EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 23, 2005, issue of National Review.
As we started speaking about my visit, Father José María removed the telephone cord from the receiver in one deft, well-practiced move. I knew that move well from my youth in Communist Poland, when it was wise to assume not only that every telephone line was bugged but that each telephone could serve as a listening device. We were on the outskirts of one of Cuba’s provincial cities, in a tiny reception room with decrepit furniture and peeling paint. Even though Fr. José had a rotund face that radiated good humor, there was an otherworldliness in his manner, like that of the Solidarity priests I knew in the old days in Poland. The Cuban secret service’s favorite extermination method is simply running someone over with a police car, and Fr. José has had a couple of brushes with death recently.
But having faced martyrdom, he had clearly passed the threshold of fear. “What’s this?” I pointed to an unframed painting with animals in jolly colors and a bold red hammer and sickle in the center. The Communist symbol was upside down, with a broken white line in the middle of the sickle leading up to a hut perched on top of the handle of the hammer. “It’s an allegory of George Orwell’s Animal Farm by our local artist,” he explained. “The road markings on the sickle are meant to say that the road of the revolution leads to the pigsty.”
Fr. José then explained how he would distribute the 500 doses of antibiotics donated by the Solidarity trade union that I had brought to prisoners, among them opposition activists who had received long sentences following the crackdown on dissent two years ago. (Medicines are crucial because one of the milder persecutions the regime metes out is spraying the cell walls with foul water, which gives inmates skin diseases in a matter of days.) Assistance like this, in addition to alleviating suffering, also gives the parish more clout, making it an enclave of civil society outside the regime’s control. The regime knows this, of course, which is why all of Fr. Jose’s requests for a permit to build a community center have been refused. Instead, the Communist government gives support to the local version of voodoo, which has fewer subversive foreign links. . .
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