March 27th, 2012
12:59 PM ET
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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