The Retirement of Cuba’s Cardinal

By Fernando Ravsberg

Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz
Photo: Raquel Prez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — Cardinal Jaime Ortega is retiring, but he leaves the Cuban nation with very useful lessons in what we could call “dialogue building.” One must acknowledge that he designed bridges capable of withstanding the weight of the mutual mistrust that has existed between the Catholic clergy, the Cuban government and Washington.

He leaves having earned the recognition of the Cuban and US governments, the Vatican and most of his compatriots. The same can’t be said of the clergy, who appear to confirm Churchill’s verdict, when he explained that “your enemies are sitting behind you, in your own party.”

During his time as leader of Cuba’s Catholic Church, the latter was granted considerably more space to operate, barriers fell and connections were made. The “import permit” for religious staff, for example, was key for a Church that had previously only been able to take in Cubans.

The Ladies in White continued to protest after the Cardinal intervened before the government and secured the release of their imprisoned relatives. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Religious festivities and processions were brought back, schools were created, prisons and hospitals made more accessible and three Popes helped craft a new stage on the island. All of this was achieved despite all of the mutual contempt and mistrust that still exists.

The Church was once one of the strongholds of anti-Castroism, so much so that it even took part in a CIA operation that took 14,000 children out of the country, without their parents. The government expelled hundreds of foreign priests and put Cuba’s devout in labor camps. Among them was a young Jaime Ortega.

Anyone could have expected retaliation for this incident, but his skills as a negotiator prevailed. He began to sow during Fidel Castro’s leadership but only began to reap the harvest when Raul Castro became president.

Ortega did not hesitate to distance himself from the dissidents who were operating within the secular movement. The first foreign personality received by Raul Castro was an envoy of the Pope, who was also the first to avoid all contact with the opposition.

The new leader and the cardinal established an ingenious relationship. It was not a question of ideological identification, but of the fact the Church needed space to grow. Raul Castro, on the other hand, found an ideal counterpart, an internationally powerful church that was very weak in Cuba.

The majority of the dissidents who were released from prison thanks to the cardinal’s intervention left for Madrid, where they continued to protest, this time in search of financial aid. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Jaime Ortega, however, continues to support all demands he considers just and to act as a bridge between the wives of political prisoners, the Ladies in White and the government to bring about the release of all peaceful objectors.

More than 200 such dissidents were released from prison. Most left for Spain and the opposition accused the cardinal of forcing them into exile. The lie may have prevailed, but 12 of those released decided to remain in Cuba, demonstrating that leaving the country had been an option, not an obligation.

Despite the success of this act of mediation, relations with the opposition continued to worsen. The Ladies in White continued to protest, as though their relatives had not been let out of prison, while other groups planned to occupy churches during one of the Pope’s visit to Cuba.

The secular dissident Oswaldo Paya accused the cardinal of creating a party that was to replace the traditional opposition and sparked off a “witch hunt” inside the Church which ended with the separation of the editors of Espacio Laical magazine from the flock.

The last time I saw the cardinal, he was at US diplomatic reception. He had been ambushed by an angry pack of dissidents who accused him of being Satan’s envoy and a communist lackey. They were doing this under the approving gaze of an embassy official.

The cardinal knew more than anyone that the scant number of Catholics at hand would not allow them to exert the kind of pressure that the toughest hard-liners in the clergy wish to apply.
The cardinal knew more than anyone that the scant number of Catholics at hand would not allow them to exert the kind of pressure that the toughest hard-liners in the clergy wish to apply.

The hatred some people feel is paradoxically awakened by the greatest service Jaime Ortega rendered unto the nation, taking part in the building a bridge between Cuba and the United States. It was a terrible blow to those who had expected that Washington would sooner or later subjugate Cubans by force.

The Cardinal is a capable politician. He knew that no changes in Cuba would come about down that road, as the very president of the United States, Barack Obama, later came to understand, accepting that brute force could do nothing against the rebellious island.

Ultimately, his age, adversaries and enemies managed to push him out of the way, but his retirement will not be total. He continues to be a cardinal within the church and his political significance in Cuba will not diminish, for he is the Catholic authority most trusted by the Cuban government.

3 thoughts on “The Retirement of Cuba’s Cardinal

  • bjmack commencing with Cespedes in 1868 Cubans have sought not only independence but also freedom. They have independence but no freedom. You are correct in saying that the country of Cuba and its people are ‘magnificent’. Sadly the people are not able to fully enjoy their country. As for the Catholic Church, many people around the world of different religions had deep admiration for Pope John Paul II for his open support of the revolution led by Lech Walesa with Solidarity in Poland. The current Argentinian Jesuit (as is Fidel Castro and as was Stalin) Pope however during his official visit in 2015, chose to visit Fidel Castro who was excommunicated in 1962 by one of his predecessors. and to be photographed clasping hands. He then less than a year later, dropped into Jose Marti Airport in Havana when en-route to Mexico to meet with Raul Castro and Kirill, Patriarch of the Moscow and All the Russias Orthodox Church. The TV and other media made this appear to be approval of the Castro communist regime. The difference between John Paul II and this Pope is that John Paul supported the oppressed against communism and Francis has been seen to support the oppressors..

  • Religions are all based on fictions created by primitive men and are no basis for a rational society.
    It is a good sign that Cubans do not ascribe to these fairytales in the same proportion as the people of the United States who have a wish to be ruled in a totalitarian fashion.
    “Christianity is False and Immoral ” is a debate segment featuring Christopher Hitchens explaining logically and convincingly why that is so and available at You Tube.
    It is a very good take for any atheists and pure agony for believers.
    The worst aspect of Christianity is its totalitarian aspect: you either believe or you will burn in hell forever. As Hitchens pointed out in that clip, under Christianity you can be sentenced to Hell eternal for just what you THINK which is a perfect definition of totalitarianism .
    More totalitarian forms is NOT what Cubans need.
    We all should be seeking truth and not ever relying on myths and legends .

  • What I’m getting and observing the past few months is that Cuba most definitely wants its independence. I’m not going to debate Russia and Venezuela’s infusion of capital because that was simply to survive but most Cuban people I see on the internet, both pro and anti regime demand their independence. The nice thing about Cardinal Ortega and the Cuban government is that they, as Cubans talked things out to get the Catholic Church back up and running in Cuba. Having lived in Hawaii for many years I can tell you that Cuba one day be a place where you will need to take a number to get in. People and land are magnificent.

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