One often hears news on short-wave radio not to be found elsewhere. Such is the case of Fr. Geoffrey Dennis Bottoms, a Roman Catholic priest from Lancaster, England. On June 20, Fidel Castro's Radio Havana Cuba (6000 kHz) reported that the British priest was awarded Cuba's highest honor. Fr. Bottoms received the Friendship Medal from Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón.
The 58-year-old priest, a zealous member of the National Executive Committee of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in Great Britain, said that receiving the Friendship Medal was the highest honor of his life. And why? Says he: "…because working for Cuba is one of the noblest causes that one can imagine."
Castro's Cuba, one of the noblest causes?
In a pastoral letter released earlier this year, Havana's Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino pointed out that Cuba is "one of the Latin American countries that has suffered the most devastation through the destruction of institutions and the sweeping away of traditions." Cuba's highest ranking prelate particularly lamented the absence of Catholic schools in Cuba. In 1962, the fledgling Castro government seized more than 400 Catholic schools, closing them permanently. Castro charged that the parochial schools spread dangerous beliefs among the people. To this day, the Catholic Church in Cuba remains hamstrung by political repression: The Castro regime prohibits the Church from operating its own press or news media, from building churches, and from establishing any institutions such as schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. Nor is the Church in Cuba allowed to train an adequate number of priests.
After Pope John Paul II's historical visit to the island in 1998, the Church was hoping the pontiff's influence would pave the way for a return of religious education, some access to the media, or at the very least permission to hold public religious gatherings, such as devotional processions. Castro, however, has granted none of this. The only result of the Pope's visit was that Christmas was reinstated as a national holiday.
Fr. Bottoms ought to know this well. According to Radio Havana Cuba, the British priest has visited Castro's isle eleven times.
The priest's passion for Cuba seems to center on the defense of five Cuban men who were arrested in Florida several years ago and charged with espionage, using false identification, and conspiracy to murder. All five were convicted June 8, 2001 and received prison sentences from 17 years to life.
Given that Cuba is one of only six countries that remains on a U.S. State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism-Cuba has links to Basque separatists, Colombia's Marxist guerilla groups, and the PLO-it doesn't seem out of the way that these five Cuban spies would be sentenced to prison as a result of due process in a Miami-Dade County court.
Fr. Bottoms considers these Cuban spies, popularly known to their defenders as "the Five," to be honorable Cuban patriots who were merely defending their country from what Castro Communists call the "ultra-right Miami Mafia," Cuba exiles perpetually said to be planning terrorist attacks against their native Cuba. According to the Committee to Free the Five, for which Fr. Bottoms serves as president, the Cuban spies were "framed up in a political witchhunt and railroaded by the U.S. in a 7-month trial in Miami."
For Fr. Bottoms it seems the Free the Five campaign is a social justice issue of singular importance. In fact he intends to visit each of the five Cuban "patriots" at their respective federal penitentiaries in the United States. Thus far he's visited two of the incarcerated spies. Last October, the British priest met with Gerardo Hernández at the maximum security prison in Lompoc, California. According to RHC, "Fr. Bottoms reported that Gerardo is the most integral human being he had ever met, full of humanity and compassion." Likewise upon visiting Ramón Labaniño at his Beaumont, Texas prison this summer, Fr. Bottoms reported that Labaniño "considers that he is fighting not just for Cuba but for the whole of humanity" and that the prisoner is "convinced that the left and progressive forces must unite to defeat the new imperialism which is the greatest threat to humanity at the present time."
If Fr. Bottoms is truly championing the cause of freedom and human rights, he'd have to turn a blind eye to just about everything that's been happening in Cuba this eventful year-not to mention the collective events of the past four decades.
An example: just three months before Fr. Bottoms was lauded at Havana's Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), Castro launched one of his most aggressive crackdowns in the 44-year old history of the western hemisphere's sole Communist regime. On March 16, Cuban state agents began arresting dozens of political dissidents, charging them with sedition, a stark reminder that Cuba, under Castro, is a police state. The 79 political prisoners, made up of independent journalists, librarians and human rights activists, were accused of conspiring with U.S. diplomats and collaborating with the "enemy press." In actuality, their offenses were three: promoting uncensored libraries, practicing independent journalism, and advocating peaceful political reform. In Cuba these activities are defined as crimes of subversion. According to state-run newspaper Granma, the long prison terms, ranging from 6 to 28 years, were meted out "in order to rein in political dissidents." It's worth mentioning that Castro's political prisoners were convicted after one-day summary trials. (Compare that to the Five's 7-month trials).
In April, three men accused of "terrorism" in an unsuccessful hijacking of a commercial ferry headed for Florida were summarily executed in front of a firing squad without trial. Castro said that he was making an example of them.
The crackdown received unprecedented worldwide condemnation, reaching well beyond Cuba's usual opponents. The executions of the ferry hijackers also disabused countries that previously thought the Castro regime was easing its hard-line attitudes toward political opponents. But European government officials aren't the only unlikely sources to have condemned Castro's recent aggression. Some of his most ardent supporters, including leftist intellectuals, have also turned against him. Portuguese author José Saramago, considered to be one of Castro's closest Communist allies amongst the European intelligentsia, broke all ties with the Cuban dictator after the execution of the ferry-boat hijackers in April. In an editorial published in Spain's El País, the Nobel Prize-winning author wrote: "This is as far as I go… Cuba has won no heroic victory by executing these three men, but it has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, robbed me of illusions."
For Fr. Geoffrey Dennis Bottoms, not so. His illusions, for now, continue unfettered.
But the good reverend is by no means alone in his Castro crusade. He's joined by others like the 160 starry-eyed intellectuals and screen personalities, including American actor Danny Glover and singer Harry Belafonte, who recently signed a two-paragraph declaration, entitled "To the Conscience of the World," condemning the United States for "harassing" the Castro regime. This public statement seems to have been inspired by El Commandante himself. Six days earlier, in a four-hour talk broadcast on RHC, Castro blamed his recent crackdown on the United States and Cuban exiles in Florida ("the Miami Mafia"), who he said have a "warped plot" to provoke a crisis with Havana that could serve as a pretense for a U.S. invasion of the island-a vague charge Castro has been making off and on for years now.
Fr. Bottoms also has an American ally in his Free the Five campaign. According to a special report broadcast on RHC on June 10, the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed an unprecedented resolution in support of granting a retrial to the five convicted Cuban spies. Never mind that the famously liberal college town in northern California has nothing whatever to do with the politics of Miami-Dade County, some 3000 miles away. What it does demonstrate, however, is that the Free the Five campaign-despite any merits it may have (if it has any)-is one of the top pet causes amongst leftists these days.
What sets Fr. Bottoms apart from many of these other trendy Marxists ideologues is that he is a Catholic priest. Considering that the Catholic Church in Cuba has long been bludgeoned and that Fidel Castro is an avowed enemy of the Church, it is especially noteworthy that a man wearing a Roman collar (at least figuratively speaking) would be publicly honored in a country where the Church has so few rights. As such, the award smacks of a publicity stunt intent on presenting a façade of healthy Church-State relations in Cuba-something that could not be further from the truth.
The fact that Fr. Bottoms not only flew across the Atlantic to receive the Friendship Medal, but went so far as to say that the award was "the highest honor of his life" and identified Cuba as "one of the noblest causes one can imagine" is proof that Castro could not have nursed a more useful idiot than this British cleric, who must take great pains to blind himself from the harsh realities of Cuba's totalitarian state, least of all the endless string of well-documented human rights abuses, including the Castro regime's treatment of political prisoners: beating, torturing, starving, and denying medical treatment to political dissidents rounded up for opposing Castro's tyrannical dictatorship has long been standard operating procedure in Cuba.
According to the U.S. State Department's Report on Human Rights Practices for 2002, Cuba's prisons appear to be modeled after KGB gulags: "Detainees and prisoners, both common and political, often were subjected to repeated, vigorous interrogations designed to coerce them into signing incriminating statements, to force collaboration with authorities, or to intimidate victims. Some endured physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or long periods in punitive isolation cells."
According to human rights activist Laida Carro, head of the Miami-based Coalition of Cuban-American Women, Cubans are "victims of a brutal totalitarian regime whose citizens face few options but to remain in Cuba and become slaves to the totalitarian state, or dissent and become political prisoners."
This is the well-known pattern that has followed in all countries where Communism has taken over as a measure to control power. Cuba is no exception. The bottom line is that the Cuban people are not able to exercise their God-given right to free-will. Castro's recent crackdown has given the world more evidence of this fact.
"The Cuban people have never stopped struggling to be free from Communist rule since 1959," said Carro. "The thousands of victims speak for themselves: drowned, shot by firing squad, and casualties who died in prison or due to other repressive tactics."
Meanwhile, Fr. Geoffrey Dennis Bottoms is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.