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. Pipe-Dreamer

    Greg wrote on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm, stating, "We're all born atheists. It takes careful psychological manipulation to make a child believe what you do."

    Funny thing about atheism,,,,,, its' faith becomes an earned trait of socialisms gone astray,,,, BTW the only thing one is born with is innoscense. All other behaivorisms are earned traits of positive and negative ideologies.

    March 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  2. Pipe-Dreamer

    Slave and slavemaster still yet we all are. Though the naming of things do change , the games remain the same.

    March 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  3. Bo

    I'm checkin to learn if my postings are working.

    March 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  4. marsmotel

    Is he The grand wizard of the KKK? Nice hat!

    March 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The KKK took my baby away. They took her away. Away from me.

      March 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Hershel Ramone


      March 27, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  5. Pipe-Dreamer

    From Trial to Error, governing establishments ever do seek the keys to neuralonian stigmafication. Keeping happy the slavemasters and their slaves has long been the pre-occupation of redundencies in communially governed sociobiologies of human abundancies.

    March 27, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  6. Pipe-Dreamer

    Doc Vestibule wrote on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 2:21 pm writing, "Polysyllabic terminology obfuscates neuronal efficiency. Translation: BS baffles brains. But "charlatonists" is a perfectly cromulent word, right? What a grandilomenti.tudinous vocabulary you have!"

    Tactilitarianislimicsaries do nullify quardened avenues. I am agreed with you D.V. Too much for the neuronialist-less to fathom with fidel-Castrovision,,,,, 🙂

    March 27, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • palintwit

      I see you read the same books as Sarah Palin.

      March 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      palintwit ,,, 🙂 🙁 🙁 🙂

      March 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  7. evrgreen

    Hey CNN..someone there is not allowing me to post my comment..maybe you guys like the Cuban government so much, you don't want people see what I wrote?

    March 27, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      evrgreen, calm down... automatic word filter here...

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-ntthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      No, Helpful Hints, let him go! That conspiracy stuff is just priceless!

      I bet he had something really important to say about cockleshells in Scunthorpe!

      March 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Dennis

      'Incontinentia Buttocks'? HeavenSent-just-sayin-bad-for-children, nice new handle there. Good one. Accurate, too.

      March 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Uh, Dennis? How did you come to that conclusion? I cannot imagine how anyone could mistake me for the prayer troll.

      Watch this if you want to understand "Incontinentia Buttocks":


      March 27, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      IB, Yeah, Sc.unthorpe is a doozy. @SumDude had a wry sense of humor... and I guess I do too, so I leave it in (ack, and I just *now* discovered the misspelling of it on the list!).

      Actually, though, the whole magilla refers to what's called, The Sc.unthorpe Problem:

      "The Sc.unthorpe problem occurs when a spam filter or search engine blocks e-mails or search results because their text contains a string of letters that are shared with an obscene word. While computers can easily identify strings of text within a doc.ument, broad blocking rules may result in false positives, causing innocent phrases to be blocked."

      p.s. I'm sure that someone as adept as you are with the html tricks to foil the filter already knows that fact, but maybe some others don't.

      March 27, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  8. Chewbacca

    The world would be a better place if Jaime Orteg died in the prison camp.

    March 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  9. Evergreen

    Cuban government is allowing religion practice not because they are getting soft..but because they know that for lots of people, praying and going to church is a "vent' or a refuge where they can learn to accept their reality by turning the other cheek..so they let them to prevent other ways of relief for the many, many atrocities they have done

    March 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • hippypoet

      yup, that is also what the pope said to the little boys presented to him "turn the other cheek"

      March 27, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • just sayin

      The Pope's actual words to the boys was not "Turn the other cheek" but "Open up your cheeks, here comes Popey!"

      March 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  10. jeannie

    I am a Cuban American. I still have family living there currently. I know that most Cubans practice an African based religion disguised in Catholic saints names. The island itself is as hipocritcal and schizophrenic as the Pope! Yes I said it!

    March 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  11. Pipe-Dreamer

    Perpetualized Deisms are as an afront to symbological charlatonists who would rather embellish self-serving idealisms be they rghteous or fraudulent.

    March 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • hippypoet

      i love how you describe the pope – its beautful!

      March 27, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • TheThinker

      Hey, that's exactly what the totalitarian communists say!
      Common ground amongst like minds!

      March 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      @ hippypoet,,, 🙂

      March 27, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      @ TheThinker,,,,, ? 🙁 ?

      March 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Polysyllabic terminology obfuscates neuronal efficiency.
      Translation: BS baffles brains.

      But "charlatonists" is a perfectly cromulent word, right?
      What a grandilomenti.tudinous vocabulary you have!

      March 27, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Dennis

      Good one, Doc. As usual.

      March 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  12. palintwit

    The only reason Sarah Palin won't vacation in Cuba is because they don't have open sewers. She prefers India, where the prevailing stench of sh!t reminds her of her favorite trailer park.

    March 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Lou

      Hey, to each his own and you have to respect it whether you like it or not.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  13. Spike

    "Once in the Hitler Youth, now the Church's pope"...now that's a more important story.

    March 27, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • FMA

      "Briefly and involuntarily, enrolled..", to quote John Allen. Accusing the Pope of being a member of Hitler Youth is akin to accusing a victim of assault of being promiscuous. To quote John Allen, again, "The historical evidence is overwhelming that Joseph Ratzinger’s family was ferociously anti-Nazi, and that the future pope was appalled by the arrogance and destructiveness of National Socialism. He was never a Nazi party member,..."

      March 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  14. thymat

    .......If CUBA had a billion people like CHINA, the USA would be kissing CUBA'S ass to get relations going..................

    March 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • hippypoet

      if cuba had 1 billion people then i'm pretty sure the island would go under! Atlantis anyone?

      March 27, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Serg

      If Cuba had a billion people like China, they would probably run out of space.

      March 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • jimmy

      if texas had the population density of new york, every person in the world can fit in texas.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  15. Jose Perez

    This Cardinal is a puppet for the Castro brothers! Carma is a you know what, they will get what they have coming to them. They should get on their knees and begg for forgiveness for the many lives they have destroyed and the many innocent pepole they have kileed and tortured. The Pope should call the Cardinal on the carpet for not doing enough.

    March 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • TheThinker

      The Pope should actually stay out of politics.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  16. wait...what?

    I don't get it...don't most you lefties want this to happen to religious people?

    March 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. No Gods, No Masters

    Having Cuba throw off socialism only to have it be replaced by Catholicism is like having Egypt toss out a dictator but then vote the Muslim Brotherhood into power. Which happened.

    Just because you remove one bad system, it does not mean the next will be any better. The last power change in Cuba was from really bad to really bad. The peasants remained peasants.

    March 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • SPA Knight

      Catholicism is not a political system like Socialism or Sharia Law. Your analogy is misplaced friend.

      March 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • hippypoet

      catholicism may not by a political system but it is a political power house! At one point in history the pope was the ultimate puppeteer!

      March 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • john smiith

      A better analogy would be Poland

      March 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  18. hippypoet

    "the pope said, ACCORDING to the Vatican."

    so they could have gotten it wrong.....WATCH OUT FOR YOUR KIDS!

    March 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  19. hippypoet

    "cardinal fled to Argentina"

    so if your faith in god is beyond question and you KNOW that heaven awaits you after death...why fear it so?

    March 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    March 27, 2012 at 1:01 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 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • just sayin

      I'm stupid!

      Wait, I think I meant to say something else. Oh yeah, now I remember . . .

      I'm stupid.

      That will show those atheists!

      March 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • just sayin

      Everybody wants to be me

      March 27, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Greg

      We're all born atheists. It takes careful psychological manipulation to make a child believe what you do.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
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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.