HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 2 — At 75, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega cannot complain about his lack of recognition. Pope Benedict XVI refused his resignation and asked him to remain in charge of the Cuban Church, while Spain just gave him the Cruz Isabel la Católica award.
Undoubtedly, he has played an important role as head of the church to which he was appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1979. At that time, church-state relations remained badly deteriorated in the lingering aftermath of confrontations in the early years of the revolution.
In the mid 90’s the Church made a shift onto a path of dialogue with the Cuban government that produced two notable events: the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998 and the recent release of all prisoners of conscience.
Today the cardinal is declaring his hope and confidence in the reforms undertaken by Raul Castro because he observes that these, though slow, are sustained. As he stated, “Nothing is sliding backwards, rather the steps have been towards new openings.”
In 1993, amid the extremely tough economic crisis, the bishops published “El amor todo lo espera” (The Love for which Everyone Hopes), a document calling for political, social and economic change. The official government reaction was highly critical and bilateral relations deteriorated.
At the same time, Afro-Cuban religions were flourishing and the evangelical churches had initiated a dialogue with Fidel Castro. The Catholic hierarchy was isolated and powerless to confront the government given its minimal social influence when compared to other churches of the continent.
Finally, the hardliners—represented by the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Bishop Pedro Maurice—backpedaled and the more moderate position of Cardinal Jaime Ortega imposed itself. Everything was ready to begin dialogue with the government.
Following that, the Church’s criticisms were made in private and the government agreed to study them. Gradually, the relationship began to consolidate to the point that in 1998 Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in a move that benefited both sides.
The attitude of the Catholic Church toward Raul Castro was positive from the beginning of his term. In fact, the first foreign visitor he received after his official appointment was the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
With the support of Rome, Ortega intensified dialogue and included the issue of political prisoners, which concluded with a massive release in 2010 – a feat that enhanced the role of the Church and extricated Raul Castro from one of the problems that detracted most from his international image.
For Ortega the issue of political prisoners “is now a closed chapter, but there is always a dialogue that has to do with the life of the Church, with its pastoral work, the life of the nation” and also “with the changes projected in Cuba.”
Concerning his vision of the reforms, he stated, “What matters is the sustaining” of them, and that new measures undergo “expansion, not restriction.” He added to reporters, “There’s no going backwards; rather the steps have always been toward openness and that’s my hope and my confidence.”
The great diplomatic skill of Cardinal Ortega is the base of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban state in areas of mutual benefit – leaving on the back burner the more difficult ones, such as Catholic schools or the creation of communications media.
The government has relaxed restrictions on pastoral work, eliminated discrimination against believers, given priests and nuns access to prisons and hospitals, authorized the entry into the country of foreign priests and nuns, allowed technical courses in churches and built a new seminary.
In the meantime, the Church distanced itself from intractable lay figures such as Osvaldo Paya, the leader of the opposition Christian Liberation Movement; and Dagoberto Valdes, a former editor of the Catholic magazine Vitral – both accused by the government of being mercenaries.
For Raul Castro, the alliance with the Church is key. Even if it has little social influence in Cuba, it has enormous weight internationally, such that any measure that has its blessing has much greater impact, as was demonstrated by the political prisoners release.
The recent ratification of Ortega as head of the Cuban Catholic Church seems to support a dialogue that, according to the cardinal, has allowed a “new relationship” between the Church, the state and the people, while he assured the press that this was “made possible by a new climate that we have been able to breathe.”