Update 4 p.m.: Regalado says he's aware of the allegations against Scientology, but views it as a "legitimate religion" just like Catholicism.
If there's one issue Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado has staked his career on, it's unwavering opposition to the human rights abuses in communist Cuba. The same goes for former GOP Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
So it's more than a little jarring that both Regalado and Diaz-Balart spent Saturday enthusiastically opening a Miami megacenter for Scientology, a religion with well-documented claims of serious human rights abuses. The pair even shared a stage with David Miscavige, the church's chief, who has been accused of violently beating followers and is the subject of regular gruesome claims in an ongoing A&E series.
“To me, the Church of Scientology is very simple. You learn, you work, you think positive and you help people," Regalado said, according to Scientology's official website. "For that, and many another reasons, you are a good fit for our city."
The church doesn't say exactly where its new center is located other than "north Coconut Grove," but city property records show Scientologists — who have long run a storefront operation on Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables — bought a $7 million building at 2230 S. Dixie Hwy. five years ago. The building looks similar to the one in photos taken at the opening event.
Scientology, for the uninitiated, is a religion founded by pulp-science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and based on the idea that humans are actually "thetans," spirits trapped here by an ancient alien race. Here's a good writeup of some of the church's core beliefs by the New York Times:
“The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs.”
Of course, plenty of religions seem bizarre from the outside. More disturbing are allegations that Scientology is closer to a cult or a Ponzi scheme that violently intimidates followers to stay in the church and turn over much of their wealth.
The German government refuses to recognize Scientology as a religion and accuses it of abuse. In his book Going Clear, Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright documents decades of iron-fisted rule by its leaders, including Miscavige, who allegedly locked up dissenters, beat them, and separated them from their families. In fact, the New York Times writes, there's an eerie parallel between the church and another totalitarian system:
The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances.
(The church has spent years declaiming Wright's book. It also disputes the allegations by former member Leah Remini, the force behind A&E's series Scientology and the Aftermath and calls her a "has-been actress" and “obnoxious, spiteful ex-Scientologist.”)
Given the similarities pointed out by the Times, Regalado and Diaz-Balart's appearance at the opening ceremony is especially curious. Get a load of Diaz-Balart's statements, as recounted by the Scientology website:
"When I went to speak with your Human Rights Division, you didn’t say, ‘We want you to help us.’ You asked, ‘How can we help?’" Diaz Balart said. "Your work is not just theoretical. It’s real — very real. And I have heard back from those who suffer the brutality of oppression, that the materials you distribute are ‘like a breath of fresh air.’ Inherent in every human being is the need to be free. We all need freedom just as much as we need air to breathe. And your church and your programs greatly contribute to breathing freedom into people’s lives.”
Contrast that sentiment with Wright's reporting, which detailed disturbing allegations such as routine beatings, forced divorces, separations from family members, and even "the Hole": a double-wide trailer parked in remote California where dozens of dissenters were allegedly locked away without beds or furniture and subjected to cold group showers.
Regalado, meanwhile, noted, "Miami is a gateway to the American dream. And you have now opened those gates by transforming a cold, sterile building into a vibrant center."
Neither Regalado nor Diaz-Balart immediately responded to a phone call and email from New Times seeking comment on their appearance at the center's opening. Update: In an interview with New Times, Regalado defended his appearance at the speech and said he welcomes Scientology to Miami.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.