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Once in a Castro labor camp, now Cuba's cardinal
Cardinal Jaime Ortega has won respect for gaining reforms in Cuba, but he still has his critics, who say he hasn't done enough.
March 27th, 2012
12:59 PM ET

Once in a Castro labor camp, now Cuba's cardinal

By David Ariosto, CNN

Havana, Cuba (CNN) – Not long after Fidel Castro and his bearded band of guerilla fighters rolled into Havana in 1959, conditions appeared so dire for the island’s Catholic clergymen that their cardinal fled to Argentina’s Embassy seeking political asylum.

Manuel Arteaga died in 1963 from illness while still in Cuba, and for more than three decades the island would officially remain an atheist state. Castro’s communist revolution endeavored to rid the country of its religious influence, confiscating church property and expelling or oppressing religious workers.

A young priest named Jaime Ortega, who would one day become the nation’s cardinal, was among them. In 1966, the Cuban government sent him to a military work camp for several months.

Today, the 75-year-old cardinal heads the island’s Roman Catholic Church, thrust into the spotlight perhaps more than ever with Pope Benedict XVI's visit this week to Cuba.

Considered Cuba’s largest and most influential institution outside the government, the Catholic Church today acts as both a force for reforms and a mediator between the government and opposition groups, including some of the island’s boldest dissidents.

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“It’s the one large institution that has never been fully co-opted by the government,” says John Allen, CNN senior Vatican analyst. “Therefore it has a very unique capacity to engage the government.”

Though the Castro name still rules Cuba, the island's treatment of religion today appears to be a far cry from the days when young clergymen baked under a hot Caribbean sun while toiling in work camps because of their religion.

“But Ortega and others know not to push it,” Allen says.

Ortega’s recent access to President Raul Castro, who assumed power in 2006 after illness sidelined his older brother, Fidel, have been described as virtually unprecedented for a religious official in Cuba's post-1959 era.

Cuba and the pope: It's complicated

In 2010, an Ortega meeting with the younger Castro and Spain’s foreign minister paved the way for the first major release of political prisoners since a crackdown against dissidents seven years earlier, a campaign commonly referred to as Cuba’s “Black Spring.”

Just before the dissidents' release, Ortega who declined to be interviewed for this article described the triumvirate meeting as a “magnificent start” to negotiations with the government.

Rights groups say jails are now thought to be largely void of political prisoners. Those freed have mostly gone into exile in countries such as Spain, apparently a condition of their release.

Meanwhile, government critics and rights groups say authorities have merely changed tactics, instituting a sort of catch-and-release policy whereby dissidents are briefly detained as a form of harassment.

As the head of Havana’s Archdiocese since 1981, Ortega appears to mediate opposition grievances with the government and is also thought to have advised Raul Castro on other issues, including, somewhat surprisingly, economic matters.

“Fidel always talked over the heads of Cuba’s bishops,” says Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank. “Ortega is in regular dialogue with Raul.”

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The younger Castro has rolled out a string of liberalizing reforms, with the government legalizing the sale of private property, including real estate, for the first time in decades.

It is not clear what role, if any, Ortega may have played in such reforms, but observers say the pope's visit is expected to bolster further the cardinal’s influence across the island.

“In Rome, and among other cardinals around, Ortega has a lot respect,” Allen says. “They see him as someone who has kept the church going and has been effective in getting reforms from the government.”

Still, Ortega has his critics.

They say he hasn’t gone far enough in leveraging the church’s clout for political and economic changes because he’s gotten too close to Raul Castro.

Ortega angered his usual critics this month when he asked authorities to remove 13 dissidents who were seeking to deliver a message to Benedict and were encamped in a church in Havana, where the pope is scheduled to arrive Tuesday.

A March 14 statement by the archbishop’s office in Havana said that “no one has the right to turn temples into political barricades.”

“No one has the right to spoil the celebratory spirit of faithful Cubans, and of many other citizens, who await with joy and hope the visit of his Holy Father Benedict XVI,” the statement said.

Elizardo Sanchez, the head of Cuba’s Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, which monitors human rights issues on the island, called the decision to remove the dissidents “very dangerous” and said the cardinal had made a mistake.

But Ortega’s advocates say the Cuban cardinal, much like the church he represents, may be taking the long view on petitioning reforms and is likely wary of acting too fast.

In years past, Ortega allowed the Havana Archdiocese to publish articles critical of the government while also urging the country’s leadership to heed popular calls for economic reforms.

In April 2010, Ortega wrote in Palabra Nueva (New Word), the magazine of the Havana Archdiocese, that Cubans had reached a national consensus, and that postponing reforms was sure to produce "impatience and uneasiness" among people already suffering hardships.

One way to address the problems, he said, would be to work toward the normalization of relations with the United States.

"I think a Cuba-United States dialogue is the first step needed to break the critical cycle in which we find ourselves," he wrote.

Relations with the church have long been strained in Cuba, as many Catholic priests supported anti-Castro rebels and some were once thought to be more closely aligned with the former government under Fulgencio Batista.

But that relationship softened in the 1990s, when references to atheism were removed from the Cuban Constitution, Christmas was officially recognized as a holiday and Communist Party members were first permitted to practice religion openly.

Ortega was also instrumental in coordinating Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the island in 1998 when crowds of adoring Cubans turned out to see the first pope come to their country.

It was during that trip that John Paul famously urged the island “to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba.”

Ortega had become the country’s cardinal just four years earlier. He now presides over a church that officials say caters to a population that is roughly 60% Catholic, though only a fraction attends church services.

On Monday, the Cuban cardinal arrived behind President Raul Castro as they greeted Benedict at the start of this week’s two-city tour nearly a half-century after the government first detained Ortega as a young parish priest.

And yet Benedict’s visit has already spawned controversy.

On Friday, during the pope’s flight from Rome to Mexico, the first leg of his five-day visit to the region, Benedict told reporters that Cuba’s Marxist political system “no longer responds to reality.”

"With this visit, a way of cooperation and dialogue has been inaugurated, a long road that requires patience but that leads forward," the pope said, according to the Vatican.

"It is evident today that Marxist ideology as it had been conceived no longer responds to reality," Benedict continued. "New models must be found, though with patience."

Responding to the pontiff’s comment, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that his country respects all opinions.

"We consider the exchange of ideas useful," Rodriguez told reporters, adding that Cuba is still perfecting its system.

Cubans are expected to flock to Havana’s Revolution Plaza to receive the pontiff’s blessing Wednesday, an apparent papal nod of support to Ortega and the expanded influence of his church, even if many remain skeptical that the pope's visit will result in concrete changes for the island.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Cuba • Pope Benedict XVI

soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. Peter

    Hi there, I picked up my first egg share today from the East Williamsburg CSA and wow are your eggs amnazig! Super bright orange yolks and a delicious taste! Thanks so much!

    July 31, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  2. düğün fotoğrafçısı

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    May 6, 2012 at 2:29 am |
  3. HBAR

    And now the U.S. puts Muslims in Cuban prison camps. Round and round.

    April 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  4. Catholic Apostolic Church of Jerusalem

    Reblogged this on Catholic Church of Jerusalem – News.

    April 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things*

    March 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Jesus

      No it doesn't. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Bill

      Please pray for a 17 year old girl from our Church who was knocked down by a car on Monday 27th September. Her name is Grace and she and her partens and brother attend our Church she has been a baby-sitter for my three young children.Grace has been very badly injured in the accident, and her condition is critical. She has suffered very severe head injuries and is currently in an induced coma in hospital. The Doctors gave her partens very little hope, but 4 days on Grace is still with us and fighting hard for her life. She has started to show some positive signs some hand movements, a cough, etc, but it is likely to be a long haul, so please pray for a miracle.Please pray for calm and God’s peace for her partens and family. Her mother witnessed the accident so please pray that she remains strong.Please also pray for the doctors, nurses and other medical staff involved in Grace’s care and treatment.Many people are already praying for Grace her family and friends, our Church, other Churches locally and elsewhere, prayers are being posted on social networking sites such as Facebook, even strangers are praying when they hear about her.Please spread the word about Grace's plight and ask as many people as possible to pray for Grace and her family. Please ask God for a miracle and to help Grace recover fully from the awful injuries she has received.

      July 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things
    Proven

    March 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jesus

      No, it's not. Lying is a sin, you've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.! .

      March 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  7. The Truth

    For many years the Catholic Organization has met with the Cuban government to no avail. The past history of this government shows that they care nothing for their people. They have taken away their properties and have killed innocent people due to their political beliefs. Many have found themselves with nothing after losing their lively hood. The governments have proven to live the words in Ecclesiastes 8:9 that say that there will come a “time that man has dominated man to his injury.” The prophet Jeremiah also said: “I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step” (Jeremiah 10:23). Instead of the Catholic Church teaching their parishioners to confide in Jehovah God and his son Jesus Christ, they rely and repose in the governments instead of God’s kingdom, which by the way Christ taught us to rely on by praying for it to rein over the earth. (Matthew 6:9, 10) If we wish for a better system then we need to seek for the kingdom of God by following Bible principles and be on the watch from false prophets. (Matthew 7:15) Please read your Bible daily.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    March 29, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Jesus

      Lying is a sin, you've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.!

      March 29, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  9. Payers change things

    Payers change things. Prayer does nothing other than waste time.
    Proven.
    ~~~~~

    March 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  10. Payers are a waste of time

    Prayers are a waste of time – Proven truth!

    March 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  11. Payers change things

    Payers change things. Prayer does nothing other than waste time.
    Proven.

    March 28, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Jesus

      ~~Lying is a sin, you've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested Friday morning...
      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.
      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.!*.

      March 28, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  12. Bob

    The Catholic priests were not the only ones persecuted. Every religious "man of God" whether priest or Pastor was sent there. All of the Baptist seminary students of that time were sent to the work camp as well. There are Pastors who went through this nightmare also.

    March 28, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 28, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Jesus

      ~Lying is a sin, you've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested Friday morning...

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.!*

      March 28, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  14. HEAVENBENT

    NICE HAT JACKASS

    March 28, 2012 at 1:58 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.