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. Enoch

    More and more communists are coming to J. Christ, yet the decadent Westerners prefer to become communists. The world upside down!

    March 28, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Saif

      Why the People go to a man "like them self" and ask him forgiveness. you believe in allah"god" so you don't need anything in between, just ask god for forgiveness, health, etc. and allah well hear. i am a muslim and i pray for allah and i ask him for any thing i want directly, no need for someone, something to act in between. i pray for allah to lead your heart and brains found the truth, and piece to all muslims.

      March 28, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • fred

      Christ was the full reflected image of God so we could see and understand the full attributes of God. When Christ rose again on the 3rd day he went and sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. How could he be the prophet you claim if he said many times he is God.

      March 28, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • fred

      Read your Quran and see that you are not pure and God cannot look upon sin. We must go through Christ because when we are not covered by the holy perfect Christ we are unacceptable.
      Mohamed took information from the Hebrew Bible and the Christians to form his own religion. When did Mohamed change the name of Abrahams own son with Sarah to Ishmael. When the Bible says Ishmael will kick at Isaac until the end of days do you not see the parallel with Arabs hate for Israel today? a 6,000 year feud

      March 28, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • Saif

      First of all, prophet Mohamed, didn't took any thing from your bibel as he was not educated "don't know how to read or write".... Quran is the spoken by allah and, it is all in arabic, not translated in to many languages as yours. so it was not changed during this 1,440 years. this means it is creadible. other things Mohamed didn't proclamed to be king and his attensions was not to have wealth. you are saying ,the Hebrew Bible, and i assure your to find out 10 people who can read hebrew, where all arabs can read the quran and many of them memorizing many of it. islam didnot come for world domination or taking part of the world, but it comes for people to warship their creator" allah",god not men, animals, or any unworthy creatures.

      March 28, 2012 at 1:59 am |
    • fred

      Thank you for your help. Is it true Allah says Muslims can beat their wives and display the beating as a reminder to her?
      Much damage is caused to the image of Islam and Allah by terrorists the kill innocent babies. Does Allah approve of honor killing of wives and children? Does Allah approve of Suni Bombing Sheits women and children in the name of Allah?
      Does Allah approve of Iran loud voice to eliminate Israel and Chistians from the face of the earth?
      These are common assumptions.

      March 28, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Saif

      No mighty allah didn't say that killing wives and childern is honor or accepted. but he sayed and i will quote translation "who ever killa person without and he was not deserving, as if he killed all people", unfortunately, many people miss-understand true islam from other, like sheit or terrorists who killed them selfs and other inosent people. suni people is true islam, although some are claimed to be suni, but suni is not terrorism or sheit, suni is that we do everything allah told us to do and forbiddent all things he forbided, and as his prophet mohamed says and did.

      March 28, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • Get Real


      Mohammad most certainly heard stories from the Bible. There were Jews and Christians living in Mecca in those days. Very few people could read and write, so they listened to the telling and retelling of these stories.

      Yes, there are *some* words of wisdom for beneficial human behavior in the Quran, but like the Bible, it is mainly myth and superst'ition.

      March 28, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Saif

      most of the people in makkah, were warshipping stones, and there were very few christians. if you read holy quran, you will find true stories about ancient eras, and lot more than just this. you will find many of new discoveries in this times and allah mensiond in quran. And alot more, Quran tells stories, forming of earth and how it will end, how we must behabe to each other, and a lot of things. just tell me, how a normal man and uneducated will now these things if he was not a prophet?. for example, holy quran from 1440 old says that the sun is source of light and the moon is just reflection. also, every plant, star, has it own path in the universe. in addition, sea water will not emerge with the river water. and lot and lot and lot of true things.

      March 28, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • Get Real


      Please don't be so gullible and starry-eyed about your "prophet". Much was known about the moon, astronomy (and other science) long before he lived. He was a trader and traveled widely and was likely to have been exposed to this information, especially if he was interested in those kinds of things.

      Regarding the moon:
      - The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (d. 428 BC) reasoned that the Sun and Moon were both giant spherical rocks, and that the latter reflected the light of the former.

      - Although the Chinese of the Han Dynasty believed the Moon to be energy equated to qi, their 'radiating influence' theory also recognized that the light of the Moon was merely a reflection of the Sun, and Jing Fang (78–37 BC) noted the sphericity of the Moon.

      - In 499 AD, the Indian astronomer Aryabhata mentioned in his Aryabhatiya that reflected sunlight is the cause of the shining of the Moon.

      March 28, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • Saif

      ok but i just gave you examples although it was true. let us talk about science proof so that we will not confuse the reader. because there are so many things in quran. about science, the quran toled 1440 years ago how the earth is formed, and also it told us how human is formed. it told us in details of its phases in mother's womb.

      March 28, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • Get Real


      The science in the Quran is comprised of facts and ideas that were known and explored by scientists and philosophers from many parts of the world before (some long before) Mohammad wrote them. It took him 23 YEARS to put the book together - plenty of time for research, inquiries and discussions of various subjects with many experts from around that part of the world.

      March 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  2. Amazed

    The visit to Cuba by the Pope is profound, and interesting on many levels. What is perhaps more interesting is that a unbelievably crucial process that will change America's future was not the center piece, and not the headline. What does it mean that a religious figure's visit to an island nation, however significant in it's own right, takes precedence over real, immediate, crucial news that should have been the headline of interest to most of American's citizens? Shame Shame!

    March 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  3. Tr1Xen

    The only good things to come out of Cuba are rum, cigars, and the occasional good baseball player!

    March 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • Staszek (short for Stanislaw)

      You missed a few things: top music, great sportsmen, wonderful people,
      and more ..., go there (via Mexico) and see yourself.

      March 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  4. Conrad Murray

    Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?

    March 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Staszek (short for Stanislaw)

      No. What is your point?

      March 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  5. Dennis

    I can't believe ... all the hate that feeds on hate on this blog!

    March 27, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • Staszek (short for Stanislaw)

      These are poor lost souls. One day they will see.

      March 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • What IF

      Staszek (short for Stanislaw)
      "One day they will see."

      And your verified evidence for that is....?

      March 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  6. Monkiin

    They are scouting for little boys in Cuba.

    March 27, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Conrad Murray

      (gasp) That would mean Cuba would be for priests what Brazil and Argentina was for Nazis!

      March 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  7. sybaris

    The hat, look at that guys hat!

    What a cult.

    March 27, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • ObjectiveOpinion

      I agree. What does this had say, other than 'I am a clown'. The catholic priests were these outfits that belong at goodwill. Nobody in their right mind would wear this. And why would the church spend their money on these outfits when the money should go to the molested children.

      March 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  8. Mrdifficult

    It was an easy transition from men's backsides to boy's.

    March 27, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  9. chachouu

    Apparently Castro is a good guy,me I would have hung all these pedophiles and thieves from day one.
    The filthy Pope would have been first on my list.

    March 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  10. just sayin

    There's a cat in that hat.

    March 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Doug

      Wish I thought of that. Good one.

      March 27, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  11. Doug

    That sure is a cool looking hat, and its not somethong you will ever find at a flea market. I gurss I'll just have to make one for myself.

    March 27, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  12. SSampson

    I can argue with some of Castro's ideas – of course.... But health care, education – not

    And if we didn't subsidize the heck out of agri products with the intent of disrupting their exprts, the conditions would be beter...

    I DEFINATELY can't argue with the ban on religion – although I personally wouldn't do it (too many people would complain)... It certainly prevents the crazies from getting into power...

    Of course its hard to tell believers their imagination is working overtime...

    March 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      Keep working on English and your education...then get back to us. M'kay.


      March 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • askmehow

      Health care for whom? To export medicine to others. Do you know what the conditions of a Cuban hospital is like. You couldn't even begin to imagine. The lack of basic medical supplies, no sheets for the beds, bring your own towel, food. While Fidel build hospitals in Jamaica and other nations. Imagine Americans lacking the basics at a hospital but at the sametime building hospitals in Mexico. That's a hard pill to swallow.

      March 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Matt

      You personally could benefit from his literacy efforts. "Definitely." The letter A does not appear in the word.

      Remember, it's never too late for literacy.

      March 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • allenwoll

      To askmehow - How about our "nation building" in Afghanistan while our returned veterans get inadequate care and economic support ? ? ?

      Politicians are corrupt, regardless of the brand name or the location of the home office.

      March 27, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  13. Woody

    Communism killed people and at one time if you talked against the church you could be killed so whats the difference ? They are both control freaks !

    March 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  14. Prayer changes things

    Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things,

    March 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Woody

      So is an abusive priest and or nun I went to a Catholic school and was an altar boy .

      March 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Woody

      Prayer changes nothing everyone still has bombs don't they !

      March 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  15. just sayin

    I get so desperate that I stroke my cats until their fur falls out. Then I do that to myself.

    March 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  16. just sayin

    I like to stroke my cats and myself too.

    March 27, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • just sayin

      Don't look now but you have slipped into desperation

      March 27, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    March 27, 2012 at 5:57 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 6:26 pm |
  18. Pipe-Dreamer

    Love a Child who endures Life's malcontents,
    Feed the children Life's good fruits.
    Lost though are many a child in terms of resentments,
    Never give a child their parent's boots.
    Change cannot be a child's fortay,
    The parents must give much leeway.
    For God's sakes love your chldren you parents of lust,
    Seek changes in Life before you parents go bust.

    March 27, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  19. *frank*

    I wonder if the hat's dry-clean only, or does he use Woolite?

    March 27, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      That's sorta a sheeepish pun,,,, 🙂

      March 27, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  20. Pipe-Dreamer

    Teach your children well their parent's hell, then maybe some children will be spared hell's kitchen,,,,,,

    March 27, 2012 at 5:18 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.