Aside from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech, another highlight of the meeting of the Community of Democracies was the presentation of the Bronislaw Geremek Award for promoting democracy to Father Jose Conrado, one of the most critical and active figures in the Catholic Church protesting human rights abuses in Cuba.
The award was named in honor of Poland’s late Foreign Minister and former Solidarnosc leader Bronislaw Geremek.
“We must close the factory of prisoners’
At 59 years, and after 33 in the priesthood, Father Joseph Conrado returns to the church of Santa Teresita de Jesus, Santiago de Cuba, after collecting the award of the Community of Democracies, delivered in Krakow by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwiszex former secretary of Pope John Paul II. During his brief stay in Madrid, Conrado stops to chat with DIARIO DE CUBA on the latest developments on the island, the role of the Church in dialogue with the regime and the situation of political prisoners.
Why do you think the regime decides precisely at this moment to begin a dialogue with the Church?
I believe that for a number of factors. The domestic situation has been a key element. Cuba is in a state of crisis that, if we were talking in terms of disease, corresponds to the terminally ill. So it is logical that in a moment like this is go to the aid of people who are known to have good will, who have no agenda other than the good of the country, and are willing to burn for the sake of others.
The Church is not an enemy. It has never wanted to be an enemy. The government sometimes has considered it an enemy, but the Church is not hostile to anyone. It tries to be a meeting point between people. At least in Cuba that has been the role and mission of the Church.
Another factor no doubt is the commitment of the Damas de Blanco and prisoners of conscience in maintaining its commitment to defending freedom of their relatives, for the defense of the rights which they are not to be imprisoned. Because they are nothing more than prisoners of conscience and recognized by all international organizations as such. They are innocent prisoners. That’s an awful thing. They are honest people who have said what they think.
Martí defined freedom as the right of every man to be honest and think and speak without hypocrisy. And this is people who have met Marti’s definition of freedom. So they do not deserve punishment. On the contrary, they deserve honor and should be honored by being honest and not afraid to tell the truth.
I believe that the combination of these various factors has paid off, and it counts as a very positive sign, which I applaud the government of Cuba, which has decided to speak to the Church. Such a thing had not happened before, and now is happening, and I think that deserves support and should be taken seriously.
Someone asked me, a journalist from Miami, if I should be at that table. And I answered no, because I feel very well represented by my cardinal [Jaime Ortega] and my archbishop primate of Cuba [Dionisio García], also chairman of the Episcopal Conference. I have not got to be there. The same journalist said to me, but Paya said that such dialogue should also include opposition to the parties involved. And I said, ah, I think just like Payá.
That has been precisely questioned: that if there is mediation it has to be between two parties.
Sure. I agree with that reasoning. Logically, the Church has started from where the government wanted to start, and it is normal that way. I do not object to the Church, the Cardinal and Archbishop of Santiago have started that way. On the contrary, I am convinced of the good will that have, in the best of intentions that move, and I am convinced that they are people who love Cuba and want the good of the Cuban people. From this I do not doubt because I know them very well. But I have to also say what I think about it. I have to consider that this is a beginning, and we will not ask to be achieved in the beginning what should be achieved in the end. It must be a way, but you have to start somewhere. You have to start it, and it has begun.
The road has begun on the humanitarian front, but for all of this to translate into a situation of political change it must go, rather, to the base of the system, the legal framework that supports the repression, if not modified; there will be again political prisoners soon. Do you think the Church must insist on the issue of the legal framework?
Of course. I think it’s a fundamental issue. It is not just to get those who are in jail out, but close the prison factory. And prison factory exists on the basis of laws that punish dissent and honesty. That’s what needs to be solved fundamentally.
Now, to start these exchanges on humanitarian grounds is fine. Yes, indeed, I think it was a good start. It is an approach with which everyone agrees, because no one has objected, either within or outside of Cuba to release prisoners, and an effort is made to achieve understanding in this situation we affects everyone and that is a problem for everyone.
How do you feel after being awarded the Community of Democracies? Is it a recognition of the work he has done to promote a transition in Cuba?
I would not say my work has been to promote a transition. My work has been to defend the people. Actually, I have no political agenda. My agenda is humanitarian, religious, spiritual. And as everything that attacks or relating to the human impact on the spiritual and religious (because for me religion is not separated from justice, truth and goodness of the people), I defend people who are in a very difficult situation. I think that’s my duty.
It is a reward for the commitment of many years trying to speak my mind, trying to be honest, even to speak to the authorities responsible for the situation where the country is. I am happy, I’m touched. Above all, for the support given to me first, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz (Cracow), who was the secretary of Pope John Paul II, and has been an important man in the last thirty or forty years life of the Church, and has been with me as a parent. Also Madeleine Albright, Foreign Minister of Poland, Lech Walessa, Hillary Clinton, who listened to my words carefully.
Is there a danger that the Cuban Catholic Church will follow the political behavior of the [pro-regime] Council of Churches of Cuba in recent years?
No. The truth is that the Church does not see that. The Church has been very jealous of its independence in Cuba and I think there is no change in that. The fact that the government has taken to the Catholic Church as a partner is a sign that even they recognize the seriousness of the Church.