Cuba’s President Pays Hasty Visit to New York City Church

Miguel Díaz-Canel abruptly cut short a planned visit to the Church of the Transfiguration in New York City’s Chinatown after paying tribute to Venerable Félix Varela, a priest and patriot of the island nation.

President of Cuba Miguel Díaz-Canel addresses the United Nations General Assembly at the UN  headquarters on Sept. 19, 2023 in New York City.
President of Cuba Miguel Díaz-Canel addresses the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters on Sept. 19, 2023 in New York City. (photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Sometimes in Church-state relations, things don’t go as planned. 

This was more than evident at the Church of the Transfiguration in New York City’s Chinatown on Sept. 23. President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba — in town to attend the U.N. Sustainable Goals Summit and to give brief remarks to the General Assembly — had asked the Archdiocese of New York three weeks earlier if he could lay a wreath at the statue of Venerable Félix Varela, a Cuban priest and patriot on route to canonization. The event was by invitation only and shrouded in secrecy. 

The Sept. 23 event at the Catholic church was to be held from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, was supposed to attend. 

Father Félix Varela, known as the “Benjamin Franklin of Cuba,” was born in Havana in 1788 and arrived in New York 200 years ago. As a young priest, he was elected in 1821 as a colonial delegate to the Spanish parliament, where he pushed for the abolition of slavery and for the colony of Cuba to become free from Spain. As a result of this political advocacy, which provoked the hostility of Spanish King Ferdinand VII, Father Varela was forced to seek political asylum in the U.S. in 1823.

Settling in New York City in 1826, he was known there for his tireless efforts ministering to poor Irish and Italian immigrants. He also served in several senior administrative posts, including as administrator of the diocese for a two-year period. In 1848, Father Varela developed severe asthma, which led him to retire to St. Augustine, where he spent the last four years of his life. He died on Feb. 25, 1853.

Bishop Octavio Cisneros, retired auxiliary bishop from Brooklyn, was there because of his work promoting the cause of beatification and canonization of Venerable Félix. He arrived at 4:10 p.m. President Díaz-Canel arrived ahead of schedule at 4:20 p.m.

“The appropriate person to have welcomed him was Cardinal Dolan,” who was not yet due to arrive, “but it was just me,” Bishop Cisneros told the Register.

Apparently, President Díaz-Canel walked right into the church to place his wreath of flowers at the statue of Father Varela. Bishop Cisneros followed and explained the importance that Father Varela had — as a priest — for the Catholic Church in New York.

“I told him a few words about this church, how Father Varela had founded the parish. I told the president about the significance of this church and the significance of Father Varela in New York as someone who worked tirelessly to help the Irish and Italians,” he said. “I explained that when the poor were sick, Father Varela would visit people in the hospital, even during a cholera epidemic.”

They were not together more than 10 minutes when, suddenly, Díaz-Canel thanked Bishop Cisneros and told him that the U.S. Secret Service men had given him instructions to depart. 

Then the Secret Service whisked Díaz-Canel out of the building. 

Cardinal Dolan was only a few blocks away in his car when he was called and told that the president of Cuba had just left. Cardinal Dolan’s driver turned the car around immediately, according to Christopher Ljungquist, adviser on Latin America at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.

Everybody in the Transfiguration parish-school building was shocked, including Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N., and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for exterior relations of the Vatican, who had arrived while Díaz-Canel was still in the church. The members of the Cuban delegation and even the priests of Transfiguration parish looked at each other with amazement.

Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla then apologized to Archbishop Gallagher and Archbishop Caccia. For 10 minutes, the Vatican representatives spoke in Spanish with the Cuban delegation about how there should be more meetings in the future and the importance of relations with the Church.

Finally, everyone left in the driving rain that was pounding New York that afternoon.


The Cuba Question

Three days before, Díaz-Canel used his time at the U.N. to criticize the United States’ “coercive measures” and “merciless economic warfare,” in particular its sanctions against, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. On Sept. 26, an assailant attacked the Cuban Embassy in Washington with two Molotov cocktails, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on social media, adding that nobody was hurt.  

How the Church deals with the communist Cuban government is a question that elicits very strong reactions. Some religious-freedom activists were chagrined when they learned of the New York City meeting.

“It is unusual. I don’t know if there is a precedent. Not only is Cuba considered an adversary for the U.S., but it is also on a short list of the State Department as one of the worst persecutors of religion. It is known as a ‘Country of Particular Concern,’” said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. “There are 12 countries on this list.”

Shea said that because Cuba denies religious freedom, it made the event “puzzling and disappointing.”

“This is a propaganda event by the Cuban Communist Party,” she said. According to Shea, the head of the Jesuit Order in Cuba was expelled from the island by not having his residency permit renewed, thus forcing him to leave.

“He had criticized the government for their political prisoners — especially those imprisoned during July of 2021, when there were big demonstrations in the country. Seven hundred protesters are still behind bars.”

Shea felt that by orchestrating this event, the Cuban government was “hijacking a revered figure.” Dissident groups in Cuba use Father Varela’s name for many of their organizations.

“This is a shift for the Cuban Communist Party to latch on to Father Varela’s name. They are doing this to try to lift the sanctions off of Cuba. It is surprising that they are honoring a priest. Now, they want to send out a different signal. It is hardly sincere,” said Shea.


Building Bridges

Not everybody thinks that the event should be viewed this way.

“This event, in my opinion, is truly historic,” Ljungquist told the Register. “It brings together, in spirit, the peoples of the United States and Cuba — both countries passionately embraced by Father Félix Varela in his life — into deeper bonds of solidarity, hope and friendship.”

“The presence of President Miguel Díaz-Canel is a testament to the heroic witness of Father Varela,” Ljungquist added, “both as a patriot and as a priest. Father Félix Varela is a bridge-builder, as is the Church universal.”

Though some religious-freedom activists were quick to criticize Cardinal Dolan for having accepted this meeting, others point to the fact that real diplomacy is often messy — especially when it comes to Cuba.

While 30 years ago the Church was severely restricted, the Archdiocese of Havana now operates a Catholic religious educational institution called the Father Félix Varela Cultural Center, which confers degrees in the humanities.

“This greatly enriches and supplements the excellent scientific formation that so many Cuban young people receive,” said Ljungquist.

As for Cardinal Dolan’s role in the event — which he was not even able to attend because Díaz-Canel left while he was en route — observers recalled the cardinal’s long history with Cuba. Cardinal Dolan has met Díaz-Canel at least three times and visited Cuba in 2020 to meet with the Cuban bishops and Catholic humanitarian groups.

During that trip to Cuba, Cardinal Dolan answered criticism by saying that if he is invited to a place, and that visit might do some good, then his interest is to go as a pastor. The Church has constantly held the position that it is better to engage Cuba instead of isolating it, and all efforts — from both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops — have emphasized diplomatic solutions.


Seeking Complete Freedom

Cubans in the U.S. — understandably still angered with the Revolution of 1959 — recall how all churches and schools were closed, and priests were exiled or assigned to reeducation camps. The Church was basically driven underground. Religious repression in Cuba only began to ease in 1991. 

Three popes have visited Cuba: Pope St. John Paul II in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and Pope Francis in 2015. Each successive trip has played a role in restoring relations between Cuba and the Catholic Church — and more importantly, pushed to give space to the Church in Cuba’s public square. In February 2023, Pope Francis sent to Cuba an envoy who called for amnesty for political prisoners in jail since 2021.

While the Church has been able to expand its areas of permitted social action, evangelicals are less free to conduct their activities.

No bishop attending the meeting believes that things are optimal in Cuba for the Church. But all of them know that things are better than they used to be — and want to push for further improvement. The dream is opening Catholic schools and not having to request permission for everything that the Church does.

These two groups — religious-freedom activists and the bishops of the U.S. and Cuba — share the same dream when it comes to religion in Cuba: complete freedom.

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