyes Pías of central Camagüey province, who wrote on the platform, “I’ve always wanted to say this: communism is a great lie. It’s all a lie.”
Public challenges to communism on the island are illegal, typically punished as vaguely defined crimes like “disrespect.”
“Dictatorships, whether on the left or the right, have never respected the dignity of the being or his or her existential freedom – there is no such thing as a ‘benevolent’ dictatorship,” Father Hería wrote, urging the Catholic leadership on the island to support Reyes.
“For years in ever Ad Limina visit with the Pope, they are always asked, ‘why do so many Cuban priests leave their country and serve in the diaspora?’ To which Cuban bishops have always responded, unjustly, ‘because they are attracted to money,” Father Hería wrote. “Enough already with this farce! Cuban priests who stay abroad do so because they are tired of living under two types of dictatorships: the ecclesiastical and the governmental, and that is the truth!”
Father Hería has adopted basta ya, “enough already,” as a rallying cry, and Cuban dissidents on the island have begun to use it as a hashtag on social media.
The top of the hierarchy has not taken up the cause of Cuban freedom with much gusto in Rome. Pope Francis himself has demurred when asked about human rights abuses on the island, instead using the opportunity to condemn Europe for alleged religious rights abuses. The pope also claimed to have “no news regarding detentions” in Cuba during his 2015 visit, when reporters filmed Cuban police beating and arresting a dissident, Zaqueo Báez, in front of Pope Francis’s vehicle.
The father explained to Breitbart News that, despite his harsh criticism in his letters of Cuban bishops and clergy who do not support the people on the island, the Church has endeavored to help the repressed in ways that are not “obvious” and a growing number of Catholic leaders on the island are losing their fear.
“For example, in Cuba right now there are 70-something food pantries for aid to the elderly and children throughout the island. Caritas International in Cuba and the Order of Malta maintain these from abroad,” he noted, referred to two Catholic entities. “There are many, diverse ways that the Church helps the people.”
As for those who try to work to help the Cuban people on the island without being vocally antagonistic to the regime, “I understand,” he said. “I’m on the outside. I’m outside. Am I hurt? Yes. Why? Because not a single priest in the diaspora has called me to say ‘I’m with you.'”
“You can quote that,” he continued, “because they’re afraid to get committed [to the cause of freedom] because many go with religious visas to Cuba for whatever reasons. We can’t keep going like this. We have to be one because basta ya, basta ya with so much abuse against a people who are noble, who push forward.”
“We have put that into evidence here [in America],” Father Hería said of the Cuban people. “I came here at age 11 to this country. I brought three outfits, which is what they let us bring. … We are a persevering people, a people who always seek unity, peace.”
The resistance, he emphasized, was not promoting violence to overthrow the regime.
“We are not talking about violence. We’re talking about demanding rights and that the rest of the world support us because unfortunately, Cuba does business with the entire world. With every country in the world. And at whose expense? The people. They live in poverty, no medicine, no food. But they export abroad,” he explained. “It is a lot of pain, a lot of pain.”
Spiritually, Father Hería told Breitbart News, the Church has to role to play with the youngest members of the anti-communist resistance.
“These young people are hungry. These young people have no identification with the revolutionaries that fought the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s that got to power in 1959. There’s no identification there. … they were born from the mid-1970s to the 1980s,” Father Hería noted, adding that many subscribed to the uniquely Cuban syncretic faith of santería – “they are baptized in our Church but they practice their African roots, just like they did during the time of independence.” Santeros honor both Jesus Christ and the orishas, the gods of the Nigerian Lukumí faith.
The week of this interview began with an unprecedented protest of Cuban artists – an estimated 300 of them – surrounding the doors of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, which prohibits artists from creating any art without a special permit they must receive beforehand. Under “Decree 349,” anything from a rap song to a screenplay requires prior Communist Party consent before being created.
The protest followed the violent raid of a home where members of the San Isidro Movement, an anti-communist art collective, were engaging in a hunger strike to demand the release of one of their members. allegedly because the dissidents were risking spreading Chinese coronavirus, Rapper Denis Solís was convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison for “disrespect” after not allowing a police officer to illegally enter his home, then filming the encounter as proof of the officer’s crime.
Over 200 clergy and laymen Catholics in Cuba signed an open letter in late November demanding the communist regime act to protect dissident artists and find a peaceful resolution to the San Isidro hunger strikes that included reforms.
The San Isidro Movement, led by performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, was established in part as a response to Decree 349, though Otero had engaged in anti-communist activism for years before it passed in 2018. The group’s hunger strikes, though since concluded, have fortified a movement for true democracy on the island enjoying increased momentum and international attention.