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.
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.
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 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.