Outlook: Interview with Alberto Cutié
A Conversation With Alberto Cutié, Multimedia priest

Sunday, April 26, 2009

They call him Padre Oprah. And Alberto Cutié -- a telegenic 39-year-old Cuban American priest, advice columnist, radio and television personality, best-selling author and pastor of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Miami's trendy South Beach -- certainly fits the bill. Hispanic Magazine has hailed Cutié as one of the most influential Latinos in the United States, and celebrity friends such as Shakira, Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan don't hurt his image, either. But beyond the hype, this son of Cuban exiles touches the lives of millions of listeners, readers and viewers, many of whom, like him, grew up on stories of how the Castro regime would end. Cutié spoke last week with Outlook's Carlos Lozada about whether Obama should drop the embargo, whether Fidel will go to heaven or hell, and how to find God in South Beach. Excerpts:

If you could preach to Fidel and Raul Castro, what gospel reading would you choose?

One of my favorite readings is when Jesus says that, at the end of time, God will separate the sheep from the goats. It's a judgment gospel. They ask Jesus, when did we see you naked and clothe you, when did we see you hungry and feed you, when did we see you in prison and visit you? And Jesus says, when you did it for the least of these you did it for me. It's Matthew 25: 31-46. The Castro brothers need to ask themselves: What did they do with the hunger of the Cuban people? What did they do with the imprisoned? What did they do with the sick? That's the gospel I would share with them.

Your parents fled Cuba because of the Castro regime. As a kid, what did you hear about Fidel around the dinner table?

That's all we talked about. My father was a political prisoner twice. I remember since the age of reason -- six, seven, eight years old -- that every conversation between my father and his brothers was always about how is the regime going to end and when are we going back.

In the last decade or so the conversation has changed. My father has died, and my uncles would say that we're resigned to the idea we're going to die ourselves here. It isn't the same longing that there was in the past.

Do young Cuban Americans care as much?

The young people in the community want to go to Cuba to have fun, or they want to invest. They want to smoke cigars, wear the guayabera, drink the rum, and look at the beautiful sights of what's left. I think young people are nostalgic for their parents. I think that they feel that, whatever my parents didn't get to do in Cuba, I'd like to go back and do it.

Do you identify with Cuba?

I was conceived in Spain, born in Puerto Rico, raised in Miami, but I consider myself Cuban American because my roots are so strong. My parents left Cuba thinking we would one day go back. My oldest sister was born in Cuba, I was born in San Juan and my baby sister in Miami -- that gives you a rundown of the exile. We are political exiles.

What do you think of President Obama's move to loosen travel restrictions to Cuba?

As a Cuban American who lives in Miami, I believe that if you are an exile, you only travel to Cuba if there is an extreme need, like a mother is dying or a relative is dying. If you're an exile, you're not supposed to come in and out of the country you're exiled from. It's a contradiction. As a priest, from the point of view of the church, the freedom to go to Cuba is a human rights issue. We don't have those restrictions with China -- why have them with Cuba?

Have you gone back?

I've never been able to go. In 1998, Pope John Paul II went to celebrate a Mass and a plane was chartered from Miami. As part of the clergy I was invited. But it was also communicated to us that they would deny the visas of three priests. One was Bishop Agustin Roman, an icon in the Cuban American exile community; the other was Father Francisco Santana, who spent years sending medicines to the poor; and the other was me, Padre Alberto, the little priest from TV.

I've been told by some bishops that it would be good for me to come. Part of the reason I choose not to go is that my grandmother had ten brothers or sisters who died, who she was never able to go back and bury.

Obama is also opening up telecommunications with Cuba. Would you want your shows to air there?

We go in there every day. We go in there through Radio Paz in Miami, which is an AM station that reaches parts of Cuba. We get letters from people there. We get donations. I have letters where they send us six pennies in an envelope; I have one that has a dollar all broken up. So they hear us. I also go in there through my television programs, through short-wave radio, through EWTN, the Catholic international network.

Your book on relationships is "Real Life, Real Love." How should Obama and the Castros repair the U.S.-Cuba relationship?

I would say that what we need is to put past resentments behind us. Resentments and fear are bad counselors. This is more a human issue than a political issue. So far I see openness on behalf of President Obama, I don't see the openness from the regime.

Should Obama lift the embargo?

Economic embargos only hurt the poor. The higher ups in the government have as much lobster and steak as they want. I don't know anywhere where an economic embargo has helped make a transition to democracy. In the case of Cuba, it has not helped. It's a failed policy, an exercise in frustration.

You've said you're a priest for lost sheep. What does that mean?

I'm a parish priest and that is what I love most, but the television, radio, the written press, Internet, advice column, the book -- all of those are different ways of reaching people. Missionaries used to go to Africa, Asia. But through the media you reach so many people that are never going to come to you. When I speak of lost sheep, I'm talking about people who never connect with religion. I don't believe in antiseptic Christianity, like Listerine, with no germs. The work I do is to reach everyone, whether they have germs or not.

How do you preach in South Beach, the land of night life and clubs and beautiful people?

I have a theme I came up with the day that I was assigned there four years ago: When you come to the beach, don't forget who made it. People come to the beach for all kinds of things: night life, partying, dancing, sex, vacations, to have fun. Probably the last thing on people's minds is that they would come for spirituality, but my little church is a spiritual oasis in the middle of the noise of South Beach. I really believe that you find God in the most unique places.

What are your parishioners like?

If you stand in my parking lot and look left, you'll see the apartment of an old lady who pays $80 to $120 a month. Look right and you may see condos for people with $10,000-$15,000 a month mortgages. My parish has no middle class; you have the people who go to nice hotels and the people who carry their bags. There's little in between.

Will Fidel go to heaven or hell?

Only God knows.

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