A coalition of 15 Catholic priests working in Cuba defied the Communist Party and decades of Vatican distance from Cuban politics to publish a letter this weekend urging the Cuban people to “co-involve” themselves in their own liberation from communism and work to “break the chains” of the Castro regime.
The letter, published in English by the U.S.-based human rights organization Global Liberty Alliance, states plainly, “Cuba needs political changes.”
“We, as believers, consider that it is time, as a people, to return to God,” the priests write.
The letter was published to coincide with the 23rd anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, who left an extended legacy of confronting human rights atrocities under communism. The priests represent congregations nationwide, in all six traditional provinces of Cuba, and the list of signers of the letter include clergymen who prominently denounced communism in public throughout the last year, including Havana Father Jorge Luis Pérez Soto and Father Alberto Reyes Pías of eastern Camagüey.
Catholics, and other Christians on the island, have faced over half a century of intense persecution under the Castro regime, including prime positions on firing squad lists for decades, imprisonment in labor camps, politically motivated arrests, and censorship of their faith. The Communist Party of Cuba is an explicitly atheist institution that inhibits all religious worship while promoting late dictator Fidel Castro’s ties to nominally Catholic, but functionally Marxist liberation theologists.
The extreme persecution made it difficult for formal Catholicism to survive on the island and forced many priests to continue their worship delicately, without disturbing the government or triggering any significant crackdown on believers. Pope Francis, in particular, has attempted to increase the proximity between the Castro regime and the Vatican through a 2015 visit to the island and his alleged involvement in brokering the Obama-era deal that resulted in significant American concessions to dictator Raúl Castro.
During his 2015 visit, Castro agents brutally assaulted and arrested a Cuban pro-democracy dissident, Zaqueo Báez of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), for shouting “freedom” near Pope Francis’ vehicle. Despite video evidence of the pope’s proximity to the incident, he denied having any information on political arrests on the island.
“I told the prime minister if the pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church, and I am not kidding,” Raúl Castro said of Pope Francis in 2015.
The letter published this weekend represents a significant change in tone for the Church.
“Inspired by the enlightening message of Saint John Paul II, who, twenty-three years ago, urged us to ‘be protagonists in our own personal and national history;’ We want to give voice to our thoughts and feelings … knowing that they are not just ours but also of a large part of our Cuban people,” the priests wrote.
“The people have to co-involve themselves, set out on the path, and learn to live in freedom through an immense desert that will demand numerous renunciations, the temptation to prefer certain comforts to freedom, to think that their efforts have been useless, and that they will never reach the future they so yearn for,” the letter continued.
The priests later cited Saint Augustine in their support of public participation in the eradication of communism, quoting, “The God who created you without you, will not save you without you.”
The letter then went on to condemn specific aspects of life under communism:
A lack of free thought and censorship have encouraged an incoherence between what is thought, said, and done. On the other hand, the near impossibility of living without engaging in something illegal makes the “black market” an indispensable ally for survival and an environment dominated by theft, bribery, and even blackmail. The “every man for himself” atmosphere, where anything goes, shows a corruption that permeates almost all social strata. Added to this is the sense that we are constantly being spied on, that we could “fall into disgrace.”
“Cuba needs political changes,” the letter concluded. “We need to overcome authoritarianism.”
Ending the Castro regime’s stranglehold on society, it went on, was an act of love.
“We are called to love everyone, without exception, but to love an oppressor is not to allow him to continue being that way; nor is it making him think that what he does is acceptable,” the priests observed. “On the contrary, to love him well is to seek in different ways that he stops oppressing, it is to take away that power that he does not know how to use and that disfigures him as a human being.”
“Let’s set out on the road; let’s stop listening to our fears; let’s believe in our strength as a people. Let us break the chains, the worst ones being the ones we carry in our minds and hearts,” the letter encouraged.
The awakening of the Church on the island comes in light of unprecedented protests that ended 2020, in particular, the descent of hundreds of youth in front of Havana’s Ministry of Culture in November in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and intellectuals who had begun a hunger strike that month in solidarity with Denis Solís, a rapper sentenced to eight months in prison for filming a police officer illegally entering his home. Solís remains in prison today.
In defense of the San Isidro movement, over 200 laymen and clergy Catholics wrote an open letter in November against the government.
“We Christians, to be coherent with the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that proclaims the dignity of all human people as an absolute value … express our desire that the events occurring at the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement in Havana do not meet a fatal end,” the letter read. At the time, San Isidro members were engaging in life-threatening hunger and thirst strikes.