Cuba’s controversial cardinal takes center stage with pope’s visit
HAVANA | BY DANIEL TROTTA
Cardinal Jaime Ortega rose from labor camp inmate in the 1960s to become
one of Cuba’s leading political figures, leveraging a
non-confrontational style into a rare position of influence for someone
outside the Communist Party.
With Pope Francis visiting Cuba next week, Ortega’s role in boosting the
power of the Roman Catholic Church on the island has drawn both praise
Cuba’s small but vocal dissident community and hardline Cuban-American
exiles in Miami believe he has become too cozy with the government and
should be doing more for human rights and democratic freedoms.
Ortega, 78, enjoys unrivaled access among religious leaders to Cuban
President Raul Castro and he has long been an ally of Argentine-born
Pope Francis since their years together in the Latin American Bishops’
A soft-spoken cleric with a ready smile, Ortega negotiated the release
of 126 political prisoners in 2010 and 2011. He also played a role last
year in Cuba’s detente with the United States, leading to the renewal of
diplomatic relations after 54 years of Cold War hostility.
Some experts have compared his cautious calls for change and religious
opening to the work of Karol Wojtyla under Communist rule in Poland
before he became Pope John Paul II.
“Like Ortega, John Paul II had an attitude of non-confrontation that
would allow the Communists to see their own shortcomings,” said Andrea
Bartoli, dean of international relations at Seton Hall, a Catholic
university near New York. “The moderation and the opening are connected.
It is because you are not confrontational that you can open these spaces.”
But critics say he has abandoned victims of oppression in exchange for a
seat at the table of power.
“The Church has the same talking points as the Castro regime,” said
Berta Soler, leader of the nominally Catholic dissident group Ladies in
She wants Ortega to forcefully denounce the government’s harassment of
her group’s activists, dozens of whom are routinely detained by police
for hours for participating in weekly demonstrations.
Ortega drew sharp criticism when he told Spain’s Cadena Ser radio in
June there were no political prisoners in Cuba. Two weeks later, Cuba’s
leading dissident human rights organization published a report saying
there were 60 political prisoners, including about two dozen held for
conducting peaceful protests.
Ortega himself served eight months in a labor camp in 1966-67 at a time
when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government was rounding up religious
figures, gay men and other perceived enemies.
Those camps, known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), marked a
low point in Cuba’s human rights record but Ortega is introspective
rather than angry about that time. He said the suffering he saw was a
“unique experience” that taught him a great lesson in compassion.
“In the middle of it all was a tremendous experience, to know life as
one could never learn in theological school,” Ortega told government-run
Radio 26 in his hometown of Matanzas last year.
Although Ortega considers himself a man of dialogue, he also takes an
occasional dig at his critics.
“They are not very present among the people of Cuba,” Ortega told Cadena
Ser. “The dissidents, those that are called dissidents, are more present
in the foreign press, in south Florida, and in blogs.”
Church officials say Ortega’s job is to stand up for basic principles
such as religious freedom and the well-being of all Cubans, not to
promote any partisan political agenda.
“That’s how it was with Jesus Christ. He was recognized and applauded,
then sacrificed, and then recognized again,” said Orlando Marquez, a
spokesman for the Church in Cuba and editor of its monthly magazine,
Ortega, who declined requests for an interview, helped the secret
negotiations that led to the breakthrough announcement by Raul Castro
and U.S. President Barack Obama last December that the former Cold War
enemies would restore diplomatic ties.
When Pope Francis had missives for Castro and Obama at a delicate stage
of the talks, Ortega was his messenger, according to the second edition
of the book “Back Channel to Cuba,” published this month.
The pope asked Ortega to personally deliver the letters, so the cardinal
flew to Washington and arranged a secret meeting with Obama in the White
“To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. of?cials kept Ortega’s name
off White House visitor logs,” authors Peter Kornbluh and William
John Paul appointed Ortega bishop in western Pinar del Rio in 1978 and
archbishop of Havana in 1981, when Cuba was still officially atheist.
As former Cuban leader Fidel Castro softened his stance on the Church,
Ortega’s influence grew. In 1992, Cuba reformed its constitution,
changing the state from atheist to secular and guaranteeing freedom of
John Paul, who promoted Ortega to cardinal in 1994, visited in 1998,
improving ties with the government and prompting it to recognize
Christmas as a holiday.
Ortega’s standing gained further after Fidel Castro ceded power to his
younger brother Raul.
Then came the moment when Ortega became a real power broker and, in the
process, alienated some former sympathizers.
By 2010, the Ladies in White had grown into a respected movement, many
of them the wives of 75 political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown
known as the Black Spring.
Their weekly vigils following Sunday mass at a Havana church were
disrupted by pro-government groups staging “acts of repudiation,” which
often turn into ugly shouting matches and occasionally become violent.
After failing to get the government to withdraw its supporters, Ortega
appealed directly to Raul Castro, who agreed to meet the cardinal.
Before long, Ortega and Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago,
with support from the Spanish government, were negotiating the release
of the Black Spring detainees who remained in jail plus dozens more –
126 in all.
“That was a qualitative leap, when the cardinal played a very important
role,” Marquez said.
It also, however, marked the beginning of his rupture with the Ladies in
When all the Black Spring prisoners were free, the Ladies in White
sought Ortega’s backing as an opposition group. He declined, saying his
task was to free the prisoners, not agitate against the government.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray)
Source: Cuba’s controversial cardinal takes center stage with pope’s
visit | Reuters –