Monday, December 21, 2015

Oscar Romero’s Odyssey in Cuba


The Marques de Comillas enters Havana Harbor.

#BlessedRomero #MartyrOfMercy

When Maria Lopez Vigil published her collective biography of Archbishop Romero, Memories in Mosaic, she realized she was missing a particular fragment of the mosaic. “When I wrote the book I learned that in 1943 Archbishop Romero”—López Vigil later explained—“had passed through Cuba.” However, “I was frustrated not to find any witnesses who could tell me more about this singular episode in Romero’s life and I had to give up on including the Cuban piece in the portrait I was composing,” the Cuban-Nicaraguan writer lamented.

Now «Super Martyrio» tackles the subject, and we uncover an odyssey for Romero, the new priest traveling back to his country. Pulling back the veil, we publish here for the first time dates, locations, and details that paint the complicated scenario. Some questions beget more questions. Were Romero’s travails triggered by an accusation by future Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway? Was Romero an indirect victim of the persecution of the Spanish Church? Why did Romero never talk about this brush with state repression?

Ciao, Roma!

Europe and almost the whole world were a conflagration during the Second World War,” Romero recalled many years after the events. “Those who could return to their homelands gambled with the perils of the adventure.” The adventure for Father Romero began when he checked out of the Latin American College on Monday August 16, 1943, over a year after he was ordained a priest.

Traveling with his best friend, Father Rafael Valladares and another Salvadoran, Father Mauro Yanez Acosta, he began his journey back after 6 years of study in Rome—a stay extended by the Second World War. They flew in an Italian plane from Rome to Barcelona. In Spain, they lingered for several days visiting Madrid and Bilbao, where they called on the famous Jesuit, Fr. Joseph N. Guenechea, the spiritual director of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, and author of several books (including one entitled “Poverty of the Liturgy and Clergy in Spain”).

Romero aboard the Marques de Comillas.
Crossing the Atlantic aboard the Marqués de Comillas

On Sunday August 29th, they sailed from Bilbao bound for the Americas aboard the S.S. Marqués de Comillas. A photograph taken at the time shows Romero and Valladares aboard the ship, along some thirty other priests and seminarians. It was smooth sailing, and the new priests were surely eager and excited to come home to their loved ones after a long absence.

They traveled in comfort. The Comillas had a capacity for 570 passengers. With an average speed of 16 knots, it made the transatlantic crossing rather slowly (in its prior trip before Romero’s, it had taken 25 days to cross the ocean). But the trip was very pleasant. The single stack steamship had a movie theater, a hall, a music room and a dining room that looked like a courtyard with Moorish arches, decorated in the style of the manor houses of Northern Spain. It had a reputation for serving great food. On the landing of the grand staircase that connected the hall to the music room, there was a large painting, the work of the La Coruña painter Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, showing Sir Claudio López Bru, the second Marquis of Comillas, who is now in process of beatification.

The atmosphere aboard the ship reflected the domesticity of Spanish life: roosters crowed in the cargo hold, portraits of Generalissimo Francisco Franco adorned the rooms of some of the crew, and banners with slogans like “Go, Spain!” decorated the hallways. Spanish was heard in the corridors, which were all carpeted in red. While some crew members were zealous Franco supporters, the captain, Gabriel Guiscafré Rosello, 60, practiced neutrality both with respect to politics and to the military conflicts that shook the world. That diplomatic attitude must have allowed him to get along with the myriad nationalities aboard.

Romero and Valladares felt at ease on the Comillas, thinking that they had left the danger of the European wars behind on that continent. What they did not imagine is that the Atlantic was a sea of ​​intrigue and conspiracy, awash in rumors of spies and infiltration, and a real ancillary war between Allied ships and Axis submarines, especially the infamous Germans “U-Boats.”

There was also a great current of helpless souls trying to escape persecution and extermination at the hands of the Nazis. In 1939, Cuban authorities had refused entry to 900 Jews aboard the S.S. St. Louis who were forced to turn back into Hitler’s clutches. The Marqués de Comillas was the transport for many refugees. On the trip Romero was on, there was a Polish Jewish family, a mother of 36, Peśla Parmes, and her daughter Helena, 12, with a final destination in the Bronx, New York, where Peśla’s sister, Edith Foreman who had paid their fares, awaited them. If she were still alive, the little girl would be 85 years old today.

Perhaps Romero and Valladares knew all this, but preferred not to think about it. “When I was a seminarian I heard a story that comes to mind given the circumstances of today,” Romero recounted in May 1979. “It was a story about a sailor who was sent to fix something high on the mast; as he climbed high up and looked down at the roiling sea, he became dizzy and was about to fall,” Romero said. “When the captain noticed this, he told him, «Young fellow, look upward!» and that was his salvation. When he looked upward he could no longer see the heaving ocean, and he did the job calmly.”

Trinidad and Jamaica

The first port of call in the Americas was the island of Trinidad on Saturday, September 18th. If the Salvadorans presumed they were safe because they were back on their own continent, the European war made its presence felt in the intrusion of the searches they faced upon docking.

It turns out that the reassuring atmosphere of the Marqués de Comillas was misleading. The ship itself was the focus of suspicion. The previous December, the future Nobel Prize in Literature, Ernest Hemingway, acting as an amateur secret agent on his fishing boat, was watching the transatlantic traffic and supposedly detected suspicious activity on the ship that Romero would sail nine months later—the Marqués de Comillas. In a report submitted to the FBI and passed along to Cuban authorities, Hemingway asserted that he saw the Marqués de Comillas in an exchange with a German submarine, either refueling it or transferring German spies. A Nazi spy had been arrested and executed in Cuba that year (1942).

The fear of U-Boat incursions was also at its peak. Between mid-1942 to early-1944, seven Cuban ships were sunk by German submarines. Hemingway’s accusation against the Marqués de Comillas was taken seriously and was thoroughly investigated. When the Comillas docked in Havana nine months before Romero’s trip, an FBI agent questioned the 40 crew members and 50 passengers aboard the ship with Cuban cooperation regarding the alleged exchange. The investigation came to nothing, and the authorities seem to have dismissed the Hemingway report. However, he insisted on its accuracy and continued to monitor the Comillas in 1943. In fact, in the days Romero was sailing into Trinidad and Jamaica aboard the Comillas, Hemingway was setting out on his last patrol of the Cuban coast. There is no evidence that the allegations of the Nobel laureate were still being taken seriously so late in 1943, but they were typical of the concerns of the time.

[Hemingway wrote a novel called Islands in the Stream, published posthumously, that was inspired by these events. Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. Msgr. Valladares passed away and the Marqués de Comillas burned off the Barcelona coast that same year.]

Detained in Cuba

What is clear is that Romero and Valladares were arrested when they disembarked in Cuba after having made a second American stop in Kinston, Jamaica. They arrived in Havana on Tuesday September 21st. They were going to transfer to another ship there. Romero’s biographer describes the perplexity of the two at their arrest: “They did not understand anything that was happening.” [Delgado, Óscar A. Romero: biografía, pp. 25-26.]  Valladares’ biographer agrees: “incomprehensible reasons” caused them to be detained. [De Paz Chávez, La ciudad donde se arrancan corazones, 2013.]  If Romero and Valladares did not understand what was happening, the reasons for their arrest remain difficult to process today. The reasons seem as inscrutable as those for the arrest of Christ!

The most accepted theory is that Romero and Valladares were arrested because their travel had originated in Italy, an Axis country (Delgado, Paz, Struckmeyer). But could this be the reason they were suspected? A new Romero biography makes the point that on September 9th, Italy had signed an armistice, crossing over to the Allied side. [Mata, Monseñor Óscar Romero: Pasión por la Iglesia, 2015, p. 33.]  When the Marqués de Comillas arrived in Havana on September 21, this would have been known to the Cuban authorities. In fact, Cuba freed several prominent Italians who had been in detention, including members of the Italian royal family, in October of that year. Nonetheless, it was a fact that Cuba had had an internal policy of detention for Axis nationals as of that date, and that despite the armistice with Italy, it remained suspicious of Italians, some of whom remained fascist partisans even after the treaty.

Romero and Valladares were thoroughly searched and interrogated by the Investigation Service for Enemy Activities (SIAE) of the Central Division of the Police, and their cassocks and priestly attire proved insufficient to spare them. In fact, they were not the first priests aboard the Comillas to be so accused. In the ocean liner’s previous crossing, in June 1943, the Cuban authorities had arrested three Spanish Dominican priests, after supposedly finding pro-Hitler propaganda among their belongings. At any rate, it is clear that Romero and Valladares were selected from among the other passengers for this treatment: the Marqués de Comillas continued on its path, sailing into New Orleans on September 28 and was back in Europe in October without further incident. (This refutes Santiago Mata, when he asserts that “The ship … was detained in Cuba, the crew and passengers of the vessel jailed.” -Op. Cit.).

Other sources mention that Romero and Valladares were “suspected of espionage” (Brockman, Morozzo, Lopez Vigil). It is unclear whether such suspicion was generalized (because they came from Italy) or prompted by something in particular the Salvadorans said, or by something that was found among their possessions. It is hard to fathom the two would have given authorities reason for such suspicions. Both were avid anti-Nazis, who admired Pope Pius XI precisely because he faced-off with the fascists, vowing that “nobody is going to laugh at the Church” during his papacy.

The Tiscornia Camp.
The “Tiscornia” Camp

Romero and Valladares were initially taken to the Tiscornia Immigration Station. This was the central processing center for all refugees and immigrants who arrived on the island. It was on the other (northeast) side of the Bay of Havana, in what is now the site of the Cristo de La Habana monument (in the Casablanca neighborhood).

The camp buildings were constructed in the style of U.S. Army barracks, surrounded by barbed wire, and they housed refugees who arrived on the island without documentation or resources, while their status was investigated. A report of the Joint Relief Committee of the time details contemporary conditions at the camp in May 1942, indicating the presence of about 450 detainees, some of whom were there for several months. Inmates were not allowed to communicate with the outside, as they were unable to have visitors or to send or receive letters or use the telephone or telegraph. “While it is understandable that the Cuban Government wishes to check very carefully on the identity of all enemy nationals entering Cuban territory,” the report reads, “it cannot be overlooked that the situation of the refugees in Tiscornia is far from good.” The report specifically mentions that the food was poor by European palates.

All reports agree that the nutrition Romero and Valladares received was inadequate—so much so, that it caused health problems for both young men. “The food was very poor,” recalls Gaspar Romero, the younger brother of Blessed Romero. “Bishop Valladares became seriously ill, and Oscar became very thin.” Valladares got so sick that even back in El Salvador in 1944, he needed extensive time to recover. “Tiscornia was a relocation camp devoid of resources and facilities,” recalls a refugee detained in the place. [Galega do Ensino Magazine, No. 35 - May 2002.]  The Spanish writer Eva Canel is even more blunt: “Tiscornia was a name of foreboding!

Forced labor

Romero biographies mention another detail of his stay in Cuba: he had to perform “forced labor,” says Maria Lopez Vigil, “washing toilets, mopping, sweeping.” Despite being familiar tasks, these bathroom cleaning assignments were so grueling that they left both priests exhausted every night. This information suggests that Romero and Valladares were moved to another place, a labor camp.

From Tiscornia, detainees were sent to other detention camps. The less committed were sent to the Torrens Reformatory in Wajay (province of Havana), a camp which was subsequently reconfigured for juvenile rehabilitation. Street youths and minors were brought there, using the need to teach them a craft as a pretext for detaining them (typically they did work proper to the farm, on the fields and raising different animals). But the site also held approx. 3,000 Germans, 1,370 Italians and some 250 Japanese and Koreans after the passage of a special law in reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. If Romero and Valladares had to perform forced labor, they may have spent time in the Torrens camp. But, this is speculation.

Rescued by Redemptorists

Romero and Valladares’ salvation came when, after about a month of detention, a Redemptorist missionary working in the camp where they were being held confirmed that Romero and Valladares were priests. The Redemptorists saw to it that Romero and Valladares were taken out of the camp and to a hospital in Havana, where they stayed for a short time getting medical attention.

But their release was probably not due solely to the fact that they were priests. It is hard to believe that their status as priests would not have been evident from the first search of their belongings. A photo of Romero and Valladares aboard the Comillas shows the two wearing clerical garb, and both priests were known in their youth to be strict in their attire, always wearing their cassocks or at least the Roman collar. This begs the question whether the reason Romero and Valladares were not released earlier by virtue of their being priests is that they were being harassed because of it. If so (and this is not confirmed), this episode could extend the “previous martyrdom” of Romero, giving a new dimension to Pope Francis’ remarks that “Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom did not occur precisely at the moment of his death,” because it included “a martyrdom of witness, of previous suffering, of previous persecution.”

This “martyrdom” would have occurred under a different dynamic. The Fulgencio Batista of that time was different from the Batista that Fidel Castro overthrew in 1959. Batista was in his first term (1940-1944), legitimately elected from the Democratic-Socialist Coalition, with ministers from the Cuban Communist Party in his cabinet. His government had an innate enmity to the conservative faction of the Spanish Civil War, of which the Church was suspected of being a part and persecuted therefor. Romero and Valladares had visited committed Spanish clergy. If they were harassed because they were priests, it may have been a ripple of that conflict.

Romero in Yucatan.
The Last Journey of Oscar Romero

Finally released, Romero and Valladares traveled by boat from Cuba to Yucatan, Mexico, and from there overland to El Salvador, arriving in their homeland on Thursday December 23rd, “like Christmas presents” for family members who had given them up for dead. Guadalupe Romero, Romero’s mother, had already mourned his loss. But Romero entered Ciudad Barrios triumphantly on January 4, 1944, to a popular celebration held in his honor. His hometown’s joy when the lost traveler reappeared was uncontainable, Gaspar Romero recalls. “Oh! The whole town stopped working to come out and greet him.”

Incredibly, Archbishop Romero, who bravely denounced prolonged detentions without due process, never spoke publicly about his own experience of this abuse. Instead of talking about himself, he lamented the experience of the “mothers, wives and children, from one end of the country to the other [who] have walked the way of the cross searching for their dear ones without finding any answer whatever.” (May 14, 1978 Homily.) Contrary to the Salvadoran constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Persons have been detained illegally for more than thirty days,” Romero decried. It was an injustice which he knew firsthand.

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