Miami's Bishop Agustin Roman Defuses a Human Time Bomb to End the Cuban Prison Riots Peacefully
Just one day after an agreement was patched together ending a bloody uprising in the Atlanta federal prison, the principal peacemaker was back among his people. Following days of tense negotiations with desperate Cuban inmates who had seized 122 prison guards and workers as hostages, Agustín A. Román, Catholic auxiliary bishop of Miami, was leading a catechism class at Miami’s Our Lady of Charity Shrine. The slight, 59-year-old cleric paced before a congregation of a hundred or so adults and children, who regard him—now more than ever—as a genuine hero. Some are relatives of the Cuban detainees, and like them are called “Marielitos.” They too were among the 125,000 refugees who fled to Key West from the Cuban port of Mariel in the summer of 1980.
Gesturing to a toddler who had wandered up front, Roman glanced at his watch and ended his lecture on sin and salvation. “I think it’s time we get some sleep,” he said. “We’ve had a tirin’g week.” As the baby squealed, Roman added, “I guess we’re all tired. We haven’t slept for seven years.”
His listeners applauded, knowing he referred to their seven-year struggle to resolve the plight of several thousand Marielito refugees who have been imprisoned for crimes committed in the U.S. or detained indefinitely because they are thought to be insane or are guilty of crimes back in Cuba. Roman sees the recent 14-day crisis, in which inmates rebelled at both Atlanta and another federal lockup in Oakdale, La., as merely the latest chapter in a story whose ending hasn’t been written.
The ruddy-faced bishop with the brush of white hair and a warmly sonorous voice was a pivotal figure during the talks between federal officials and rioters. He was able to persuade the enraged Cubans to free their hostages and give themselves up because they knew his concern for them came from the heart. “They trust me to tell the truth,” Román explains. “Over the years they’ve sent me thousands of letters and I’ve answered every one. I’ve shared their pain and that of their wives and mothers. So when I met them at the prisons and asked them to first put down their weapons, I wasn’t surprised when they did. Nor was I surprised when they released the hostages after I told them, ‘A man who has slaves cannot ask for freedom.’ ”
Although the Cuban detainees had previously shown their fury and frustration with riots, hunger strikes, suicides and self-mutilations, the inmate explosions at Oakdale and Atlanta were apparently triggered by an unexpected government announcement. After having assured the inmates that their cases would be reviewed and that parole for many was likely, the State Department on Nov. 20 disclosed the revival of a 1984 agreement with the government of Fidel Castro under which at least 2,500 “excludable aliens” would be returned to Cuba. Feeling angry and betrayed, the Oak-dale detainees rioted the next day, followed two days later by the prisoners in Atlanta.
As the crisis mounted—with one prisoner dead, rioters threatening further violence and an FBI SWAT team preparing a possible rescue assault if that happened—negotiators on both sides began to ask that Bishop Roman be brought in as a peacemaker. After meeting with Attorney General Edwin Meese in Washington, Román went to Oakdale and on Nov. 29 signed the agreement that led to the release of the inmates’ 26 hostages. On Dec. 4 he played a similar role in Atlanta, where 89 hostages were freed. “They just wanted to be treated like human beings,” says Roman of the detainees, now transferred to other prisons throughout the U.S. Román and several other prominent Cuban-Americans will help supervise the agreements, which call for a moratorium on deportations and special hearings on the immigration status of each of the prisoners.
Praised for his efforts by President Reagan and Attorney General Meese, Roman vows not to abandon his mission. At Oakdale, he says, “I rode around the outside fence in a pickup truck and hundreds of men were shouting things like, ‘We knew you wouldn’t forget us, Father, We knew you would come.’ That’s what really touches the heart. All I can do now, as so many have done, is pray and see that justice is done.”
Born in Havana province, one of three children of a poor farmworker, Agustín was a quiet, asthmatic child who, says his sister Iraida Martinez, “was so good, so young. Not’ that he didn’t play like a normal kid, but he had a light inside him.” Eventually, he studied theology in Cuba and Canada, was ordained a priest in 1959 and worked in backwater parishes until he was expelled by the Castro government in 1961 along with 131 other priests. For five years he worked with the poor in Chile, then moved to Miami, where he rose to his present post. “He’s the simplest, most unencumbered man I’ve ever met,” says a colleague in the Miami archdiocese, adding that although Román is a diabetic and had a severe heart attack last year, he is still a tireless worker. “My only exercise,” he says, “is when I walk around meditating on my rosary.”
Now, in the basement of the shrine named for Cuba’s patron, Our Lady of Charity, the bishop is surrounded by his “family.” After he leads them in prayer, many approach to offer a handshake or to ask for his blessing. “You’re our father, our mother, our everything,” cries Aida Betancur, 50, a Marielito refugee. “You showed them the way, you gave them hope,” says Guillermo Hernández, 28, another Marielito. But Román shakes his head, recalling his bundle of letters from the men in prison. “It wasn’t me,” he says. “It was our brothers behind bars. Besides, I’m just a shepherd of the Lord, and no shepherd should ever abandon his flock.”