Reports from Cuba: An open letter to Pope Francis by Angel Santiesteban

Angel Santiesteban in Translating Cuba:

Open Letter to Pope Francis

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Havana, Cuba. Your Holiness: Now that your name is no longer so popular on the Island of Cuba, I have decided to write you these lines. I suspect that this decline in your prestige has to do with the scant companionship you have provided us, as well as with the distance that you have placed between yourself and the Cuban people. If I insist on threading these ideas it is because I am certain that your work as head of the Church–that is, of the Earth–is a far cry from the love, justness, and fairness that we knew from John Paul II, whom we Cubans remember with affection and devotion.

I want to tell you that there are many of us today who think that your appointment has not been good for this Island’s inhabitants, although I assure you that many were the Cubans who rejoiced when we learned that you would be the new leader of the Catholic Church. We were euphoric that a Latin American, who spoke our language, and who knew well what a military dictatorship means, would be in charge of the Church.

We happily believed that Your Holiness would take care of us just as John Paul II did but this was not to be. Your history was entwined with that of John Paul II. You knew that bloody military dictatorship in Argentina and the Polish Pope knew well what fascism and communism, which are so alike, signify. We had no doubt that you, Holy Father, would see the Cuban reality and would denounce it. But what actually happened was something else.

John Paul II was acquainted with fascism’s outrages, he denounced them and never left the world’s downtrodden to suffer the horrors of a communism that still persists in certain places on the planet. Holy Father, today I am certain that your visit to Cuba served only to leave behind the bitter memory of futility. Now, in the wake of your departure, many are reminded of the incarcerations suffered by those who never believed in the premises of a communist government.

While you were flying back to Rome, many Cubans were put behind bars, and I have not heard of an energetic comment coming from your mouth. The very same government that segregated Catholics in Cuba, that expelled the faithful from the universities, that imprisoned them in those concentration camps known as the UMAP, once again repressed those who thought differently, who were not willing to commune with a dictatorial regime.

We Cubans were waiting for some vigorous response from your mouth, from the mouth of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, but all encountered was a wall of silence. And as we already know, “he who is silent consents.” I suppose that you, and that cardinal who so much recalls a Communist Party militant, were much more interested in maintaining good diplomatic relations with the government than with being close to the long-suffering Cuban faithful.

Supreme Pontiff, I wish to remind you that during your visit to the Island, a desperate young man lunged towards your vehicle as you were traveling before a multitude whose members had, for the most part, been selected by the political police. That young man begged for your attention, that young man tried to direct your eyes to the injustices that the Cuban regime commits daily.

And what did you do, Holy Father? You left him to fend for himself, and the faithful the world over could see on their televisions how you continued on your way without so much as a glance backward. Did you ever learn of the ordeal which, from that moment on, that young man began to suffer? Did you discover how the regime responded to someone who wanted to get your attention? Do by chance realize that every visit by a world leader to this Island is a boost to the Castros’ communist regime? In a situation like that, the most honorable action would have been to step out of your automobile and offer protection to that faithful young man. But the opposite occurred: you abandoned him, you left him in the hands of assassins, who are in no way different from those you knew in Argentina.

Vicar of Christ, I dare to remind you that there exist on this Island some women who are called the Ladies in White. They keep with great devotion a photo showing one of them standing next to you in a plaza of the Vatican. It was during this meeting when Berta Soler, the leader of these Ladies, gave to you–besides her pleading words–certain documentation that serves as proof of the many injustices committed against them and against Cubans in general.

I wish to inform you if indeed you do not already know, that these women can no longer attend Mass and that they are arrested every Sunday and thrown into dark cells. And, although it may seem strange to you, this is for me a proof of God’s existence. It turns out that six days are sufficient for these brave women to recover from the beatings, and they once again sally forth with renewed strength; six days are enough for the Ladies to re-energize their will, to forget their bruises, to overcome their physical and spiritual fractures. These women, Holy Father, again go out the following Sunday. But the Church that you represent maintains absolute silence regarding them.

I will tell you that the photo of you and Berta graces the entrance to the Havana headquarters of these women’s organization. I will tell you that alongside that image are displayed others, those of many activists who have paid with their lives for daring to confront the dictatorship. I love the contrast in that picture of your pure white cassock with the blackest black skin tone of that woman in your company.

Please also know that, next to that photo that those ladies gratefully exhibit, rude words are scrawled on the wall, abusive comments intended to disparage them. And why does such a thing a occur? Because they make visible their discontent with a vulgar and dictatorial regime. And know that those who so denigrate them also hurl chemicals onto that photo. Know that these responses are ordered by that government that received you in Havana. Know also that nothing subdues those women–that once the attacks are over, they meticulously clean their areas with the intention that the environment surrounding that picture be as white as your cassock.

We Cubans, the Catholic ones, know that you favorably influenced the rapprochement between Cuba and the US and the reopening of the embassies. But I do not know if you are aware that since this conciliation, democracy moved further away from our reach, and there were more arrests and beatings of opponents and deaths occurring under mysterious circumstances. I assure you that your parting left a shroud of sorrow upon the Cuban people.

Unfortunately, it has also become notorious how this government which you helped tried to damage the health of US embassy personnel. Have you weighed-in on this matter, Holy Father? If so, we have not heard it. And your silence pains us, your apathy vexes us. And what would you have done if things had been reversed? What would you have said if the US had been the aggressor?

Please know that many of your flock are frightened at your cordiality towards the dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela–and towards the Colombian guerrilla force. So much so that already there are many who believe you to be very close to the leftist forces in the region. Unjust or not, what is certain is that your actions have been very aligned with those “diplomats,” so much so that you are now called “the communist Pope.”

You represent the Catholic Church today, but tomorrow–when God wills it–another will do so, and in each case, the individual should be a mediator of truth, in solidarity with our pain, not causing more pain. We, the opposition in Cuba, are also your flock, flesh of your flesh. And I do not believe that the dictator, his family, and every one of his henchmen who have directed so much hate towards God and the Church during these 60 years of iron-grip dictatorship, deserve your attention and friendship.

Father Francis, who was able to deceive you so? Who made you believe that the dictatorship could dialogue sincerely with the Church? How could the Church forget the persecutions that the Cuban government unleashed on Its priests and faithful? Who convinced you that the embargo was more hurtful to the people than to the dictatorial government? Two years of restored relations with the US leave it clear that this friendship empowered the regime even more.

Holy Father, it was all a ruse, a smokescreen to fool you. We Cubans desire–before food–liberty, rights, democracy. Messenger of God, cease from appearing cold, stop looking away when this archipelago begs you to intercede for our liberty. Know that the young man who during your visit clung to your vehicle, even today is continuing the fight, and he alternates his theaters of action: sometimes on the streets, sometimes in the prisons. And do not be surprised if someday you learn that he was found to suffer from an unexpected and rare “illness,” or that an “accident” took his life.

Those who are assassinated by the regime do not mourn their own deaths, those assassinated by the regime believe that death is a worthy price for obtaining what belongs to us. Those who in the jails go on hunger strikes do not clamor anymore for your attention, perhaps anymore they see you as a ghost. Their prayers go to Christ, He who forgets not the pain of those who suffer on the Earth.

Holy Father, see our reality–although I believe that it would be better for you to keep your distance because every time you have glanced our way, you have ended up harming us. Perhaps what we ask is your silence–that same silence you offered, in Argentina, when one of your priests was arrested.

Father, this letter is not intended to obtain a pronouncement by you in support of victimized Cubans, of those who are robbed of their most basic right, of those whom you well know. We know too well that you will never be the agent of a miracle.

About the Author

(Havana, 1966). Graduate in film direction. Resides in Havana, Cuba. Honorable Mention in the Juan Rulfo Award (1989); National Prize awarded by the writers’ union UNEAC (1995). Book, “A Summer’s Day Dream,” published in 1998. In 1999, won the César Galeano Prize. In 2001, the Alejo Carpentier prize awarded by the Cuban Institute of the Book for the short story collection, “The Children That Nobody Wanted.” In 2006, won the Casa de las Américas prize, short story category, for the book, “Happy Are Those Who Weep.” In 2013 won the Franz Kafka International Prize for Novels from the Drawer*, convened in the Czech Republic, for “The Summer When God Slept.” Has been published in Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, China, UK, Dominican Republic, France, US, Colombia, Portugal, Martinique, Italy, Canada, among other countries.

*”Novels from the Drawer” is a phrase used to describe literature written under censorship; because the novel cannot published, the writer puts it in a drawer ‘for later’.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

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